Stormont to vote on changing law to allow same-sex marriage

Support for activists in North accelerated by May’s historic Yes decision in the Republic

 

Michael McCartan and Malachai O’Hara from north Belfast want to get married for a very simple reason. It is that they love each other and feel they should not be denied the opportunity to enter the same legally recognised civil union enjoyed by others.

The problem for Michael (35), a restaurant manager, and Malachai (36), an LGBT health charity manager, is that they live in Northern Ireland which is now the only region across the UK and Ireland not to extend civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.

A fifth vote to begin changing the law to allow equal civil marriage rights for same-sex couples will take place at Stormont on Monday, but the DUP has again tabled a petition of concern blocking mechanism so if there was a majority yes vote it would only be symbolic.

Support for activists in the North has been accelerated by May’s historic Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum south of the Border. In July an Ipsos Mori poll found 68 per cent of respondents were in favour of same-sex marriage in the North, with support among all community backgrounds, all urban and rural areas (the highest support was in Belfast) and among almost all ages, with very high levels of support among younger demographics.

Those in Northern Ireland to consider themselves British have been left feeling they are being denied the rights enjoyed by LGBT counterparts in Scotland, England and Wales, and Irish in the North are denied the rights enjoyed by the rest of the island.

Malachai and Michael met on July 31st, 2010, in a Belfast nightclub, and have been living together for three years and want to be able to “take the next natural stage” and get married and raise a family together “on the same footing as everyone else”.

On November 16th the Republic’s Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald will sign a commencement order giving effect to the new Marriage Act 2015 after it was signed into law last week by the presidential commission. The first same-sex civil marriages will take place shortly after, but couples in the North still have a battle on their hands for similar recognition.

Malachai said: “The referendum yes vote was bittersweet for me. What was great about the high figure in favour is that there is always this narrative around LGBT issues that it is a trendy metropolitan elite obsession but what happened is all backgrounds came out to vote in favour of their LGBT sisters, brothers, family members, friends.

“It was really sweet to see that but knowing we have a mechanism with the petition of concern in the North means our journey is a bit further behind.”

Michael said he wants to marry Malachai simply “because, I love him and love is love” and believes Stormont is “a laughing stock”.

“It frustrates me and makes me ashamed of how ridiculously backwards Northern Ireland is and not just around issues of equality for the LGB and T communities.

“The institutions that were created post-conflict and how they are being abused makes us a laughing stock because there is no accountability and no transparency.”

The last time a motion calling for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland was brought before Stormont in April it was defeated by 49-47. The only unionist politicians to vote yes were independent MLAs John McCallister and Claire Sugden, NI21 leader Basil McCrea and the UUP’s Danny Kinahan, who has since left the Assembly following his election to Westminster in May. Five SDLP MLAs did not turn up for the vote, while three Alliance Party representatives abstained, despite the official party lines being to support marriage equality.

Respect

A range of equality activists are now pursuing the matter through the courts. After being won over by equality activists, the Alliance Party’s Trevor Lunn says he has had a “change of heart” and will be voting in favour of same-sex civil marriage on Monday and in any subsequent votes that might take place.

“For me to insist that I absolutely respect LGBT people as equals, to support civil partnerships and the right of gay people to adopt and give blood, and to live their lives without hindrance, but to baulk at giving them the right to commit to each other through civil marriage, frankly no longer seems sustainable,” he said. “To me, the word ‘gay’ in this context actually means ‘Good As You’.”

Peter Lynas, director of the Evangelical Alliance group, says it “supports marriage between a man and woman – as it is understood in over 170 countries around the world and has been for centuries”.

“If the latest motion at Stormont is really about equality, lets fix the civil partnerships legislation and if its about freedom, lets respect the four democratic votes to date,” he said.

Mr Lynas believes society must be “wary of what John Stuart Mill called the ‘tyranny of prevailing opinion’.”

“What began as a well-intentioned battle to remove state discrimination against the LGBT community, now seeks to use state power against those who refuse to support same-sex marriage,” he added. “This is a very dangerous form of intolerance.”

Meanwhile, Faith in Marriage Equality campaigners, supported by a range of faith organisations including We are Church Ireland and Gay Catholic Voice Ireland and the Church of Ireland group, Changing Attitude Ireland, has called for MLAs to “cease being dictated by fundamentalist religious beliefs” and vote in favour of equality.

Dr Richard O’Leary of Faith in Marriage Equality says politicians are being asked to legislate for civil, not religious marriage. “It is time that our political parties cease being dictated to by religious fundamentalist beliefs at the expense of providing equal rights and responsibilities for all under the civil law in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International programme director in the North, said after years of debate and persuasion “we are on the cusp of having majority support among Assembly members”, but it continues to support same-sex couples who are taking the matter to the courts later this month.

“With the Assembly unwilling or unable to deliver on equality, it may be left to judges to do their job for them,” he added