Same-sex marriages (SSMs) and
civil partnerships in Northern Ireland
2012-3: Two failed attempts to legalize
same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland
Current status of same-sex marriage (SSM) in large English-speaking countries:
In 2014-MAY, when this essay was written, marriage for same-sex couples had been legalized in 17 countries, including many English speaking countries: Canada, England and Wales, New Zealand, and Scotland. They could also marry in 17 states of the United States and the District of Columbia. The holdouts were three countries, all democracies, where the public is strongly in favor of same-sex marriage and thus marriage equality appears inevitable: Australia, Ireland, and Northern Ireland.
2012-OCT-01: The first of three tries fails in the Northern Ireland Assembly:
A motion was introduced in the Assembly by the Green and Sinn Féin political parties. It would start the legislative process leading to marriage equality for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Before the debate and vote, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland wrote a letter to each Member of the Assembly (MLA) asking them to reject the motion. The Church's letter expressed concern that to redefine marriage would:
"... demolish a fundamental building block of society." 1
Further, they said that the matter of marriage equality was:
"... not merely an issue of conscience for Christian people and churches, but a very significant one for the whole of society. [Same-sex marriage would] "... effectively demolish generations and centuries of societal norms established on Judeo-Christian values. The steady erosion of such values, with minimal debate about the worldview replacing them, causes us the very greatest concern." 2
The church argued it was not an equality issue, as:
"... all of the significant legal benefits and rights available through marriage are already equally available through civil partnership."
The church appears to have overlooked the belief held by many loving, committed same-sex couples that to be able to call their relationship a marriage is the most important benefit and right of marriage.
The motion before the Assembly stated:
"That this assembly believes that all couples, including those of the same sex, should have the right to marry in the eyes of the state, while the rights of religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage within their beliefs should be given legal protection [and].
That all married couples, including those of the same sex, should have the same legal entitlement to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage.
[The motion called] ... on the Minister of finance and personnel to introduce legislation to guarantee that couples of any sex or gender identity receive equal benefit, [and]
Further calls on the first minister and deputy first minister to ensure that all legislation adheres to the government's commitments to protect equality for all."
During the debate, Sammy Wilson, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, said there were many matters before the Assembly with a higher priority that should be considered first. He also said that there was:
"... no widespread demand across society for the kind of changes which are being asked for in this motion. ... I am opposed to gay marriage, I would have no intention of bringing forward any legislation to this House to facilitate gay marriage and I believe that in doing that I do reflect what is the general view in this society in Northern Ireland."
The motion was narrowly defeated with a vote of 45 in favor and 50 opposed. 1
MLA Steven Agnew of the Green Party was disappointed at the failure of the motion, but insisted that what he called a "narrow defeat" was a:
"... significant step towards gaining marriage equality for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland. ... There are many who argued, both before and during the debate, that the 'vast majority of people in Northern Ireland' are against marriage equality; however, today's debate puts an end to that argument. Close to 50% of elected members of the assembly publicly declared their support for same-sex marriage by voting in favour of this motion today." 2
2013-APR to JUN: The second try also failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly:
2013-APR-26: A motion that was similar to that rejected in 2012 was introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. It asked the Northern Ireland Executive:
"... to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for same-sex marriage." 3
In advance of the debate and vote, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland -- again asked members of the Assembly (MLAs) to reject the motion.
This denomination is the second largest in Northern Ireland; it has about 19% of the population as its adherents.
2013-APR-29: The motion was sponsored by three Sinn Féin MLAs --Ms C Ruane, Ms B McGahan, and Mr B McElduff. It stated:
"Marriage Equality at the Constitutional Convention Proposed:
That this Assembly recognises the importance of the Constitutional Convention; notes the participation of parties from the Assembly; welcomes the 79% majority vote at the Constitution in favour of marriage equality; and calls on the Executive to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for same sex marriage." 4
The Convention on the Constitution -- commonly called the "Constitutional Convention" was established in 2012 to discuss a series of amendments to the Constitution of Ireland -- not the Constitution of Northern Ireland. It consisted of 100 members: a chairperson, 29 members of the Irish Parliament (the Oireachtas), 4 representatives of political parties from Northern Ireland -- one from each of the main political parties -- and 66 randomly selected citizens of Ireland. 79% voted in favor of the fifth item on their nine-item agenda: an amendment to the Irish constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry.
The conclusions of the Convention have little direct significance to the situation in Northern Ireland. However, they do demonstrate the major loss in control over its laity suffered by the Roman Catholic church on matters relating to human sexuality. This largely arose from the massive level of sexual abuse of children by a small minority of Catholic priests on both sides of the Irish/Northern Irish border, and the subsequent attempts by the church leadership to implement a cover-up.
Sinn Féin MLA Caitriona Ruane, who supports marriage equality, said:
"Attitudes in Ireland are changing because people do not want to see people discriminated against. The gay community has said enough is enough, they are standing up for themselves and their communities."
She asserted that many LGBT youth are attempting suicide because they see no future for themselves. She said:
"If they don't have an alternative voice to the vitriolic gay bashing, they will internalize it. ... There is no room for sitting on the fence on this, this is about fighting for all our children's rights." 5
And in some cases, it seems that the MLAs are fighting for some of their children's lives as well.
2013-JUN-25: The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP; Unionists) and the Ulster Unionist Party both oppose marriage equality. Their members were able to gather enough votes to defeat the motion by a vote of 53 against to 42 in favor. As a result of this vote, same-sex couples living in or visiting Northern Ireland who have been legally married elsewhere in the U.K, are considered to be in civil partnerships. 6
MLA Daithi McKay of the Sinn Fein party, said that it was:
"... clear that the proposed policy is likely to run into legal challenge on human rights or equality grounds, and I personally believe that, ultimately, the north may be forced by the courts to move on this matter."
He believes that a lawsuit to bring marriage equality to all of the UK is:
"inevitable. ... We look forward to such a case being brought, and we hope that it will be successful." 6
MLA Jim Allister who leads the DIUP asked of McKay:
"On the legal issue, does he not agree that, ultimately, it is for the democratically-elected people in this Assembly to set the law, not for judges and courts to usurp the responsibility that rests with the legislators?" 6
In the United States, there are large regions -- particularly in the South and Midwest -- where it is hopeless to expect the state legislatures to pass any LGBT-positive legislation. Also, negative feelings toward the LGBT community are so strong in these states that a plebiscite or constitution amendment would certainly fail. This was the case during the 1960's in the battle over interracial marriage. The only solution at that time was through the federal court system. It resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing interracial marriage in 1967 when it ruled on Loving v. Virginia.
The legislative deadlock in Northern Ireland over marriage equality based on sexual orientation makes the judicial option attractive.