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Same-Sex Marriage: How Devolved Governments Can Still Freely Discriminate

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In 2011, David Cameron spoke proudly at his Party Conference on the subject of Marriage Equality, giving his position succinctly, he challenged anyone who had reservations, by saying that: "Yes, it's about equality [equal marriage], but it's also about something else: commitment."

He continued by outlining how, in his vision, equality falls neatly in line with conservative values, invoking the conservative belief in "ties that bind us" and that "society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other."

Now in 2013, the government officially published the first reading of its Marriage Equality Bill for England and Wales. Despite first appearances, it isn't necessarily the final piece of the jigsaw to achieving complete equality for the LGBT community. With a 56 page Bill, and 48 pages of additional guidance notes, Chris Ashford, a reader in Law and Society at the University of Sunderland analysing the robust document for PinkNews.co.uk stated that the bill might be many things but simple it is not.

In his excellent analysis, Ashford did unfortunately overlook one particular aspect of the bill; Devolved assemblies (Northern Ireland & Scotland) are not obliged to adopt it as law. As a result legal same-sex marriages in England and Wales will only be recognised as civil partnerships in Northern Ireland.

The proposed bill drew criticism from the Equal Marriage Northern Ireland campaign who stated they are already seeking to lobby for an amendment to the wording;

The fact that this bill, if approved at Westminster, remains unlikely to affect Northern Ireland, even according to our own MPs, demonstrates how devolution on matters of equality, in some instances permit a double standard. The misuse of democratic power in order to prevent changes in legislation that would prevent existential discrimination against minorities such as LGBT is a frightening reality.

Equal Marriage campaigners, myself included, feel increasingly frustrated by the fact one particular political party (the Democratic Unionists) remain staunchly anti-gay.

A selection of views from DUP representatives includes the following:

"In terms of equality, in terms of human rights everything that is in marriage is available to a gay couple through civil partnership there is no need to redefine marriage to have a tolerant and inclusive society." - Jonathan Bell MLA (PinkNews.co.uk 2013)

"I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and - without caring about it - harm society. That doesn't mean to say that I hate them. I mean, I hate what they do." - Ian Paisley Jnr MP (2007, report by PinkNews.co.uk 2011)

"Our view would be that there certainly would not be a majority in favour [Of Gay Marriage] in Northern Ireland of extending these powers to the province, and there is certainly no intention to legislate for this." - "We have enough votes in the Assembly to veto it anyway." - Jeffrey Donaldson MP (Belfast Telegraph 2012)

At the time of Ian Paisley Jr's comments (2007) on homosexuality the DUP said that 'there was no suggestion Mr Paisley's comments were any form of discrimination.' And in 2012 Paisley is quoted as having called for an exemption from European human rights legislation, specifically to avoid rulings on LGBT equality and rights.

Perhaps relevant to the current discussion is the fact that the DUP have eight MPs, making them the largest party from Northern Ireland at Westminster. Compare this to the parties that support the introduction of Marriage Equality legislation only having four seats, things seem pretty dismal for Northern Irish LGBT representation at a national level. Disappointingly the main reason only four of eighteen seats for Northern Irish MPs at Westminster are LGBT friendly is that Sinn Fein are an abstentionist party meaning representation is down by six seats.

The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly with 36 seats and they may have all voted against the Marriage Equality motion introduced to the floor of the Assembly back in 2012, but what is oft overlooked is just how close campaigners actually came to a victory.

Political impasse on LGBT rights in Northern Ireland is mostly down to the power, and subsequent misuse of it in the assembly by the DUP and to some extent the UUP. They often forget that we live in a secular democracy, where rights should be equally and freely given to people and protected by law, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Irony festoons this latest scenario as the very party, that proudly assert their British credentials at every opportunity, take a distinctly anti-British stance by not aligning themselves with a conservative government in England and Wales on Marriage Equality.

Considering the British Prime Minister has made clear his views on the subject, those proclaiming loyalty to Westminster and the crown seem to have conveniently forgotten the pro-British stance they take when it suits. With a continually modernising Northern Ireland, I have faith that eventually devolution will perform the function that it's meant to in terms of provision for equality & representation for all.

All being said, I ask the public throughout Northern Ireland, but more importantly the rest of the UK, to understand that the views of DUP representatives, despite their claims to the contrary, unequivocally do not represent the majority in Northern Ireland. Please remember that when you see DUP MPs opposing the new marriage bill at Westminster on the 5 February.