Northern Ireland’s first gay marriage: ‘It should never have taken Lyra being murdered’

Lyra McKee’s partner, Sara Canning, and others on the long fight for equality

Sara Canning with her partner Lyra McKee: ‘Lyra made my politics less black and white. She was unique in Northern Ireland’

Sara Canning with her partner Lyra McKee: ‘Lyra made my politics less black and white. She was unique in Northern Ireland’

 

Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards are the first couple to enter into a same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. To mark the occasion, those involved in the long campaign for equal marriage in the North describe the fight for their rights.

‘After Lyra’s death, I decided to do something worthwhile with my anger’

Sara Canning
Nurse and partner of journalist Lyra McKee, Derry
Lyra and I knew early on that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. We met on Plenty Of Fish in March 2018 – super millennial. She messaged me first, with a Harry Potter chat-up line, which worked. Lyra loved happy endings. She was heartbroken when her friend’s relationship broke up. So she said she didn’t care that we’d only been going out one year, we should get married. We had that discussion on a Tuesday; by Thursday she’d bought the ring.

She was going to propose on holiday in New York, but she showed me a picture of the ring on her phone. Lyra couldn’t hold her water like that. She knew the answer was always going to be yes. She planned to propose in Central Park. That was about a fortnight before she was killed.

If anything good can come out of the hell of the past year, I hope that there was a push for marriage equality because of Lyra

Lyra made my politics less black and white. She was unique in Northern Ireland, in a way, because she took people as they came. She was friends with people who said awful, misguided or purposely inflammatory things. It boggled my mind. She loved to have – as she said in her TED Talk – a difficult conversation with a person. She changed a lot of people’s opinions towards LGBTQ people.

After Lyra was murdered, I had a lot of anger; it was just eating me. I thought, I can spend all this time crying about her murderers, the New IRA, but it’s screaming into a void. Nothing I say would change those people. I have to live in Derry, the same town as them. I’m not harping on about them constantly. I could either become that girl on TV, crying about the IRA, crying about her girlfriend. Or I could channel it and do something worthwhile with my anger. I could use my voice, as one of many. I added my voice to marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose; both issues that Lyra and I believed in.

Northern Ireland is like the poor relation. We’re volatile, so everything’s a devolved issue and nobody can legislate. That’s why, when I had that opportunity to speak to Theresa May at Lyra’s funeral, I pleaded with her to legislate for marriage equality on our behalf. She said nothing solid in response, but at least I was talking about something that was changeable.

Sara Canning (centre) marching with protesters through Belfast city centre during a demonstration for same-sex marriage in the North.
Sara Canning (centre) marching with protesters through Belfast city centre during a demonstration for same-sex marriage in the North

After Lyra’s death, people wanted to tell me their stories. I hope she’s changed hearts and minds. If anything good can come out of the hell of the past year, I hope that there was a push for marriage equality because of Lyra. It should never have taken her being murdered, but here we are.

I wear the engagement ring all the time. Lyra’s family presented it to me on Easter Sunday, during her wake. It came in an egg with a scroll, both references to the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts. On the scroll, Lyra wrote: “Hearts are fantastic beasts and you have captured mine.” It’s perfect, beautiful. She did a great job.

‘In the early days, gay activists didn’t get any support from nationalist or unionist parties’

Jeffrey Dudgeon
Former councillor and writer, Belfast
I’ve been playing catchup all my life. If I’d been living in Birmingham, I’d have been decriminalised in 1967. I brought a legal case that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland 15 years later, in 1982. We’d been denied a personal life, and we were that first generation that had enough anger to do something about it. That led us to be revolutionary.

We were considered a threat because we were gay and campaigning. In 1976, the RUC came to my house with search warrants for drugs. But that was secondary; at the police station, I was interrogated on matters entirely gay. By then I’d taken my case to the European commission of human rights.

We tried to get the law reformed through Stormont, which didn’t work. So we tried Westminster, but that was shelved in 1978. In Strasbourg, I argued for my right to a private life and against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. It was a prolonged process; it took six years. We won in the European court of human rights in 1981. It was historic, but there was no sense of triumph. We were just relieved we’d won what was our due despite [DUP leader] Ian Paisley’s Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.

