Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Northern Ireland MLAs reject same-sex marriage again ... now issue may go to court

A protester outside Belfast City Hall

The campaign for marriage equality in Northern Ireland appears headed for the courts after the Assembly rejected same-sex rights for the third time in 18 months.

Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Fein, the party which launched the latest attempt to push the demand for legislation through Stormont, said she had no doubt lesbian, gay and bisexual people would challenge discrimination in both local and international courts.

"Why wouldn't they?" the former Education Minister asked.

And the DUP's Mervyn Storey, who branded the Assembly's early return to the issue "unfortunate", also said the trend towards a broader agenda of social change was going to lead to the courts.

In the end, Sinn Fein's motion – that all couples regardless of gender or sexual orientation should have the same legal entitlements – was defeated by 51 votes to 43, a slightly wider margin than when the issue was first debated in late 2012.

The gap also meant that the DUP's use of the blocking mechanism – the petition of concern, which requires majorities of both unionists and nationalists before it could pass – was not needed.

The motion demanding Finance Minister Simon Hamilton introduce laws guaranteeing equal rights for same-sex couples was backed by the SDLP and almost all Alliance MLAs, but opposed by the DUP and most UUP MLAs.

Basil McCrea and John McCallister of NI21 supported the motion along with Green Party MLA Steven Agnew.

TUV leader Jim Allister and Ukip's David McNarry voted against the motion.

Opening the debate, Ms Ruane said that attitudes were changing, not just in Ireland but in Europe and across the world, in the same way they had over unplanned pregnancies. She strenuously denied the motion was a "gimmick" or a waste of time and money.

"The 'no' men are using the 'gimmick' argument to try to stop the debate," she argued, accusing those who had drawn parallels with polygamy and incest of "fanning the flames" of hate crime.

But Mr Storey asked: "If a man says he loves his sister, or his brother, surely that is his human right?", and added it was too serious an issue for "political bantering."

Mr Storey said many Catholics felt let down and betrayed by their political representatives and shared the view of many Protestants and other people who wanted no change to the definition of marriage.

However, the SDLP's Dominic Bradley said he believed that, eventually, a motion on marriage equality to provide freedom from stigmatisation would prevail.

And he agreed with colleague Fearghal McKinney that the rights of all people in relation to inheritance and time off from work to care for an ill spouse or partner were involved.

Danny Kennedy of the Ulster Unionists – whose members were allowed a free vote – said he was clear that holy scripture taught there should be no change in the current situation, and redefining marriage would have far-reaching consequences for society.

Accusing Sinn Fein of a "highly cynical and perhaps electoral exercise", he argued that his personal views on a topic on which all MLAs should be able to "speak freely to their conscience" did not make him homophobic.

Backing the motion, Alliance's Chris Lyttle said there was a need for respectful and meaningful dialogue to help allay the concerns of some MLAs and members of the public – but the change formed part of his party's vision of a shared society for everyone.

NI21 leader Mr McCrea said it was "really, really wrong" to allow personal morals to influence decisions of a legislative Assembly and there may have to be a Private Member's Bill.

FACTFILE

e Northern Ireland remains the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is not permitted in law.

e The first same-sex wedding ceremonies took place in England and Wales at the start of last month.

e In Scotland legislation allowing same-sex marriage was passed in February, with the first ceremonies expected to take place in October.

e In the Republic there is to be a debate on the issue next year, with all the main political parties there in support of changing the status quo. Any change will be subject to a referendum.

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