If you're reading this then let me just reassure you that I am not about to rehash the countless valid, tested and proven arguments for marriage equality and why it is not only my belief but the duty of care of our government to extend the institution of marriage to same sex couples in Northern Ireland. I am writing this now as I believe the game has changed following Monday's marriage equality vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The debate was the fifth time that the issue had come to the floor of the Assembly and the first time that the campaign had managed to convince a majority of MLAs to support a joint Sinn Fein and SDLP motion calling on the NI Executive to bring forward legislation to enable marriage equality for same-sex couples.
The first time in five debates and we won the debate by one vote. One. That is significant not only because the yes lobby welcomed MLAs that had never voted on the measure or had previously voted no but because in three years since the movement started in earnest we had won the argument in the House. I have to commend those internal pressure groups within the SDLP and Alliance Party that had obviously worked very hard to bring MLAs such as Judith Cochrane, Trevor Lunn, Sean Rogers and Karen McKevitt to the table and convince them of the benefits of same-sex marriage. I have had those conversations with those same MLAs previously and it was frustrating and often times hurtful to have to explain and argue the case that you deserve to be treated as an equal human being by your own elected government.
As expected though we had the same arguments against marriage equality - that it would denigrate the already existing marriages of straight couples, that it is a slippery slope, that it would impede the freedoms of law abiding homophobes to criticise an intrinsic part of every LGBT person's personality and being and that marriage is primarily for raising children. I swear I think those MLAs who have an issue with equal marriage print out a list of wafer-thin rebuttals before the vote, put them in a hat and take turns until they each have an equally invalid, uninformed and ignorant twenty minute speech to read out. Maybe they don't use a hat, maybe they draw straws or have a dance off to decide? I'm not sure I want to know, regardless.
And it wouldn't be "Stormont Gay Marriage Bingo" without a DUP lodged Petition of Concern which effectively scuppers any and all attempts by the Assembly to bring forward any LGBT friendly legislation. The difference now is that even with that one vote the DUP have lost any mandate they had to block progress on this issue and their abuse of the PoC has been laid bare for all to see. The DUP's motto is 'Let's Keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward' yet their attitudes towards LGBT rights are out of step with public opinion at large. An Ipsos MORI poll in June of this year found that 68% of respondents agreed that same-sex couples should have the right to marry in Northern Ireland and a recent BBC/RTE cross-border poll revealed that 64% of people in Northern Ireland would have no issue with a family member getting married to a same-sex partner.
It has now become painfully obvious that the support of the public at large is behind the equal marriage movement in Northern Ireland and MLAs that don't support it are in danger of being on the "wrong side of history" as UUP leader and MLA Mike Nesbitt remarked at their party conference this year. Northern Ireland has joined Germany, Italy and Austria as one of the few western and developed European nations without same-sex marriage. Countries as close as France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands have had these protections for LGBT citizens for some time, in the latter case the Dutch have had equal marriage since 2001.
I like to travel and this year I have had the pleasure to have visited the Netherlands, France, Canada, the USA (NY state & Pennsylvania), Scotland, England, Ireland and Catalonia (or Spain, depending on who you ask) and they all have equal marriage enshrined in law. Yes for some countries it was a longer road to get there than others and whether it be through referendum, court cases or legislation those states afford their LGBT couples the same legal protections and recognition as their heterosexual couples. When I was walking through Barcelona hand in hand with my boyfriend I didn't get looked at, spat at or shouted at. I didn't have any problem walking around in a Yes Equality t-shirt through the streets of Toronto or Glasgow. The skies in Pennsylvania hadn't caved in nor had the apocalypse engulfed Paris airport when I was getting my flight back home. The Churches were still there and society had continued as normal.
I love where I come from, I love that I live in a small country with small cities and a hardy attitude to life. I want to see Northern Ireland become the most economically successful and socially vibrant country in Europe, more so than Andorra or Monaco or Luxembourg but we cannot have that without robust and modern equality laws. Laws that protect racial minorities, sexual minorities, sex workers etc. Equality is part of that mantra of moving forward and we only do a disservice to minority communities such as LGBT people by refusing to acknowledge the benefits that marriage equality will bring to a tiny and emerging European nation such as Northern Ireland.