Gay marriage vote exposes deep divisions within Northern Ireland parties
Absences and abstentions undermine SDLP and Alliance policy as motion in Assembly is narrowly defeated
The SDLP and Alliance Party have been accused of being in a mess over gay marriage after their MLAs split in a crunch vote on the issue.
The Sinn Fein proposal to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland was defeated in the Assembly yesterday by 49 votes to 47.
The debate preceding the vote was held in an atmosphere charged by the shock resignation of DUP Health Minister Jim Wells over his remarks about gay couples. Mr Wells had been facing calls to resign since the release of video footage in which he said the "facts show you certainly don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship".
An alleged verbal altercation with a lesbian couple during an election canvass in his South Down constituency added further pressure and the Belfast Telegraph yesterday revealed his decision to step down to care for his seriously ill wife. With the controversy still simmering yesterday, the debate at Stormont also revealed fractures in the positions of some of our other main parties on the issue. The SDLP and Alliance, who have been at the forefront of criticising Mr Wells' remarks, were shown to have clear internal difficulties over gay marriage.
SDLP policy supports equal marriage rights for gay people, in direct opposition to the Catholic Church's stance. But yesterday several prominent SDLP MLAs, instead of adhering to the party line, chose to ignore the vote.
Westminster candidate Alban Maginness and party colleagues John Dallat, Joe Byrne, Sean Rogers and Karen McKevitt did not turn up for the vote.
During a Westminster vote two years ago on equal marriage, the party was similarly divided. Mark Durkan voted in favour, while Alasdair McDonnell and Margaret Ritchie did not vote. However, Dr McDonnell voted in favour of equal marriage yesterday.
An SDLP spokesman would not comment on whether sanctions would be taken against those that did not turn up to vote.
"The whip was applied so that no member was permitted to vote against the party's policy, which is in favour of marriage equality," he said, adding: "Some members were unable to attend for very personal reasons".
Mr Maginness, who has previously voiced opposition to same-sex marriage, did not answer his mobile phone last night. Mr Rogers was also not contactable.
Ms McKevitt was supporting her family as concerns grew for her relative Oliver who had been reported missing in the Nepal earthquake, but was found alive and well yesterday.
Meanwhile, Mr Dallat told the Belfast Telegraph that he had arrived too late to be able to vote, or he would have voted yes in line with party policy. He suffers from knee problems and needs to use the lifts, which he said slowed him down.
The Alliance Party also supports same-sex marriage, but three of its MLAs abstained from the vote yesterday - Judith Cochrane, Trevor Lunn and Kieran McCarthy.
Their actions are at odds with deputy leader Naomi Long, who voted for equal marriage at Westminster.
She said: "As a Christian and a liberal, I believe equality and religious freedom are both fundamental to a democratic society. Both must be promoted and protected, a position which is reflected in Alliance policy."
DUP MLA Peter Weir said the vote "highlighted internal difficulties" within parties "who position themselves as the champions of same-sex marriage".
"There is always a question as to whether we should be concerned for the well-being of several SDLP MLAs who just happen to go missing when such a debate is taking place," he said. "Similarly, despite the supposed support of the Alliance Party, three of their MLAs could not bring themselves to vote in support."
Among the Northern Ireland parties, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance, Green Party and the PUP support equal marriage, the DUP and TUV are against, and the UUP leaves the choice up to its members to vote according to their conscience.
- 96 of 108 MLAs voted
- 49 voted against the Sinn Fein proposal
- 47 voted in favour
- Of 53 unionists, four voted yes
- All 37 nationalists voted yes
- 6 'others' voted yes
SINN FEIN: Yes
UUP: No, except Danny Kinahan
SDLP: Nine voted Yes, five abstained
ALLIANCE: Five voted Yes, three abstained
John McCallister (Ind U): Yes
Claire Sugden (Ind U): Yes