Alliance MLAs will be told to vote for same-sex marriage
Alliance candidates in next year's Assembly elections will have to promise to vote in favour of same-sex marriage at Stormont.
This more or less guarantees that the measure will be passed on a simple majority in the Assembly, though the DUP could still veto it by raising a petition of concern.
When same-sex marriage came to a vote in April, it was defeated by 49 to 47.
That included three Alliance abstentions, so if they voted yes and the parties had the same strength in the next Assembly, the vote would be 50 to 49 in favour.
The three Alliance members who abstained were Judith Cochrane (East Belfast), Trevor Lunn (Lagan Valley) and Kieran McCarthy (Strangford).
However, only Mr Lunn said he was prepared to obey the new rule when it is introduced.
Mr McCarthy said he was "on a journey" on the issue, while Ms Cochrane would still abstain.
In 2011 Ms Cochrane was the highest polling Alliance MLA in East Belfast, at 13.4%, just ahead of party colleague Chris Lyttle.
East Belfast is a key constituency for the party, which narrowly lost it to the DUP in the last Westminster election, and the party will be keen to run popular candidates.
Ms Cochrane was not abstaining on personal principle but believed it was what voters wanted her to do. "When this policy was introduced it was a soft whip," she said. "That means you wouldn't be forced but you were encouraged. That could change in the future but I am still wrestling with the issue. If there was a vote tomorrow I would abstain."
She added: "My view is that it doesn't provide equality on issues like pension rights. Personally I don't really care who gets married, but a number of people in my constituency believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and I try to represent my constituents."
Ms Cochrane then revealed she would not be standing again in any case. She said: "I will not be standing in the next election and I want to scotch rumours that I am joining another party.
"I lost a brother-in-law to leukaemia a few months' back. That put things in a new perspective. I have an MBA and was a business consultant. I also have a family."
Mr McCarthy said he could not bring himself to vote for same-sex marriage, but might not stand next year anyway. He voted against mainly on religious principle - he is a Catholic - but was shaken by last year's referendum in the Republic. "I have nothing against people of the same sex having relationships, but I believe marriage is between a male and a female for the purposes of procreation. I can't get beyond that but sometime in the future I probably will get beyond it, but just now I can't."
An Alliance spokesman said: "This change will come up at the party council in September. We expect it to go through without opposition."
The Ulster Unionist Party also played down any suggestion it would gain from Alliance over the matter. A UUP spokesman said: "Our policy is to have a free vote on same-sex marriage and we have no plans to change that at present. We haven't had anyone applying to join us on this issue either."