25th annual Belfast Pride parade on August 1, 2015 in Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
'Northern Ireland has always been unfairly characterised as ultra-religious and backward. But the DUP don’t represent the Protestant population, let alone the unionist population' Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

I experienced a lot of violence; my house came under prolonged attack and I wasn’t protected. For the next 20 years I worked on getting the age of consent down from 21 to 16, and getting civil partnerships for gay people. It all had to be done through Westminster.

The DUP are characterised as the problem in preventing equal marriage, but in the early days, gay activists didn’t get any support from nationalist or unionist parties. The nationalist parties gradually became enthusiastic; the DUP maintained its absolute opposition; and the [unionist] UUP, which I became a member of, left it up to individual MPs.

Northern Ireland has always been unfairly characterised as ultra-religious and backward. But the DUP don’t represent the Protestant population, let alone the unionist population. A very small percentage of Protestants are Free Presbyterians, but a large percentage of DUP legislators are, so the church’s influence is completely disproportionate.

I’ve been with my partner for 20 years. We don’t have a civil partnership. The time will come, I’m sure, as I’m 73 – I’m getting on. Would I go for marriage? We’ll have to see. I have a sense of satisfaction that marriage is legalised, but I don’t want too much triumphalism; we’ve had enough of that in Northern Ireland. I’ve put thousands of hours into campaigning, which I could have spent doing something else. Playing catchup has prevented me from having another life.

‘The legislation is about protection, it’s about life and death’

Shannon Sickels
Playwright, Belfast

Gráinne Close and Shannon Sickels pictured in Belfast in December 2005 (right) after becoming the UK’s first couple to enter into a civil partnership. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
Gráinne Close and Shannon Sickels (right) pictured in Belfast in December 2005 after becoming the UK’s first couple to enter into a civil partnership. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

It takes fewer days to process paperwork in Northern Ireland than in England, so my partner, Gráinne, and I had the first public civil partnership in the UK in 2005.

Two men in England had the first partnership privately, because one of them was dying. Gráinne and I were willing to go public because it was never about us. We felt very strongly that this was an acknowledgment of the activists behind the scenes, people we lost along the way, and to recognise the role of women in queer history.

We wouldn’t do the public aspect again. Our civil partnership was at Belfast city hall. We had people spouting hate at us on our way in, shouting “Sodomy is sin”, singing hymns during the vows, blocking our way out. They tried to hijack the day, but were not successful. The protesters were held back by our friends, who made it a day of love.

I’m from the United States. We met when Gráinne was visiting New York in summer 2002; I moved to Belfast two years later. In 2008, I fell suddenly, critically ill with a rare brain infection. At one point, I was an hour from death. The civil partnership meant that Gráinne was recognised as my next of kin. She was given her rightful place, through my three brain surgeries and nine weeks in hospital. The legislation is about protection; it’s about life and death.

We were in Dublin Castle for the results of the marriage referendum in the Republic. The next morning, in Dublin city centre, we held hands. We both thought, can we do this? Back home in Belfast, we immediately went back to being hyper-vigilant. Something lifted in the south, and it came back down on us when we went north.

It was a wonderful time because of the support from the south. Then with Brexit, we had people in England ask, “Who are the DUP?” I thought, fantastic: would you look at them? It’s shone this light on the DUP’s appalling abuse of power.

We, and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, the first two men to have a civil partnership in Northern Ireland, sought a judicial review of the ban on same-sex marriage in 2015. We are waiting on a judgment on that. If the high court rules in our favour, it will ensure that this new Westminster legislation allowing it cannot later be overturned by a future Northern Ireland Assembly.

Protesters stand outside Belfast City Hall during the civil partnership ceremony of Gráinne Close and Shannon Sickels in December 2005. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
Protesters stand outside Belfast City Hall during the civil partnership ceremony of Gráinne Close and Shannon Sickels in December 2005. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

When we were approached to seek the review, we thought, oh God, do we have to go back into the spotlight? We didn’t seek it out. The public nature of it has taken its toll. Your photo gets dragged up all the time. When we moved from an apartment to a house, we felt vulnerable; suddenly people know which front door is yours. You’re very exposed.

