What the High Court Decision on Marriage Equality Means

Like many people, my first reaction to the August 17 High Court decision regarding Marriage Equality in Northern Ireland was deep disappointment. I saw many friends’ expressions of frustration and heartbreak given the political impasse at Stormont and the current marginalization of LGBT people throughout Northern Ireland not just in policy but in society as well. However, the decision is right for the future of Northern Ireland’s legal system despite its current social impact. (For good commentary on the jurisprudent approach to the Marriage Equality case see Conor McCormack’s piece over at Irish Legal News.

I should say from the outset that I am outside observer to this legal battle. As an American and academic, it is very easy for me to intellectualize Northern Ireland’s social problems rather than experience them directly. While a student in the M.A. in Legislative Studies program at Queen’s University Belfast, I wrote my dissertation on the marriage equality debates in the Assembly and the larger role of social issues within legislative work. Yet, as a member of the LGBT community and an anthropologist dedicated to understanding human rights issues in Northern Ireland, these legal, social, and cultural questions have become very personal as I commit myself to a career studying all things Norn Iron.

With all of this in mind, I believe that ultimately the High Court’s decision will be better for the social dynamics and legal legitimacy of the Assembly in the future. More specifically, this decision gives the Assembly an opportunity to determine its authority in precarious political times, recognize a complexity to the people of Northern Ireland beyond orange or green (or neither), and finally force Stormont to reckon with its brief.

In the Assembly Debate on Marriage Equality in November of 2015, UUP MLA Andy Allen described Marriage Equality as issue being used as a “political football” or an attempt to wedge people apart politically. While MLAs from the Green Party, Sinn Fein, and the SDLP (all different types of greens in their own way) used rhetoric of “human rights” and as Alliance member Trevor Lunn explained “a journey of [moral] conscience”, they all (plus Mr Allen) voted in favor of the motion. Thus, marriage quality is a political football, a human rights question, and a moral dilemma. It is all of these things at once. As such, this debate showed that multiple perspectives on an issue does not preclude its legal potential and policy implications. This is a key point going forward for the Assembly. If coalitions aimed at social progress are to get any work done, multiple perspectives must be taken into account and championed rather than oversimplified to two-dimensional understandings of what rights, policy, or even culture means. Actions, such as the petition of concern (used in this measures and other socially contentious motions), does a lot of the legwork in oversimplifying social questions and I argue (and hope) that the mechanism can be reviewed in the future. Marriage equality provides an opportunity for the Assembly to develop its own legal authority at solving these questions and determining the course of social life within Northern Ireland. Engaging in motions related to social concerns and deep political divides establishes possibility of consensus and policy formation, even if the decisions are unpopular or go against historical norms.

The role of complexity within society is also not just within the Assembly halls. There are many populations that are not represented fully at Stormont and who are not part of the typical Northern Ireland narrative. Addressing issues regarding LGBT people is a step in the right direction towards recognizing the diversity of people that Stormont must govern. With the absence of Anna Lo (who took on far more than her fair share of this work), it is up to current members to fill the gaps in representation for those who are not seated in the Senate Chamber. New migrants, multi-generation immigrant families, people with disabilities, refugees, transgender people, and women’s choice issues are all around the corner. We are in a time of transgender unionists, and even people who do not care about the Troubles (though I am not one of them). And Stormont must be ready to take on new challenges as the world changes rapidly politically. Everyone fits in different categories and there is no such thing as a “typical” person in Northern Ireland. It is time to recognize our own complexities and use them to create change, not to simplify them as unimportant. This is a moment for the Assembly to look its future electorate rather than continuing to hold on to dynamics of the past.

As an American, one of the new phrases I learned upon arriving in Belfast was “duty of care.” While initially sounding obvious and simple, this idea has a much deeper meaning and severity. The Assembly has a duty of care towards those who elected it. That is not in dispute. What the Assembly must create is its own specific duty: a duty of complexity. I hope that all those involved with the Assembly, its parties, and civil servants, take a moment to reflect on what type of work they wish to be done and what future they envision for those they represent. It is only with this work of reckoning that laws can be enacted and policy can prevail.

This previous discussion has been an intellectualizing exercise for sure so it is worth going back to the real social and cultural consequences of the High Court’s decision and the Assembly silence: there are people in the North whose relationships are not recognized legally, whose legal standing is in limbo, and most crucially, whose dignity is not being upheld by those they elect. The LGBT people of Northern Ireland are waiting for full citizenship benefits and legal respect from those in power as new challenges come to society. Brexit, healthcare cuts, elections, and changes in global politics are on the horizon for everyone and it is up to those already in office to help facilitate and push Northern Ireland forward as these issues come.

As a final thought by way of conclusion, it is a shame that there is no government in operation right now. This is a moment of difficult questions and there is a lot of hard work to be done. The Assembly has a hard job ahead. Multiple parties wish to take Northern Ireland in different directions. In order to reflect and respect these different points of view, these important and politically urgent issues must be taken up. Whether marriage equality becomes law or not (and I do hope it does), the Assembly is in a key moment of determining their legislative future. Or even more fundamentally, whether they have a future at all.

E. Nory Kaplan-Kelly is a PhD Student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine and a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast’s M.A. in Legislative Studies and Practice Programme in partnership with the US-UK Fulbright scholarship. All opinions are the author’s own.

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