Equal marriage – how long will Northern Ireland’s gay couples have to wait?


In the dull village - etching, David Hockney

When David Hockney published his etching In the dull village in 1967, the UK government was busy passing the Sexual Offences Act to (partially) decriminalise homosexuality in England and Wales.

It was another fifteen years before Northern Ireland caught up – with the passage of the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982, and that was only after Jeff Dudgeon took a case to the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2012 the campaign for LGBT equality has moved on. While a range of rights, including civil partnership, are now available to same sex couples throughout these islands, the rights and responsibilities confirmed by marriage are not.

Yet this all looks set to change. Netherlands became the first country to offer full civil marriage to same sex couples. Other European states have followed suit, including Belgium, Spain, Norway, Sweden and Portugal.

Closer to home, the Scottish government has already announced proposals to introduce marriage rights for same sex couples, while also protecting the rights of religious celebrants. Responses to a consultation on the issue in England and Wales are now being considered and it seems likely that there will be some similar initiative to that in Scotland. In the Republic of Ireland the matter is to be considered via the Constitutional Convention.

And from the Northern Ireland Executive? So far… nothing.

Although there has been a series of symbolic motions at council level on both sides of the border, introduced by Sinn Féin, presumably as a warm-up for the serious debate and to help position themselves as prime movers on this aspect of delivering an “Ireland of equals”. Motions in support of same sex marriage have now been passed in Belfast, Derry, Down, Dungannon & South Tyrone, Magherafelt, Moyle, Newry and Omagh.

On Monday, the issue reaches the NI Assembly, when a motion submitted by Green MLA Steven Agnew and SF’s Caitríona Ruane and Bronwyn McGahan, is up for debate.

So are the NI parties ready to endorse the marriage equality proposals? That would seem to be a clear YES for Sinn Féin, Alliance and the Greens and a clear NO from the DUP. But what of the UU and SDLP?

The Ulster Unionist Party – “open, liberal, progressive” according to Mike Nesbitt’s leader’s speech at last weekend’s party conference – has overwhelmingly voted against or abstained when the issue has been raised in district councils. While their MLAs will have a free vote on the issue on Monday, we should expect few to back the motion.

Councillors from the SDLP have mostly voted in favour of the council motions, but some have abstained or voted against. The party won’t have an official position until after its party conference in November, although it seems likely to come down in favour of the proposals. Meanwhile, given recent confusion, might we expect a few of its MLAs to go ‘missing in action’ when it comes to filing down the voting lobbies?

Of course, whatever the outcome of the debate in Monday, beyond clarifying the battle lines for the campaign ahead, there is still no Executive move to legislate on the matter and no prospect of one while the DUP wield a veto. It looks like Northern Ireland’s politicians, once again, will leave its gay citizens languishing years behind their their counterparts elsewhere.

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan

  • abucs

    These pieces of legislation are not about marriage equality but the redefinition of the word marriage.

  • And to think the DUP are celebrating a 100 year old document that seeks to defend “our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom” while so often denying equal citizenship and civil freedoms to the LGBT community when they are offered elsewhere.

    Maybe they are right that Home Rule is subversive to the civil rights of certain parts of Northern Ireland when the religious rights of a few take the foremost role in defining civil rights.

  • Only that Home Rule from the Unionists is what is proving subversive in that case

  • abucs,

    Those are not mutually exclusive statements.

  • UserAinm

    What the word marriage means in historical terms has gone through a series of changes according to societal influences. Marriage now bears little resemblance to some of these incarnations. Anyone opposed to gay marriage should bear this in mind and look at things like women voting, civil rights and other huge shifts and realise that time is not on their side.

  • claudius

    You’re right UM. Define marriage as Man Woman, Man Man, Woman Woman. However, I think we’re years away from this.

  • ..we’re years away from this..

    In N.I. yes. More likely decades. But not everywhere.

  • UserAinm

    We are it’s true, we might not even see it here in my lifetime but I’m comforted that it will happen and in the meantime I’ll support hurrying things up in what small ways I can.

  • So the DUP have attached a Petition of Concern to the motion on Monday.

    Therefore the legislative device meant to protect minorities is being used by the majority to hinder progress for a minority.

    Although surely for a Cross Community vote on this issue it should require 40% of all the MLAs who currently have the right to marry their opposite-sex partner and 40% of all those that don’t….oh hang on there are no openly LGBT MLAs.

  • Stephen,

    Since the world is only 6000 or so years old, there still is a ways to go before the DUP realize that a lot of the rest of the world has moved on a bit. Give it time.

  • BluesJazz

    Many DUP MP’s and MLA’s are gay and married, maybe that’s the problem.

  • Not to mention mental illness, of course.

  • The Watchman

    Any gay person already has exactly the same right to marry as me, as a heterosexual.

    So it’s not about “marriage equality”, it’s about ultra small minority groups stamping their little feet in rage just because other people won’t redefine marriage to suit them.

  • abucs

    We are only getting one side of this “equality” debate. There are many examples where the militant gay lobby agenda has been used to create laws which then have been prejudicial against Christians.

    Having viewed all of these cases around the world where gay marriage has been introduced the European Court of Human Rights (no fan of the Churches) were forced to decide that a) gay marriage is not a human right and b) any country legalising gay marriage would be criminalising the Churches.


    If this law gets through (and i expect with media support who play cowboy and Indians with news, it eventually will) then from day one organisations such as the Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, Muslim groups etc will not do marriage as it is defined by the state.

    If they are smart they will recognise this straight away and make a clean break from the word ‘marriage’ which then will be owned by the state courtesy of the gay lobby. The Churches should then publicly make it known where they obviously stand in law – that they no longer do or support marriage but something else, call it Holy Matrimony.

    That way when the legal wheels of the state turn as they have around the world then at least the Churches will not be trampled under foot regarding state control of marriage.

    Denmark is a recent obvious example of this.

    How many years i wonder until the gay lobby decide that the word ‘marriage’ is second rate and they then want Holy Matrimony?

    This is about forcing people who do not agree with you out of the public space, to control their schools, to control the work place and professions and to declare who is deemed to be ‘good’ parents such as the need for Great British parents to affirm the gay lifestyle before they can be considered as foster parents.

    This is not about live and let live this is about using the state to force your morality on other people.

    Will be glad to go through the various examples around the world if anyone wishes to say that gay marriage is not being used against Christians in a prejudicial way.