NEWS
18/05/2019 16:41 BST | Updated 18/05/2019 16:42 BST

Lyra McKee’s Partner Leads Rally Demanding Same-Sex Marriage in Northern Ireland

Sara Canning said the issue shouldn't be a political football.

The partner of murdered journalist Lyra McKee addressed a rally of thousands in Belfast demanding same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Sara Canning told the crowds gathered outside City Hall that a law change would be a “win” for everyone in the region.

After being warmly applauded on to the stage, Canning questioned why same-sex couple were treated differently in Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK, where same-sex marriage is legal.

“We pay our taxes, we are governed by the same laws, we live deeply and we love dearly – why should we not be afforded the same rights in marriage?” she asked.

“Equal marriage is not a green or orange issue, a demand of just one side or the other and it shouldn’t be a political football.

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“Same-sex couples come from every single political, religious, cultural, and racial background. A vote passing on equal marriage would not be a ‘win’ for any one side, it would be a win for all sides.”

Police on the ground estimated that around 7,000 to 8,000 people took part in Saturday’s noisy and colourful protest.

McKee, a 29-year-old journalist and author, was shot dead by dissident republicans as she observed rioting in Londonderry on April 18.

Ahead of the rally, Canning had revealed that she challenged the prime minister on the issue when she attended McKee’s funeral in Belfast last month, urging Theresa May to step in and legislate on marriage laws above the head of the collapsed Stormont Assembly.

At the funeral, Mckee’s friend Stephen Lusty revealed that Mckee intended to propose to Canning. 

He said on the day she died, she had told him about the ring she had bought and that she planned to propose in New York in May.

“She made me put a date in my diary for the wedding in Donegal in 2022 and gave me strict instructions to wear my kilt, which she always wanted to borrow, adorn it with some Harry Potter, and to find or re-find my own version of Sara,” he told the congregation.

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In her first interview since losing McKee, Canning told ITV News earlier in the week: “Lyra wrote passionately about equal marriage. She cared about it so much - we both did.

“She wanted to get married in Northern Ireland but we both knew that wasn’t possible so we would have to go across the border into the Republic. We could get married there but as soon as we came home our marriage wouldn’t be recognised.”

She said that speaking at the rally would be hard but it’s what McKee would have wanted.

“I know it meant so much to Lyra, and it means to much to so many of our friends, I see it as my job to advocate for what Lyra wrote about.

″Her death has given me a platform and a voice - I don’t want it and I would give it back in a heartbeat if it could bring Lyra back.

″But I have it and I am going to use it. And I know Lyra would want this. We both want gay people like us to have the same rights as we would if we lived in any other part of the UK.”

The region’s ban on same sex marriage is one of the key disputes at the heart of Northern Ireland’s powersharing impasse, with the Democratic Unionists resisting calls from Sinn Fein for a law change.

The socially conservative DUP is firmly opposed to any redefinition of the law, insisting marriage should be between a man and a woman. A majority of MLAs were in favour of lifting the ban when the issue last came to the floor of the Assembly in November 2015, but the DUP triggered a contentious voting mechanism – the petition of concern – to block it.

McKee’s death has injected fresh impetus into political efforts to resolve the deadlock at Stormont, with the UK and Irish governments convening a new talks process in the hope of resolving stand-offs over same-sex marriage and other key sticking points, such as Irish language legislation.

Campaigners demanding marriage law reform marched through Belfast city centre before gathering outside City Hall for the rally.

Canning was at the front as she and friends carried a large cut-out of Lyra’s name in rainbow colours.

The event was organised by the Love Equality campaign – an umbrella group made up of organisations that support a law change, such as Amnesty International and LGBT health advocacy group the Rainbow Project.

Rainbow Project director John O’Doherty drew a huge cheer from the crowd as he kissed his partner on stage as he addressed the rally.

“Like so many of you I stand today with my better half, the love of my life – angry and frustrated – that another year has passed without our love being recognised as equal under the law,” he said.

“Another year of second-class citizenship and being ignored by those in power.

“No party or group of MLAs should hold a veto over people lives, over people’s rights – and this campaign will not be held to ransom by those who seek to hold Northern Ireland back – who refuse to recognise the rights of LGBT people and our families.

“Our message is clear – any return of the executive and the assembly must include real reform of the petition of concern. Upfront reform, not an afterthought or a postscript to any deal or a can to be kicked down the road. We need a government for all the people, not just some people. No other government deserves our support.

“And to those who seek to use this veto to deny us our rights – history will judge your actions. Over 75% of people across Northern Ireland now support the introduction of Marriage Equality – and we will not be silenced. We will not be deterred. We will not stop, until we achieve a Northern Ireland that is underpinned by equality and human rights.

“And to Theresa May, (Northern Ireland Secretary) Karen Bradley and the UK Government, our message is simple – human rights should not be based on postcodes.

“This is now happening on your watch. It is up to you to deliver on the promise of equality. Your kind words are no longer welcome – we judge you on your actions.”

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director, added: “Belfast today is a city of love.

“But it is a city where loving couples are denied the right to marry by a government in Westminster which refuses to act to end years of discrimination.

“The UK Government likes to champion it’s record on LGBT rights, but has shamefully ignored cross-party calls for progress on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

“In our thousands, we send a message today from Belfast to London that second-class citizenship for the LGBT community has to end now.

“We must be heard and our calls for equality must be answered.”