Lessons from up on the hill: mind your soundbites & voting on equal marriage

Loose words sink ships political deputy [Assembly group] leaders’ careers. Particularly when you use a soundbite as strong as “sleepwalking into unionist unity”.

John McCallister’s rhetoric on Saturday night at a Young Unionist dinner describing [as I comprehended it] how unionism in general might interpret the DUP/UUP relationship given the evidence of the past week lost him his seat at the side of Mike Nesbitt.

Ulster Unionism has sought to give voice to the civic unionism of the Covenant.

Sleep-walking into ‘unionist unity’ [heading in the printed speech]

All of which makes it deeply ironic – and disappointing – that it has been at this time that reasonable observers are concluding that the UUP is sleep-walking into ‘unionist unity’.

The recently almost daily diet of shared initiatives with the DUP … Shared commemorations, shared press releases, shared events, shared statements …

Has built up the unfortunate impression that the ‘unionist unity’ train has left the station.

In the driver’s cab a certain P. Robinson is smiling broadly … Delighting that he appears to have the UUP as a passenger.

Parallel statements from John McAllister and the Ulster Unionist Assembly Group won’t really resolve the misunderstanding / difference of opinion.

I wonder whether John will be stripped of his role overseeing the party’s constitutional commission? Time to hunt out that midwifery application form ..

This afternoon’s Assembly private members’ debate on Marriage Equality was unlikely to be successful, given the DUP’s petition of concern that turned the issue on conscience into a vote requiring a cross-community majority (ie, a majority of unionists as well as a majority of nationalists to support it).

Somehow ironic that the Green Party MLA could bring a motion to the NI Assembly but his vote (designated as ‘other’ and not ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’) did not count!

For the record they were voting on Steven Agnew’s motion (eventually supported by Sinn Fein):

That this Assembly believes that all couples, including those of the same sex, should have the right to marry in the eyes of the State and that, while the rights of religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage within their beliefs should be given legal protection, all married couples, including those of the same sex, should have the same legal entitlement to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage; calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to introduce legislation to guarantee that couples of any sex or gender identity receive equal benefit; and further calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure that all legislation adheres to the Government’s commitments to protect equality for all.

Behind the raw tally of 45-50 voting [see the Outcoming/Voting tab for full details] lie a number of stories:

(1) While 100% of nationalists who voted supported the motion, only 5.77% of unionists supported it. Three unionists. But three more than the electorate might have predicted five years ago.

(2) The SDLP were poorly represented at the vote. In fact, if their six missing MLAs (including their current and previous party leaders) had turned up and voted for the motion, there would have been a numerical majority.

(3) Alliance proved that exactly one month after their ruling council voted in favour of the introduction of same sex civil partnership, their MLAs held divergent views. Voters will surmise that the conservative theology of some of their elected representatives overpowered the party’s more universal social conscience. Trevor Lunn* was the only MLA to vote against the motion; Stewart Dickson, Stephen Farry, David Ford and Anna Lo voted for. Three MLAs were missing in action, with the two most noticeable absentees Chris Lyttle and Judith Cochrane from East Belfast along with colleague Kieran McCarthy.

[* Trevor left a comment below to outline his position.]

While Facebook and Twitter reaction is not scientific and prone to bluster, there are examples tonight of very disillusioned Alliance voters – particularly around East Belfast – who are disillusioned and betrayed at Alliance’s lack of support for the motion. Two examples:

I’m done with Alliance Party of Northern Ireland after today. You can tell me the a vote for Green Party is a wasted vote, but so is my Alliance vote if they’re not even going to turn up to vote on Gay Marriage.

@Belfast_Casual: The Alliance Party in this country are no liberal party, lets knock that myth on the head. Faith based Tories.

Leading Change … by not always turning up to go on the record? Update – some East Belfast folk are running an online petition to ask their local Alliance MLAs why they did not vote.

(4) For once, the UUP managed to a diverse performance, with Basil McCrea (keynote speaker at a NI Conservative event tonight), Danny Kinahan and Michael Copeland voting for the motion.

(5) One of the more bizarre interventions in the debate was the Sunday afternoon press release from the Church and Government committee of the Presbyterian Church. I’m baffled at what the powerful and normally sensitive committee hoped to achieve when they scheduled a weekend press release detailing a letter sent to all MLAs outlining the committee’s position against “any change to the present definition of marriage”. (Previously they have issued a similar missive to the Prime Minister and party leaders.)

Contrary to much public comment, the proposals for so-called gay marriage are not merely part of a debate on the equality agenda, but ones which effectively demolish generations and centuries of societal norms established on Judaeo-Christian values. The steady erosion of such values, with minimal debate about the worldview replacing them, causes us the very greatest concern.

While the cleverly-scheduled press release found its way into the Monday morning papers, its one-sided views have angered some Presbyterians and alienated some LGBT members of congregations along with their friends and families.

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