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Northern Ireland Green's Lead Push for Marriage Equality

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A Private Member's Motion to debate same-sex marriage, which was ignored by all other political parties in the 2011 - 2012 plenary of Northern Ireland's Legislative Assembly, has been resubmitted for the 2012 - 2013 session.

The Green Party of Northern Ireland spent a great deal of energy attempting to gain traction for its motion first tabled on the 06/03/2012 by Green Party Leader and North Down MLA Steven Agnew.

Unfortunately due to a disappointing lack of support from other parties the motion was never brought forward in the Assembly chamber and as a result fell at the close of the last plenary.

Hope for seeing a debate at legislative level was rekindled a few days ago when the Green Party once again proved to be the most proactive in seeking a meaningful discussion when the same motion for Marriage Equality was re-tabled as the Green's first motion submission for the 2012-2013 plenary.

Mr Agnew's motion calls for the Assembly to recognise "that all couples, including those of the same sex, should have the right to marry in the eyes of the State" and includes a clause protecting religious institutions by affirming they should "continue to have the right to define, observe and practise marriage within the bounds of their institutions".

Some readers may disagree with the inclusion of protection clauses for religious establishments; however, we must not be too quick to dismiss this as a weakness.

Protection for religious groups does not amount to excusing zealous and bigoted expressions.

If one understands the nature of Northern Ireland when applying any legislation for genuine equality the motion can be said to merely protect the freedom of those who have faith to operate their own institutions as they see fit.

In essence, it adds a double-edged clause that allows for a definitive protection of rights before the law for marriage equality.

Adding to the secular nature of the protection for minorities within a democracy, the motion further calls for "the same legal entitlement to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage" including those of the same sex.

With this motion, a clear call is made on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to introduce legislation to guarantee that couples of any sex or gender identity receive equal benefit from marriage.

A call is also made on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to "ensure that all legislation adheres to the Government's commitments to promote and protect equality for all".

Now that campaigners for Equal Marriage have organised together during the summer months, other political parties are finally coming round in full support.

Regrettably, Sinn Fein - the only other party to have held a formal policy on same-sex marriage prior to September failed to support the need for a debate at Assembly level but instead pushed for a number of local councils to adopt support for Marriage Equality, which of course is positive but lacks any real legal power.

Speaking to Steven Agnew on this he noted that before the end of the last mandate Sinn Fein "claimed to be the only party in favour yet despite a motion being on the table no efforts were made to support it".

Thankfully, Steven added that at a recent Belfast Pride Talks Back event, Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson publically stated that she was "confident her party would support" the Green Party motion if it was resubmitted.

Encouraging this support, Steven pointed out that now the motion is again on the table "it is time for Sinn Fein to step up on this at the Assembly".

At the 2011 Party conference, The Green Party in Northern Ireland unanimously supported a motion to vigorously campaign and, where possible, vote to extend the right to marry and be legally recognised as such, to same-sex couples, and that there be no difference in status between same sex marriage and different sex marriage.

Discussing the Alliance Party's recent adoption of policy supporting Marriage Equality, Steven said he appreciates the democratic process and that there wasn't unanimous support but that it is "frustrating when a liberal party has such difficulty on this issue".

Worryingly the Alliance Party Leader David Ford is said to have suggested the party whip shall not be enforced on the policy, meaning that Alliance representatives will be free to vote for or against marriage equality at any level including the Assembly or Westminster.

Such mixed signals are not helpful, especially with the SDLP faltering on the issue and the fact both Unionist parties are said to be out of tune on equality.

The Green Party says the time to get a robust debate on this issue is swiftly coming and that all lobbying to get this motion off the floor of the Assembly is appreciated.

Clearly, it is about time Northern Ireland's legislator's debated marriage equality.

As Mr Agnew says: "If a Tory Prime Minister can express his support for equal marriage, then surely we can at least manage a debate