To be filed under great heroic failures of our time. This is a copy of Green Party Councillor John Barry’s speaking notes to North Down Borough Council last night.
Just before they knocked back a motion (his own, btw) that the council support equal civil marriage for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered.
On point of information the result was 18 (both Unionist parties and all independents) against, 6 (1 Green plus 5 Alliance). The public gallery was packed, with large representation from churches across the constituency, and a large and disparate crowd in favour.
“Mayor, aldermen, councillors, offices and members of the press and public.
It is my honour to put this Notice of Motion before you this evening, my first one as a councillor.
The subject of equal civil marriage for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) citizens is one that will raise concerns and strong debate in this chamber. But it is the right thing to do. And we as politicians must at times take tough decisions, to lead change as well as listen and follow.
I fully understand the some members will have strong, and strongly and sincerely held views opposing this motion, perhaps seeing it wrongly as an attack on the institution of marriage in society. However, this is not the intention behind this Notice of Motion. This Notice of Motion extends rights to Christians and should not be seen as pitting Christians or other faith communities against the rights of the LGBT community. The extension of marriage to those whose sexual identity currently is a barrier to their enjoyment of it, is one that will strengthen not diminish the institution of marriage.
No faith organisation who doesn’t wish to carry out marriages between same-sex couples will be forced to so. (However, those faith organisations – such non-subscribing Presbyterians, liberal Quakers and Jews, Buddhists and others – who wish to carry out these same sex ceremonies should be allowed to).
Equal marriage is recognised in 11 countries worldwide and indeed the current Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and former President of the Republic of Ireland have both recently come out in support of equal marriage.
This debate is not a question of the morality of same sex marriage, or making moral judgements about specific sexual identities, but about how the state arbitrates between the claims of all its citizens and to manage competing moral viewpoints in as equal and as fair a way as possible.
In a free and equal society no one section of society, not even a majority, can impose their particular interpretation of morality on all citizens. To do so would be unjust and unconstitutional. Crime is a matter for the law, sin a matter for religion, and the two cannot coincide within the sphere of politics and legislation.
This debate is about freedom, equality and the principle of the state as protector and guarantor of the rights for all citizens.
It is also important to note that this motion does not require any individual to change their own personal view of the morality or value of same sex marriage.
Equality in a society is not a finite resource that means when one element of the community gets equality it means less for others. Rather equality is like a muscle the more it is extended and used and stronger it becomes and the result is greater equality for all. Equality is not something to be feared, though I accept that for some the changes equal marriage will require will be However, it is not for the state to judge one form of sexual identity to be superior to another, and it violates the very notion of state impartiality in law for a majority sexual orientation or definition of marriage to be the legal norm to the exclusion of all other possible understandings of what marriage entails.
We all know LGBT citizens – though given the homophobia still marring our society it may be that we are not fully conscious of this – they are as loving, caring and as human as anyone else. That their sexual identity is different should not mean they are excluded from any of the rights and responsibilities that are accorded to others of a different though majority sexual orientation.
I would ask those who object to this motion from a Christian perspective to reflect upon the comments from Jurgen Moltman, a German Lutheran theologian, who said: “Christianity is about the Gospel and not about sex …Christians believe in justification of human beings by faith alone, not by faith and heterosexuality”.
I’d like to share with you a quote from one of our Stormont politicians:
“We want to see respect given to our varied and colourful traditions. We want people to be able to express their culture with tolerance and respect, mindful of those who don’t share those values. And we want people who don’t share those values to show tolerance and respect to those who do. Help us build a new Northern Ireland. Not just for some, but for all.”
No, not an excerpt of a speech from Green Party leader, Steven Agnew, but from DUP leader Peter Robinson at his recent party conference.
First minister Robinson went on to state,
“We are the first generation of peacetime unionists for many decades. No longer under siege. Moving forward with confidence and able to reach out. Traditional unionism was never about prejudice, sectarianism, wrecking and division. That was never what Edward Carson (a fellow Dublin-man like myself by the way) stood for. His unionism was about sharing the freedoms, security and bounty of the Union to every citizen, regardless of a person’s religious belief. That’s the kind of society we want to build. I tell you now is the moment”.
To those here in the chamber from the Ulster Unionist Party, I would like to quote from Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea’s speech to the Assembly where an equal marriage motion was proposed by Steven Agnew Green Party MLA. He noted,
“I want to live in an open, tolerant and pluralist society that celebrates diversity, accommodates difference and protects individuals who happen to be different… An important thing in a way forward and a shared future is to accept that we are all different, yet we depend on each other.”
And the sentiment both expresses here is one I would fully endorse and hope the members of those two parties here will follow the spirit of their desire to create a new Northern Ireland. We cannot have a new Northern Ireland where some citizens are unequally treated, where some institutions are the preserve of some and others excluded. So I would urge you all to support this Notice of Motion. And if, for reasons of conviction I fully understand, you cannot bring yourself to support the motion, I would ask that you abstain.
• By prohibiting same-sex marriage and denying its validity, we create a class of citizens who are unequal and of a lower status than the rest.
• By keeping same-sex couples out of marriage, the government is suggesting that one sexual identity is superior to another, the higher standard being that of heterosexual status, this is as problematic and wrong as suggesting unionist or nationalist political identity should be superior to the other.
• The government should neither condone nor condemn any form of sexuality because it creates two classes, insiders and outsiders, and thus furthers inequality between citizens. By prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying, we are essentially supporting the discrimination against a specific group of citizens in our society.
I would like to deal with two of the most common arguments against equal marriage. The first is that it threatens the traditional understanding of marriage as being the union of a man and woman. I think tradition is a very weak ground for any argument, since tradition has historically served to justify great injustices and inequalities from slavery to viewing women as not fit to have the vote. And as that great Irish politician and writer Edmund Burke wisely noted, “”A tradition without the means of change is without the means of its conservation.”
The second, and often linked, is the view that this traditional view of marriage is what the majority in society support. Firstly there is evidence that it is a vocal minority not the majority in society who holds the view. Secondly, rule by the majority, like rule by tradition, is a weak, and indeed a dangerous basis for defending a particular issue. If nothing, the history of Northern Ireland demonstrates the dangers of majority rule without adequate protection and inclusion of minority rights.
In concluding I would like to dedicate this to all those who have worked so hard in our borough and elsewhere to combat the daily neglect and oppression experienced by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, from groups such as the Rainbow Project, courageous Church leaders such as the Rev. Chris Hudson from All Soul’s Church, Canon Charles Kenny, retired from Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral, the Rev. Simon Henning, from Ballyblack Presbyterian Church near Newtownards, and organisations such as GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Across Down) and the trades union movement .
In particular I would dedicate this motion to two inspirational and brave citizens of our borough, Dr. Richard O’Leary and the Rev. Mervyn Kingston, who through their tireless efforts with the Church of Ireland group Changing Attitude Ireland have done so much to raise the issue of equality for the LGBT community within and beyond faith organisations.
In both bringing forward this Notion of Motion on Equal marriage, and hopefully it passing, North Down council will be sending out a strong and positive message to those members of the LGBT community within the council, our borough and beyond, that they are viewed and respected as fully equal citizens under the law, and therefore fully equal members of the community. What this Notice of Motion asks for is, to borrow a phrase, one small step for North Down but a giant step for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and a great stride towards greater equality and the building of a truly shared society in Northern Ireland.
Let us in supporting this motion save Ulster from inequality, save Ulster from injustice, and save Ulster from ignominy.
I urge you all support his motion.