Same-Sex Marriage in Northern Ireland

13/05/2016 11:30 | Updated 13 May 2016

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is not legal. Same-sex marriage has become the benchmark for LGBT equality in the western world. In 2013, there was widespread rejoicing when the English parliament legalized same-sex marriage. In May 2015, the Republic of Ireland endorsed same-sex marriage, as did the USA in June 2015. Northern Irish people want same-sex marriage, as indicated by the 20,000 people who marched for same-sex marriage in Belfast in June 2015.

The Love Equality campaign is fighting for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. On 5 May Northern Ireland went to the polls to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly. The goal of the Love Equality campaign is to ensure that same-sex marriage is sanctioned by the Northern Irish Assembly within this term.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is currently blocking same-sex marriage. On 2 November 2015, the Northern Irish Assembly voted in favour of same-sex marriage. Of the 105 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) who voted, 53 MLAs were in favour and 52 against (three abstained). The DUP then blocked the legislation, using a constitutional mechanism called a "Petition of Concern."

The "Petition of Concern" mechanism was formulated pursuant to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. The DUP use this mechanism the most, although it is routinely used by other parties to veto legislation. It is designed to ensure that neither unionist nor nationalist parties can enforce a Protestant or Catholic agenda in relation to the other. Same-sex marriage is of no disadvantage to any community. The "Petition of Concern" was designed to protect the rights of one community, not hinder the rights of others. This is a misuse of the "Petition of Concern" mechanism. The DUP is using the mechanism to oppress LGBT people.

When the DUP used the "Petition of Concern" in November 2015, this was the fifth time they have used the mechanism to halt legislation around same-sex marriage. The DUP are the main unionist party. The DUP has the largest number of representatives at Stormont, the results of the 5 May elections last week leaving them with an unchanged number of MLAs. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the second largest unionist party, allowed their MLAs a free vote on same-sex marriage on 2 November. There are some supporters of same-sex marriage within the UUP. Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, nationalist parties, both support same-sex marriage. Amnesty International has confirmed that, following the 5 May elections, a majority of MLAs (at least 58) support same-sex marriage. Amnesty has called for a further attempt by the Northern Irish Assembly to legalise same-sex marriage in light of this.

Public opinion is resoundingly in favour of same-sex marriage. An Ipsos MORI poll carried out in July last year showed that 68 % of people in Northern Ireland support same-sex marriage. Both Protestants and Catholics are in favour of same-sex marriage. As in the rest of the UK, a notable trend around support for same-sex marriage is age, with the older generation generally less supportive. The July 2015 poll found that 82 % of 16 to 34-year-olds support same-sex marriage, the figures falling to 75 % amongst 35 to 55-year-olds and 47 % amongst those aged 55 and over.

The DUP has stated that it intends to continue opposing same-sex marriage, but it is unknown whether the they will continue to use the "Petition of Concern" mechanism to block this. Not all of the DUP MLAs are opposed to same-sex marriage, but they have not been allowed a free vote on the matter. The DUP MLAs have been instructed that they must tow the party line on same-sex marriage. Arlene Foster, the head of the DUP, remains opposed to same-sex marriage. She cited religious beliefs for her opposition to same-sex marriage during debates in Stormont. The DUP takes a traditional position on a number of matters. It has also opposed any softening of the rules around abortion. The DUP has always opposed every equality measure for LGBT people, including civil partnerships, which they now cite as a reason why same-sex marriage is unnecessary.

A second route to same-sex marriage may be through the courts. There are currently two important cases taking place, the outcomes of which are expected in the summer. One of the cases is brought by a same-sex couple who were married in England, but are fighting to have their marriage recognised in Northern Ireland. The other case directly challenges the ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, arguing that this is a human rights breach under the European Convention on Human Rights. Regardless of the outcomes, the cases will almost certainly be appealed, which is a lengthy process. Favourable outcomes may pile pressure on the DUP to desist from using the "Petition of Concern" to block same-sex marriage though.

Whilst the UK has progressed on LGBT issues, in lots of ways Northern Ireland has been left behind. Northern Ireland's politicians are letting down the Northern Irish people. Politicians are failing to reflect their views on same-sex marriage and uphold the rights of LGBT people. As LGBT people we don't want to be treated as special, we want to be treated as equal. Northern Ireland has the right to have same-sex marriage.