Hooray! At last! Civil society, for so long fearful of saying a single word that would offend a politician, has plucked up enough courage to speak out on a burning issue that’s also a glaring anomaly. In a move that takes advantage of the political vacuum and shows just how fed up they are with it, normally cautious big business is calling for equal marriage to be extended to Northern Ireland. They’re arguing on the grounds of creating better jobs and greater prosperity. Their open letter, prominently featured by the Financial Times is the result of successful lobbying by the Rainbow Project. Congratulations to them.
Big businesses, including Citibank, Deloitte and PwC, have put pressure on Theresa May, the prime minister, to legalise gay marriage in Northern Ireland, saying that diversity “is essential to create a vibrant and competitive economy.
On Tuesday, 29 companies, including Santander, Ulster Bank and law firm Pinsent Masons, published a joint statement calling for reform. “A diverse, outward-looking and inclusive society is essential to create a vibrant and competitive economy and a prosperous future for Northern Ireland,” they said. The intervention continues a pattern of businesses speaking out on social issues, in part in response to employee demands. Bob Annibale, global director of Citi Inclusive Finance and Community Development, said: “We’re a large employer of graduates. Most youths are looking for a progressive and inclusive workplace.” Citi is one of Northern Ireland’s biggest employers, with 2,800 staff in Belfast. Mr Annibale said the province’s failure to recognise equal marriage meant that employees “don’t have the same mobility”.
The statement, timed to coincide with the new parliamentary session at Westminster, was co-ordinated by the Rainbow Project in Northern Ireland, an LGBT advocacy group. John Doherty, the Rainbow Project’s director, said politicians needed to “understand the economic impact of marriage equality”.
The Conservatives are facing other pressures to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. The UK Supreme Court ruled in June that the province’s laws were incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights, although they ruled against a legal challenge brought by abortion campaigners. Pressure has grown partly because of Ireland’s decision, in referendums, to legalise abortion and gay marriage. “It’s a matter of Northern Ireland joining its neighbours,” said Citi’s Mr Annibale.
Drinks manufacturers Coca Cola Ireland, law firms Baker McKenzie and Pinsent Masons, consultants Deloitte and PwC, Liberty IT, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank all added their voice to the message.
Andrea McIlroy-Rose, of Pinsent Masons said the move would have an effect beyond individual employees.
“The business case for marriage equality is compelling, both in terms of retaining and attracting talent, and also to send out a message to international investors that Northern Ireland is a modern, outward looking economy, with a progressive attitude on personal freedoms and rights.”
Sandra Wright of Ulster Bank said the business saw itself as “truly inclusive and diverse”.
“We want to do what we can to ensure our customers, colleagues and the LGBTQ+ community in Northern Ireland have the same rights extended to them as the rest of the UK and Ireland,” she added.
In light of the current lack of devolved government at Stormont, John O’Doherty, director the Rainbow Project and member of the Love Equality consortium called on the UK government to introduce legislation allowing for same-sex marriage.
“The brain drain from Northern Ireland is a recognised fact and it is important that we reflect upon all of its causes, not least of all the fact that Northern Ireland remains the only part of these Islands not to recognise equal marriage,
The chances of a favourable response to the demand for action by Westminster are zero, as our well -informed secretary of state would tell you, should you be bothered to ask. But the effect on the local political parties’ increasingly absurd stand-off ? Keep piling on the pressure. Your day will come (in your language of choice).
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London