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Is Northern Ireland Nearing a Gay Marriage Watershed?

With Stormont’s elections less than a month away, pressure for equal marriage rights is mounting.

Brendan Scott

(Top photo: A mural in support of same-sex marriage in Belfast. Photo: Niall Carson PA Archive/PA Images)

Across the street from Redeemer Central Church stands Kremlin, a busy Soviet-themed gay nightclub in Belfast's small but proud Queer Quarter. The proximity of the two meeting houses is an emblem. Northern Ireland, a country that still bears the scars of healed religious and political divisions, and where the church and state are entwined, is the only place in Western Europe where same-sex marriage remains outlawed.

Following the national referendum that saw equal marriage rights granted in the Republic of Ireland in 2015, and the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 by Westminster, the Northern Irish LGBT community has been left behind. And this despite both public and majority parliamentary support.

In 2015, marriage equality was put to the vote for the fifth time. Backed by the nationalist Sinn Fein and other left-leaning and centrist parties, plus a small number of progressive unionists on the right, the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly voted by a thin majority to legalise gay marriage. But the motion was ultimately blocked through the use of a "petition of concern", a veto introduced under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to protect the rights of minorities. 

Ironically, that very same veto is today being used by unionists, led by the majority Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to deny the rights of the minority LGBT community.

Aside from a handful of reformists, the unionist political class of the right – including both the DUP and the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party – stand in staunch opposition to marriage equality. Certain members of the DUP – which has strong ties to the socially conservative, protestant Free Presbyterian church – have made no bones about their view of homosexuality in the past.

Veteran DUP member Maurice Mills MBE believes Aids is God's punishment for sodomy, and once said that Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for Louisianans allowing an annual gay pride parade. While Mills' comments may not represent the official party line, they illustrate the extremity of the DUP's opposition to LGBT civil liberties, the majority of which have only been passed by Westminster during periods of direct rule. As it stands, with the DUP being in the majority, there is nothing stopping the veto being exercised indefinitely.

"There are too many stories out there about what this would mean for faith groups and churches being forced to carry out same-sex marriages, an end to the institution of marriage and so many other lies" – John O'Doherty, director of The Rainbow Project

Today, the UK statelet stands at a crossroads. Next month's assembly elections will determine who holds parliamentary power. At this crucial time, campaigners are determined to galvanise public support. An Ipsos Mori poll conducted last year showed that nearly 70 percent of the electorate favour equal marriage rights.

"Our hope is that we can encourage soft supporters of the DUP to vote for an alternative and prioritise human rights over the party's divisive 'orange or green' campaign strategy," says Danny Toner, a campaigner and founder of the Gay Say. "Hopefully we can encourage some of the 45.1 percent of the eligible electorate who did not vote in the last election to understand the power of using their vote to prevent a return to the status quo at Stormont."

The DUP has made great efforts to present marriage equality through the prism of the country's orange and green sectarian divide. The party depends on loyalty to deep-seated unionist ideology and appeals to religious conservatism to curry support on the issue. However, the tide of public opinion, even amongst unionists, appears slowly but surely to be turning. "There are tens of thousands of people in working class unionist areas who are affected and appalled by this entrenched position. The task for the left is to mobilise them along with the majority of society who are for LGBT rights," says Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit, who last year won the party's first assembly seat.

With the elections looming, the recent Renewable Heat Incentive scandal may have weakened the DUP's hand. If the party were to lose enough seats in Stormont on the 2nd of March it may also lose the power to veto, since the petition of concern currently requires at least 30 signatures, putting gay marriage in closer reach. 

If the results of a recent poll come to bear, the DUP will hold a post-election majority, but there is other recourse. Two legal challenges have gone before Belfast's High Court, with delayed judgments now expected in the coming weeks. Whatever the outcome of these tandem cases, they will undoubtedly be appealed, turning them over to the UK Supreme Court and potentially pushing any resolution years out.

In principle, Northern Ireland could – like the Republic – hold its own referendum on same-sex marriage. However, the country's LGBT community does not support this route to legislation, for a number of reasons. John O'Doherty, director of The Rainbow Project, believes that such a plebiscite could open old wounds, with votes being cast according to orange and green party lines. Rather than the public voting on the vague concept of "gay marriage", he feels it's necessary for a detailed legislative proposal to be put before the house and debated so that parliamentary democracy can prevail.

"We feel very strongly that this needs to be debated, and done so on the basis of reality, not innuendo and falsehoods. There are too many stories out there about what this would mean for faith groups and churches being forced to carry out same-sex marriages, an end to the institution of marriage and so many other lies," he says. "We feel that actually having the legislation published and properly debated by the house is an important step in this campaign so that the public, and pundits and journalists, have a proper opportunity to reflect on what is being proposed."

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As part of a broader same-sex marriage campaign, the Project is collaborating with parties from the left to the centre, including Sinn Fein, to jointly bring forward a private members' bill. In Westminster, such bills are largely tokenistic, with very low pass rates. In Stormont they have historically had more success; but, passed or not, at the very least the bill will further publicise the issue and may impact future legislation.

In 2015 John McCallister, then an independent unionist MLA, proposed a radical shake-up of Stormont with his Assembly & Executive Reform Bill. The bill called for a move away from the cross-community power-sharing mechanism that many believe keeps Stormont in deadlock and reduces Northern Ireland's parliament to tribalism. In its original iteration the bill would have removed the need to win the support of at least 40 percent of declared unionists and 40 percent of declared nationalists, in favour of a simple weighted majority of 60 percent of all votes – regardless of their community designation.

The proposal also called for the petition of concern, the DUP's marriage equality trump card, to require signatories from at least three parties. In effect this would have abrogated the DUP's power to stonewall the passing of equal marriage rights. Ultimately the bill, which successfully introduced an official opposition to Stormont for the first time, was heavily watered down before being passed last year. "It's only a matter of time before we see this reformed. It was of its time in 1998, but community designation looks and sounds like it belongs to a different era now. It puts too much power in the hands of one party," says McCallister.

With the election less than a month away, Northern Ireland faces the real prospect of coming back under direct rule. If electees reach a power-sharing stalemate and the assembly is suspended, Westminster may see no choice but to reimpose itself if secondary elections also prove unsuccessful. This would make the Tories responsible for ensuring the extension of UK civil rights to Northern Irelanders; indeed, virtually all LGBT rights in the country, including employment protections and civil partnerships, were introduced under direct rule.

Even so, there are no guarantees. Of the 18 Northern Irish MPs sitting in Westminster today, 10 are unionists, eight of whom are DUP members allied to Theresa May's cause. Earlier this month all eight backed the Article 50 bill, paving the way for the UK government to pull the Brexit trigger. 

Whatever the outcome of next month's election, there is little doubt that the chorus of public support is rising, and LGBT groups continue to campaign in concert. No matter the route to legislation, a time when every man and woman in Northern Ireland is legally entitled to marry whomever they so choose is now a matter of when, not if.

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