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.

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