UK

Ireland Gay Marriage Referendum: Don't Expect The North To Follow Any Time Soon

26/05/2015 14:50 BST | Updated 29/06/2015 13:59 BST

The Republic of Ireland's vote for gay marriage means Northern Ireland will soon be the only part of the UK and Ireland where it is not allowed.

But Northern Ireland following England, Scotland, Wales and, now, the Republic, seems a long way off. A prominent campaigner on the issue told The Huffington Post UK he “wasn’t holding his breath” for the province to change its stance soon.

Speaking just after Ireland's landslide referendum result, John O'Doherty, another campaigner who is director of Northern Irish LGBT rights group Rainbow Project, said: "For us, this sweet victory is tinged with sadness. Northern Ireland is now the only region in western Europe where marriage equality is not a reality. This is a shameful injustice which cannot be allowed to continue."

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The main opponents have been the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Four motions to introduce gay marriage there have been defeated in Stormont, the Northern Irish parliament. The most recently was just weeks ago at the end of April.

Though it failed by only two votes - 49 to 47 - Northern Ireland's constitution allows for a veto of any legislation that would lack acceptance in Northern Irish society, which is still deeply divided along Protestant and Catholic lines.

The “petition of concern”, if signed by 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), means 60% overall and at least 40% of both Nationalists and Unionists voting would have to back a bill for it to go through. The DUP have 38 MLAs, making them the largest party and a majority of the Unionists in Stormont.

Patrick Corrigan, the programme director of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, told The Huffington Post UK the DUP’s size within Stormont and its continued opposition meant gay marriage was unlikely to become law in Northern Ireland soon.

When asked how long it would take to bring gay marriage to the province, he said: "I don't know... I'm not holding my breath for any immediate prospect of change."

He added Ireland’s referendum result left the North “the last bastion of discrimination against gay people”.

“There's no immediate knock on effect to implementing it in Northern Ireland apart from a very lively debate,” he said. “It's difficult to see immediate political change here because the DUP have the numbers to veto."

But Corrigan added that the vote had stimulated campaigners. On June 13, Amnesty, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Rainbow Project are holding a rally for gay marriage supporters in Belfast.

ireland marriage

People in Dublin celebrate the landslide victory of the Yes vote in the referendum

In November, the case of a gay couple who wed in England and sought recognition of their union in Northern Ireland will go before Belfast's High Court. They are seeking to have the gay marriage ban declared discriminatory.

Corrigan, who has blogged on this case for HuffPost UK, stressed court challenges can be long processes and, if this one is successful, legislation would still have to be drawn up afterwards.

When asked whether he felt the ultimate victory would come through Stormont or the courts, he said: “It's looking like the courts at the moment. The DUP have the power...There's no clear legislative path to this." He added it would “make life more difficult for the DUP” if a majority of MLAs voted for any future motion.

He said there were signs of opinion among the MLAs shifting. Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the second largest unionist party, the UUP, has voted against gay marriage while allowing his MLAs to vote with their conscience on the issue.

But he has called the Irish referendum result “a seismic shift in attitude within Irish society” and said Northern Ireland was “in danger of allowing our public policy to be dictated by fundamentalist religious beliefs". Nesbitt did not respond to a HuffPost UK request to clarify what whether this meant his position had changed.

A DUP spokesman told The Belfast Telegraph: "The DUP is opposed to the redefinition of marriage and a majority of MLAs have agreed with that position each time the issue has been debated in the Assembly.

"We note the result of the Republic's referendum, which was required because of the need to amend their constitution. There is no need for this in Northern Ireland. It is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide."

"I think the DUP are in a position to block another vote in the NI assembly and they are likely to do so in the short term at least," Professor Graham Walker, a politics academic at Queen's University Belfast, told HuffPost UK.

"If another assembly vote on gay marriage was held I doubt that those SDLP (the second largest Nationalist party) opponents and abstainers would swing to ‘Yes’ and there would still be very limited support from the UUP."

Slugger O’Toole, a popular blog on Northern Irish politics, published an article suggesting a compromise to overcome the “seemingly irresistible force of the move towards homosexual marriage" and "the immovable object of the DUP”.

The article, which appeared under a pseudonym, suggested the DUP might back gay marriage if Sinn Fein, the Nationalist party that backs gay marriage, dropped its opposition to the DUP’s “conscience clause”, which would allow religious people to refuse to provide services that offend them.

The clause was prompted by the debate around Belfast’s Christian-owned Ashers Baking Company, which lost a court case last week when it was held to have been discriminatory by refusing to bake a cake carrying a slogan supporting gay marriage.

gay marriage cake

The cake was eventually made by someone else

Walker said this court case had proven a "phyrric victory" for the gay rights movement in Northern Ireland.

He told HuffPost UK: "The verdict has created a difficult context for movement on this issue. It has made opponents of gay marriage here all the more defiant and determined.

"There was considerable sympathy for Ashers across the sectarian divide and indeed beyond. There were even letters in The Guardian regretting the outcome. It is hard not to conclude that this case should never have gone to court."

Corrigan said any compromise on the conscience clause would be “unacceptable”.

He said: "That would allow all sorts of businesses to turn away gay people because they don't want to endorse their same sex relationship. Restaurants could turn away gay people. There's no way that would be acceptable."

The proposal reflects the social conservatism of many of the province's politicians.

The DUP’s Jim Wells had to apologise and then stand down as health minister last month for saying children of gay couples were more likely to be abused. “The facts show you certainly don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship,” he said.

lgbt belfast

Protesters outside Belfast City Hall in December 2005, opposed to the UK's first civil partnership ceremony which had just taken place inside

Corrigan said the politicians tended to be more conservative than the population. He pointed to the 2013 Life and Times Survey of Northern Ireland which found 59% favoured legislating for gay marriage while 29% opposed it.

He said: “Is Northern Ireland more socially conservative than the rest of the UK? Relatively speaking. It's got a higher proportion of church goers... but the republic has long been thought of a socially conservative country... People's attitudes can't be taken for granted any more. People's social attitudes have revolutionised, that's true across Europe. Northern Ireland is no different."

Andrew Muir, who became Northern Ireland's first openly gay mayor in 2013 and is president of the province's Alliance Party, said after the Irish referendum: "I am confident that in the context of this watershed moment we shall also overcome in Northern Ireland and also secure equal civil marriage in the years ahead whether via the Assembly, Westminster or the courts.

"Nobody ever thought previous legal changes would have been possible but with courage and commitment, equality was delivered. Momentum to build a truly shared, inclusive and equal society is growing daily.”

Corrigan added: "It's ironic that David Cameron sends his congratulation by Twitter to the Irish people for voting for marriage equality, while he is prime minister of a country that doesn't have equality."