We will get married, but no one will know about it. We’ve earned it. All the queers who have been in a long-term relationship have. It’ll be great when Gráinne and I can just drift into the background. I’m looking forward to that.

Shannon Sickels’ essay, Tectonic Plates And Pressure Cookers, is published in the British Council’s Britain & Ireland: Lives Entwined V on February 13th

‘Everything that’s wrong with this place is the way we put everyone in pigeonholes. You’re a nationalist, you’re a Catholic, you’re a gay man’

Pete Byrne
Councillor, Crossmaglen
When I first became a SDLP councillor in 2016, I would never talk about LGBTQ issues. But as the only out gay councillor in the Newry, Mourne and Down area, I realised I could be a voice for that community. People saw me as Pete Byrne, the soccer manager or the maths tutor, and I realised how powerful it was when I did speak about being gay.

For my first Pride in 2016, I did a talk about my personal life. It was the most daunting thing I have ever done. I was on a panel with Lyra McKee. I was awful nervous. Lyra said, “Just speak personally and you’ll feel better for it.” And she was right.

I talked about my difficulty in coming out. I’d never really told anybody. A couple of weeks after I met my husband, Trevor, in July 2006, I booked a one-way flight to Australia. I thought, I can’t do this. Not in Crossmaglen. It’s a rural town on the border. Everyone’s so set in their way. It’s also a big GAA town. It can feel very macho.

Trevor is from Dundalk, just across the border. We met online, stayed in contact, and when I came back 15 months later, we moved into a flat in Crossmaglen town centre. A lot of people thought he was just my friend. Two years later, we got engaged. You don’t get engaged to your flatmate. It shocked people.

On social issues like marriage equality and abortion, we can seem like a backwater. That’s not the case

We got married in Spain in 2012. I was angry at people saying I couldn’t. And I felt that, being involved so much in the community, I needed to send out this message. It was defiance.

When I saw the pride flag outside the local coffee shop, I nearly crashed. The owner gave me a thumbs up. I welled up.

I hate labels, identifying myself as X, Y or Z. I tick “other” for everything. Everything that’s wrong with this place is the way we put everyone in pigeonholes. You’re a nationalist; you’re a Roman Catholic; you’re a gay man.

I’ve constantly found myself being defined by my sexuality since marriage equality became centre stage. A unionist councillor said in council that I needed a dose of testosterone to fix me. That’s what you’re up against. I used to challenge it, but now I try to teach. I told him I’d go to an Apprentice Boys parade if he’d come to Pride. I went, he didn’t – but I’ll ask him again this year. When I speak in council, I will refer to my husband.

There’s been a shift. I talk to a lot of people in this community who are extremely religious. People have realised that it’s no dilution of their Catholicism to support same-sex marriage. The DUP claim to speak for Northern Ireland, when they don’t. On social issues like marriage equality and abortion, we can seem like a backwater. That’s not the case.

I was driving to council last summer and I came around the square in the town. When I saw the pride flag outside the local coffee shop, I nearly crashed. The owner gave me a thumbs up. I welled up. That’s the very first time a pride flag has been flown in Crossmaglen. It was just acceptance. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in this town.

Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards in front of the Lyra McKee mural in Belfast. The couple will be the first same-sex couple to get married in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards in front of the Lyra McKee mural in Belfast. The couple will be the first same-sex couple to get married in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Equal measures: a history of LGBTQ+ rights in Northern Ireland

December 2005 The first same-sex civil partnerships took place in the UK, including Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland did not allow a ceremony conducted by a religious organisation.

July 2010 Same-sex civil partnerships were legalised in the Republic.

May 2015 The Republic became the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, with a 62 per cent majority.

January 2017 Ongoing disputes between the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly, leaving the North without a government.

April 2019 The murder of journalist and LGBTQ+ activist Lyra McKee galvanised campaigners pushing for marriage reform.

July 2019 Westminster MPs passed an amendment by backbench Labour MP Conor McGinn, extending marriage equality to Northern Ireland.

February 2020 Northern Ireland’s first gay marriages are expected to take place. Couples remain unable to convert civil partnerships to marriage. – Guardian

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