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Hold a Northern Ireland referendum on gay marriage, Martin McGuinness tells leaders' TV debate

By Liam Clarke

Published 29/04/2015

Candidates in the UTV studio last night
Candidates in the UTV studio last night
Naomi Long

Martin McGuinness has proposed a referendum to settle the vexed issue of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

The Deputy First Minister was speaking on the UTV Northern Ireland election debate which was, for the first time, broadcast right across the UK last night.

This is because it is possible that Northern Ireland parties will be needed to help form a government after the elections.

Mr McGuinness got qualified support for his idea from Mark Durkan of the SDLP and Naomi Long of Alliance.

Danny Kennedy of the UUP said he would have to think about it while Nigel Dodds of the DUP said that it should be handled within the Assembly where it was defeated for the fourth time on Monday and which the DUP, in any case, blocks by the use of petitions of concern.

It is one of the legacies of Jim Wells, DUP candidate for South Down, that this was the first question asked by Marc Mallet, the chair.

Mr Wells will resign as Health Minister on May 11 to look after his sick wife following two incidents in which he was accused of making remarks which insulted gay people. He told a hustings event that children brought up in same-sex relationships were more likely to be abused and neglected.

He and Peter Robinson, the party leader, both admitted the next day that this was factually inaccurate.

Mr Dodds handled this difficult issue well during the UTV debate.

He said the DUP believed "everyone was equal under the law" but the party was opposed to marriage reform.

He pointed out that this power was devolved to Northern Ireland and was not something that would be decided by MPs at Westminster.

All the other party representatives were in favour of gay marriage except for Danny Kennedy of the UUP. He said his party left it to a free vote but most MLAs voted against.

On Monday the motion proposing to permit same-sex marriage was defeated by 49 votes to 47, a majority of just two for maintaining the status quo.

Naomi Long of Alliance said she was sorry that three of her colleagues had not turned up to vote at Stormont. Five SDLP members were also absent.

Mark Durkan was tackled on this by Nigel Dodds who also mentioned that Margaret Ritchie, the SDLP MP for South Down, did not turn up for a Westminster vote for same-sex marriage when it was passed for England and Wales.

He and Mr Durkan pointed out that many Tory MPs, even some British ministers, had voted against the Government on this measure.

Mr Dodds also mixed it with Martin McGuinness after he called for equality.

Mr Dodds recalled that Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein President, had said that equality was "a Trojan horse" to undermine the Union.

Mr McGuinness denied that this was the case but did not deny that Mr Adams said it. "Equality is not a Trojan horse," he maintained, pointing out that two Orange parades were held in Londonderry with Sinn Fein's backing.

Other topics included negotiating tactics in a hung parliament and their attitude to austerity.

There were few surprises. The SDLP said they would only support Labour and Mr McGuinness's party won't take their seats in Westminster but he felt they could achieve as much by negotiation with the Government.

Here, as Mr Dodds put it, there was "a degree of consensus".

All parties basically replied that they would see what they could get, refusing to draw red lines. Ms Long was typical. "We will work with parties who are delivering on our manifesto," she said.

All were also for increasing public spending here and reducing the deficit more slowly than the Conservatives plan to do.

Mr Dodds put in a strong performance, setting out his stall in the most attractive way possible for English parties who will have been watching and who have been expressing misgivings about the DUP. However, he left many questions unanswered. For instance, the DUP manifesto calls for legislation in Westminster on the right to march and Mr Dodds, an Orangeman himself, promoted this at the manifesto launch. Only policy wonks will notice that, but policy wonks include planning teams in British political parties. Mr Dodds may also have alarmed them on the gay marriage issue. Locally, he scored points against the SDLP.

VERDICT: A good-humoured, polished performance which should help him in North Belfast, but a lot was left out.

HOW THEY PERFORMED: MARK DURKAN

Mark Durkan is the sort of man who - like Simon Hamilton in the DUP or Alliance's David Ford - you could imagine being a politician almost anywhere in the developed world. In this debate he sounded like a Labour MP, stressing that whatever happened in the aftermath of the election the SDLP would not side with the Tories. He did slip it in that they can't be taken for granted. He also had an assured opening. People will wonder why the party leader, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, who is MP for the marginal South Belfast seat, wasn't there to defend his policies. Nobody, not even Mr Kennedy, asked that.

VERDICT: Steady and reasonable. He won't frighten the horses in Britain or at home either. That is what gets you elected.

HOW THEY PERFORMED: DANNY KENNEDY

Mr Kennedy is a better man on the doorsteps than he is in debates. However, he is on top of his brief and said nothing wrong. That "steady as she goes" would be a fine approach if this election were the UUP's to lose. Unfortunately for the UUP, they have no MPs and aren't favourites in any seat according to the pollsters. In those circumstances, it pays to break a little delft and take a few risks to get noticed.

VERDICT: Danny Kennedy gave the impression of a conscientious politician and he put some clear orange water between himself and the DUP on the issue of gay rights. That is one of the few issues that offers unionist voters a clear choice in areas where both parties are running. He didn't sparkle, though.

HOW THEY PERFORMED: NAOMI LONG

Ms Long was nervous in her opening presentation but warmed up quickly. Watching journalists noted she was feisty, well-briefed and didn't back down. One bear trap set for her was that she was already tied to the Lib Dems who were in government last time and imposed austerity. She pointed out that she had voted against them several times and had sat on the opposition benches. When she got her dander up she could land blows - for instance when Danny Kennedy commented on Westminster and she replied: "I understand it more than you because I have been there and you haven't."

VERDICT: Ms Long is nothing if not energetic and, after a slow start, she was on good form. It will have gone down well with Labour in England but is it enough in East Belfast?

HOW THEY PERFORMED: MARTIN McGUINNESS

British viewers will probably be amazed how reasonable Martin McGuinness seemed, though his image is already being rebuilt there after his meetings with the Queen. His weakest suit in the debate was Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism. Most of the other candidates pointed out that they would at least turn up and take their seats. He argued the important negotiations were between Stormont parties and the British Government, not within Westminster. They have been so far, but that could be about to change - we won't know until after the results and he could be embarrassed. He warmed up considerably towards the end.

VERDICT: He played more to the home crowd than British parties. There was a lot of wishful thinking on the economy which won't convince the undecided.

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