Same-sex marriage proposal rejected in Northern Ireland
From our new writer Chris
Green Party MLA Stephen Agnew along with Sinn Fein MLAs Catriona Ruane and Bronwyn McGahan backed the private member equal marriage motion which was tabled for plenary debate before the NI Assembly yesterday.
The proposal, which if passed would have put pressure on the Executive to examine legislation surrounding marriage in the region, was opposed by the vast majority of Unionists.
This was the second time Green Party Leader and South Down MLA Stephen Agnew has spear headed a motion calling for marriage equality. An earlier motion in June this year never even made it to the assembly chamber after receiving disappointing amounts of interest from the other parties at the end of the 2011/2012 plenary.
Campaign for Marriage Equality
Mr Agnew was undeterred in his campaign for marriage equality and motivated by his meeting with Sinn Fein councillor Martine Anderson at this year’s Pride Talks Back event in August who then pledged to get her party behind a future marriage equality motion, the South Down MLA and Green Party Leader resubmitted the Bill as the Green Party’s first motion submission for the 2012/2013 plenary.
Green Party leader Stephen Agnew, whose party jointly tabled the motion with Sinn Féin, said same sex couples were being denied fundamental rights under the current civil partnership laws.
The motion stressed that religious organisations would still be able to define and observe marriage as they saw fit, but said same sex couples should be allowed to have their unions recognised as marriage in the eyes of the state.
“That is why I am calling on all the other political parties in the Assembly to support my motion on equal marriage so that we send out a clear message that discrimination against any group in our society cannot and will not be tolerated,” Mr Agnew commented.
Bronwyn McGahan, Sinn Féin equality spokesperson said she was extremely disappointed that the motion failed.
“Equality threatens no one and this motion today would only have given members of the LGBT community the same rights including legal rights as other married couples.”
Green Party support
The Green Party have taken an inspiring and courageous standpoint and are ferociously pursuing calls to debate the equal marriage issue in government.
On the Green Party website Mr Agnew clearly voices his support for the NI LGBT Community:
In Northern Ireland, LGBT people are treated like second class citizens when it comes to the right to marry. This is a prominent social issue in Northern Ireland and this is a human rights issue that needs to be addressed.
Prejudice in any form erodes our vision of a society which is fair for all.
Now, backed by Sinn Fein MLAs Catriona Ruane and Bronwyn McGahan it seems support is moving in favour of reforms and change in our infamously homophobic assembly.
Ireland of equals
Sinn Fein want to move forward with their vision of an “Ireland of Equals” and were once the only party to fully support marriage rights for same sex couples. Councillor Barry Dogherty even got involved in a protest in Enniskillen against Fermanagh District Council when it became the first local authority to oppose Sinn Fein’s marriage equality motion in September.
In recent days the DUP have attached a petition of concern to the marriage equality motion opting now to use a special provision designed to ensure that motions and legislation passed by the Assembly do not disadvantage one community over another to obstruct this motion .. As Steven Agnew tweeted ” Legislation designed to protect minorities used to prevent the passing of a motion to enhance minority rights”.
The motion also called directly on Stormont Finance Minister Sammy Wilson to introduce legislation to guarantee that couples of any sex or gender identity received equal benefits under the law.
But Mr Wilson said there was no widespread desire for change in the legislation surrounding same sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
“Can I at the very outset of this debate make clear my position as minister: I am opposed to gay marriage, I would have no intention of bringing forward any legislation to this House to facilitate gay marriage and I believe that in doing that I do reflect what is the general view in this society in Northern Ireland,” he said
Yet again the DUP have infuriatingly chosen to continue to discriminate against LGBT peoples here in Northern Ireland and hinder any chances at achieving equality for all. Incidents like this one make it seem unlikely the DUP will ever understand the
LGBT movement. The party’s notoriously homophobic stance is evidently going to be a major roadblock on our journey for equality.
UUP’s stance on gay marriage
The UUP have taken a different stance on the issue. UUP party leader Mike Nesbitt said that his party’s position on gay marriage was that it was a “matter of personal conscience” however this has only meant that his members have overwhelmingly and consistently voted against or abstained from voting on the issue.
There is also a slight worry that there was a parallel motion tabled in the name of the leader of the UUP Mike Nesbitt and his party colleague Danny Kinahan. The title for a start show a lack of understanding of the issues, theirs instead of being called Equal Marriage is called Same Sex Marriage.
Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea, who was one of three Unionists to vote in favour of the motion, said he did not understand why the DUP had made such a petition “on a matter that should have been a free vote”.
Mr McCrea argued that marriage is not an “exclusively Christian concept” and has changed over the years.
By society accepting equal marriage, it does not mean everyone has to agree with the practice. Many Christians and followers of other religions may not ‘agree’ with every marriage that takes place.
The SDLP party won’t have an official position until after its party conference in November, although after recent public displays of support from the likes of Conal McDevitt SDLP MLA for South Belfast, we can be hopeful the party will come down in favour of the proposals.
In September The Alliance Party also joined the equal marriage campaign following months of consultation but party Leader David Ford wanted to ensure that his proposals would include safeguards for religious groups so they would not be forced into allowing their premises to be used. Mr Ford added – “Alliance will oppose any form of discrimination, whether it is based on age, race, disability, gender or sexual orientation. There are equality issues in allowing those in a same sex relationship to have only civil partnerships, which is seen as discriminatory.”
The motion needed the majority of nationalist and unionist votes to pass, after the DUP lodged a Petition of Concern to the Assembly authorities – a process used for contentious issues.
It meant the motion was unlikely to pass, however if normal voting processes had taken place it still would have failed after the substantial Unionist ‘no’ vote.
TUV leader Jim Alistair said the motion represented the “perversion of marriage”.
“This is not an issue of equality,” he said.
“This is an issue of the perversion of marriage. Marriage historically for very good reason has been long defined as the union of one man and one woman and any society should be slow to tinker with and alter the bedrock of society which has served it so well.”
But Alliance leader David Ford said his party supported the motion of civil marriage for same sex couples. “At present civil partnerships are not equal to marriage,” he said.
“However, Alliance Party policy on this issue is that there must be protection for churches and faith groups, and for clergy, that they would not be forced to carry out same sex marriage ceremonies or have ceremonies performed on their property. Today’s motion was consistent with that position.”
He argued that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights gives protection for religious freedom which would prevent faith groups from being forced to carry out same sex marriages.
Equal marriage will become a reality in Northern Ireland
John O’Doherty, chair of the Equal Marriage NI campaign, said the LGBT community “have always had to fight harder and longer than our brothers and sisters in other jurisdictions to ensure our rights and we will not be disheartened by today’s setback.”
“We will continue to have this debate across Northern Ireland because we know that this is how we will change hearts and minds. We know that, as ever, there are many obstacles in our path to equality but we can only go forwards, never back.
“There is no doubt in my mind that equal marriage will become a reality in Northern Ireland,” he added.
All we can be sure of from yesterday’s discussions in parliament is that things are headed in a more positive direction and we have opened up constructive dialogue amongst our political parties and MLAs. There isn’t going to be anything spectacular happening in the short term with no Executive move to legislate on the matter and no prospect of one while the DUP wield a veto. We do however need to recognise the gradual changes and improvements being made within our Assembly and these could be the first steps to a more tolerant Northern Ireland and a society we can all share together.