Marriage equality in Northern Ireland: A ‘symbolic victory’ is blocked

Language of intolerance all too evident

 

It has always been a bone of contention with sections of unionism that the strictures of compulsory power sharing – with anyone, let alone Sinn Féin – undermine Northern Ireland’s democracy. Democracy, they have argued, equals majority rule, and the sooner the artificial parliamentary constraints associated with the North’s peace process are dispensed with, the better to permit, though they dare not say it; a return to the good old days of majoritarianism. Remember those?

How ironic then – some might say hypocritical – that the DUP should choose yet again to rely on precisely one of those anti-majoritarian mechanisms, the “petition of concern”, to block Monday’s Assembly’s vote in favour of marriage equality. MLAs have now voted five times on the issue, this time, for the first time, producing a bare 53-52 majority for recognising gay marriage, but to no avail. A “petition of concern” from the DUP trumps all.

The petition is a unique Northern Ireland “peace” mechanism whereby 30 MLAs may require that a measure be agreed in an Assembly vote only if supported by a weighted majority of 60 per cent of members voting, including at least two out of five of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present. Its noble purpose is to ensure that no community, minority or majority, can see its ethos trampled on by the other without very substantial cross-community support.

This “live-and-let-live” mechanism was not conceived to protect reactionary, religiously-based laws from the sort of tolerant secular evolution that has seen marriage equality now spread to every community on these islands except Northern Ireland. “Sectarian laws”, one might add, were it not for the fact that the Catholic Church also intervened in the debate to preach against reform. “Those who vote in favour of this motion have no way of knowing what the full consequences of such a vote will be,” the bishops’ open letter ahead of the debate warned, echoing their interventions down South.

Nor, indeed, was the petition of concern intended to block such measures as amendments to a welfare reform bill or a bill to provide for rates relief for sports clubs. As a tool of reconciliation and mutual respect it would seem to have passed its sell-by date.

Monday’s welcome vote, even though blocked, was, as marriage equality activists acknowledged, a “symbolic victory”. More will follow. Their time will come. The opponents of gay marriage find themselves on “the wrong side of history”, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mike Nesbitt admitted at his recent conference.

Most depressing, however, is that the tone of the debate often remains mired in the language of homophobia couched in Biblical literalism. The language of tolerance in the North remains a delicate, struggling flower.

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