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What One Tiny Island Can Teach Northern Ireland About Marriage Equality

If even the Isle of Man, also a traditionally conservative country, can step up and embrace equal marriage rights, we need to untangle the political mess that holds Northern Ireland back.
July 24, 2016, 9:53am

This weekend opens a new chapter open for same-gender couples on the Isle of Man. They're now able to marry, thanks to some surprisingly progressive new legislation made legal on Friday the 22nd of July that not only brings through marriage equality for the island but also extends civil partnerships to straight couples. Chief Minister Allen Bell, head of the Manx government and who is gay, called it an "historic moment". For LGBT rights activists on the the Isle of Man it has been a long campaign – the island only decriminalised being gay in 1992.

On a clear day, a thin mist rises out of the sea at the western horizon looking out from the Isle of Man. It is, of course, Ireland, where a popular referendum last year brought in marriage equality. Follow that same coastline to the north and it's possible on those days to also see Northern Ireland, the last corner of this archipelago where same-sex marriage is not law.

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Northern Ireland is like the Isle of Man in that it's traditionally very conservative, but that is changing. An Ipsos/MORI survey released in June reflected an increasingly secularised and liberal Northern Irish population. The data concluded that 70 percent of adults in Northern Ireland supported same-sex marriage, a figure that's grown in the past year. So, if such a high proportion of people approve of marriage equality in Northern Ireland how come it isn't law? Well, that's where it gets complicated.

Decades of sectarian violence have left a warped political structure. Party politics does not casually fall along the normal right- and left-wing spectrum but is strung up tightly between British unionism and Irish nationalism. In a society still experiencing the psychological and emotional hurt of war, parties are voted for on the basis of their constitutional position not their economic or social policies. Post-conflict paranoia of the "other side" is the electoral currency, maintained and capitalised on by parties who were founded in the fire of the Troubles.

It means that the shadow of the past falls upon everything. The monopoly on power in Northern Ireland's executive is shared between Irish nationalist Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). In this kind of setting any progressive political ambition and social policy, like same-gender marriage, is subservient to the constitutional juggernauts that inevitably direct the majority of people's vote.

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Of the two ruling parties, Sinn Féin are the vocal supporters of LGBT equality, a radical force in Irish politics with controversial historical roots in the republican armed struggle. They work for nationalist working class interests while championing Irish cultural expression. But in late 2014, Sinn Féin's party president Gerry Adams was overheard describing the equality line as "the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy".

In other words, as MP Colum Eastwood put it, "Adams revealed that Sinn Féin is not interested in promoting an equality agenda because it is the right thing to do but rather because it can 'break' their opponents." He received widespread criticism from other nationalists at the time and the party reiterated its commitment to equality, but ultimately it seems as though social policy plays second fiddle.

In a society still experiencing the psychological and emotional hurt of war, parties are voted for on the basis of their constitutional position not their economic or social policies

Generally speaking, the most heavy political opposition to marriage equality comes from the DUP, a pro-British ultra-conservative party founded by Protestant preacher Ian Paisley at the height of Northern Ireland's divisive conflict. Most recently the party was criticised when, in November 2015, the provincial assembly at Stormont voted in majority for same-sex marriage for first time and the DUP blocked the motion using an "emergency break" called a petition of concern. It's a device originally designed to prevent decision-making that would disadvantage one of the two polarised political camps, but in this case the DUP used it to undermine a democratic choice because it worked against their religious philosophy.

But the DUP's actual electorate seem split on the issue. The same Ipsos/MORI survey from last month also examined attitudes across voting preference, finding that 50 percent of those polled that vote DUP are in favour of marriage equality and 44 percent are against it.

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While we could assume that a large portion of DUP voters do sympathise with the party's opposition to marriage equality, these statistics show that an astounding half of the its voting base do not. Some of the faithful are falling away. Brexit, which unionism's main party supported, has kickstarted new conversations about Irish unity. The attraction of a cosmopolitan and European Ireland that voted for marriage equality is tempting even to moderate and LGBT unionists. Secularism played an enormous role in eroding the grip of the Catholic Church.

Ironically, the DUP were opposed to a united Ireland on the premise that the Roman Catholic Church had too much influence over the Irish State. "Home rule is Rome rule" was the slogan railed by its leader Paisley. These days, though, it would seem that unionism's main political party, as it now runs from the increasing secularism of the Irish State, finds more common ground with the traditionalists from the Catholic Church. We're left with a convoluted web of interests that hold tolerance and equality hostage.

On top of secularism's perceived threat, younger generations are injecting new political dynamics and empathies into society, with their liberal convictions and cynicism of the fear-driven narratives of the past. Whether the dinosaurs can evolve fast enough remains to be seen, but it's about time they made a start.

@itsdavidgilmour

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