The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of opening marriage to couples of the same gender by 53 votes to 52 yesterday, although in our Potëmkin democracy it is unlikely to become law any time soon. Although I have known for several years that this would be an inevitable stage in the road to marriage equality in Northern Ireland, it still felt like a punch in the plexus to finally secure a democratic majority through years of hard work only for it to be vetoed undemocratically by the DUP. I was seething yesterday.
I’m a lot more sanguine now, not least after spending a bit of time debating with marriage equality opponents on Twitter yesterday evening. They are angry and defensive. For a long time they deluded themselves that Northern Ireland was a hermetically-sealed bubble where trenchant homophobia could be taken as given and it was unthinkable that any gay rights measure – let alone marriage equality – could pass by a majority vote. Whatever delusions they might have retained after the overwhelming Yes vote in the Republic’s referendum just died a final death, hence the angry defensiveness.
As it turns out, the religious right were the only ones living in a hermetically-sealed bubble; the rest of us have seen attitudes change dramatically around us in Northern Ireland, just as they have everywhere else in the West.
We are not a place apart; just one with a nasty, four-century old, ethnic conflict tangled unfortunately with religion, giving us dysfunctional politics. The dominance of social ultraconservatism has long been ebbing, with the signs of the times clear by the late 1980s for the few trying to listen over the din of The Troubles.
As far as homosexuality goes, I first realised the game was over, and that we had won, at the first Newry Pride parade in 2012. It was a lovely day: happy families, crowds enjoying a splash of colour in the town, no opposition, nobody screaming at us that we were going to Hell. Today Newry, tomorrow Lisburn and Ballymena. This is how social history is made, one step at a time, changing attitudes as the opportunities present themselves, organising as effectively as one can. Never forget, it took 40 years of incessant activity in Parliament for Wilberforce and his successors to see slavery abolished and, yes, they kept putting it to the vote until they got the right result.
Will marriage equality come from the courts or from Stormont? Who knows. This is a milestone for the LGBT movement in Northern Ireland and we need a bit of time to think about the next step.
Those expecting quick relief from Strasbourg should remember that Germany and Italy are yet to legislate for marriage equality, and it has barely scratched the surface in Eastern Europe. There is no reason, however, why we should passively wait for court decisions that could take a decade or more.
From now on, the antis will not only be opposing marriage equality, but democracy itself. In particular, it will be difficult for the DUP to defend the abuse of minority protection provisions, to discriminate against a minority, to mainstream British public opinion that regards marriage equality as a long overdue application of natural justice.
Whatever activists do, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, should be in your face, non-aggressive, and lots of fun. A major aim should be to make the abuse of the Petition of Concern a costly political decision for the DUP.
As Sam Cooke sang, “There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long, but now I think I’m able to carry on. It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come.” I think we can make it happen a bit quicker if we play our cards right.