We are coming to the end of another packed and exciting Pride week in Belfast. I’ve been struck by how many rainbow flags are billowing in the wind across Belfast city centre. From small newsagents to bars to coffee shops – it seems to me there are many more than previous years. I’m taking it as a sign of progress.
I love Pride week, because it is the time of year when we hear the voices of people we don’t usually hear as individuals gather the courage to attend LGBT+ events and lectures. Some are brave enough to tell their story or raise a hand and ask a question. It’s a reminder that we cannot become complacent or desensitised to the real lives behind the statistics and headlines.
Of course, one subject remains on everyone’s lips – same sex civil marriage, or more accurately the absence of it, in Northern Ireland.
This week I was at an event where an exasperated straight ally vented his frustration. “Why can’t we just get something done,” he said (or words to that effect). I thought it might be useful to outline exactly what is being done and what barriers remain in our way.
On the positive side, the main campaign group calling for same sex civil marriage, Love Equality, of which I am part, believes the fight has already been won on many key fronts. Popular support is ours. When we asked for people to march on the streets, tens of thousands turned out to call for change. Independent polling continues to suggest 60-70+% of society is behind us. The majority of MLAs backed same sex civil marriage in the last Assembly vote, and even more say they would now. As recently as this week, the UUP’s Doug Beattie apologised for his party being so slow in showing their support and said he was confident they would not block any future attempts for legislative change at Stormont.
So raise your glass to progress, albeit still some way short of an actual wedding toast.
Despite what Doug Beattie and others say, the absence of a functioning Assembly makes political promises largely hypothetical. The private member’s bill that is currently gathering dust in the Bills Office up on the hill may not see the light of the chamber anytime soon. However, Love Equality has a Plan B… and Plan C… and D.
It has long been our preference that devolved government should deliver this law change, so we continue to engage with MLAs. Just this week we met with one of the main parties and we’re ready to pounce as soon as devolution is restored. We’re continuing to campaign for up-front reform of the Petition of Concern – an issue Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty wrote about in the context of the last round of political talks – which we believe would free up a restored Stormont to legislate in line with the wishes of most members of the Assembly and the wider public.
Meanwhile, with no return of Stormont in sight, we are looking for delivery at Westminster. Labour’s Conor McGinn, who’s originally from Northern Ireland, introduced a 10-minute Rule Bill that is currently before the Commons. Conservative peer Lord Hayward has introduced a mirror bill in the Lords and when the Government is legislating on issues relating to Northern Ireland (which could be an increasing trend) we will asses whether amendments to the bill could include provision for same sex marriage. If so, we’ll be there lobbying.
We are well aware of the archaic rules at Westminster and very often, without Government support, it is difficult to secure the passage of legislation. Whilst it may be disappointing if this happens, it is not failure, just delayed success. Meanwhile, we have brought the cause to national attention. We have gained strong vocal allies in Westminster who are aware of the reality faced by LGBT+ people here like never before. Marriage equality is firmly on the agenda and, with creeping direct rule now a reality, we want Government to extend marriage rights to Northern Ireland which are already enjoyed by couples in the rest of the UK and Ireland.
In the event that the winds of politics blow against us, we may still be able to force change.
Two cases are before the NI Court of Appeal. Petition X has been brought by a gay couple who were married in London but had that marriage ‘downgraded’ to civil partnership status once they arrived back in NI. ‘That sounds a bit unfair,’ you might say, ‘given the couple have only moved from one part of the UK to another.’ We agree. And we believe the courts will too. We should see a judgment from the Court of Appeal in the next few weeks and again Love Equality will be watching closely and seeing what they need to do next.
The other case has two local couples demanding a recognition that their human rights are being denied because they cannot get married in the place they call home. This is listed for hearing in September.
Love Equality are ‘flat out’. We are documenting personal stories of people denied their rights, working with children’s charities who represent families and young people, and with businesses which are investing in our economy. All want to see equal marriage come to Northern Ireland.
Nothing moves quickly in law or politics. Until it does. And Love Equality is conscious that public support can be damaged by campaign fatigue and false dawns. We need supporters energised when popular mobilisation is needed. So, if you wonder why we’re not marching every week, that’s why. We have to choose our moments.
And so, to quote both Che Guevara and Winston Churchill (delete as applicable): “Onwards to Victory!”.
And meanwhile, Happy Pride!
Ciaran Moynagh is partner at Phoenix Law Solicitors