Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: Arlene Foster's letter to Scottish government minister over same-sex marriage

By Sue Doherty

Letters written by both Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton asking a Scottish government minister to exclude Northern Ireland civil partnerships from conversion to same-sex marriages in Scotland have been made public.

The letters were published on the Scottish Government's website on Tuesday.

It comes days after Mrs Foster said she had no recollection of sending such correspondence to the administration in Edinburgh.

Marco Biagi was Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment from November 2014 to May 2016.

In a series of Tweets on June 10, he revealed that the DUP leader had written to him as Minister of Finance & Personnel, asking him to "curtail access of Northern Irish citizens to Scottish same-sex marriages".

"Specifically," he added: "this was couples with prior Northern Irish civil partnerships who couldn't switch for marriages in NI (or England and Wales).

Mr Biagi said that his answer was "No".

Biagi tweets.jpg

When asked about the correspondence by the BBC last week, Mrs Foster said: "I'm not quite sure what he was referring to but it certainly wasn't a letter from me and I've no recollection of a letter from me.

"If I'd written to him officially as Minister of Finance or something like that around recognition laws here in Northern Ireland, I have no recollection of it. I certainly didn't write in a personal capacity."

On Tuesday, the Scottish Government website published all four letters, including Mrs Foster's, Mr Hamilton's and Mr Biagi's replies.

The letters do not cite moral or political objections to the proposed legislation in Scotland, but highlighted potential legal issues.

>> Read letters in full<<

'Exclude Northern Ireland civil partnerships'

In his letter dated September 4, 2015, then Minister of Finance and Personnel Simon Hamilton said he was writing to reiterate concerns he'd raised when former Scottish Government Minister Alex Neill first proposed a provision to allow for the changing of non-Scottish civil partnerships.

Mr Hamilton wrote: "I suggested that the calls to amend the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill had not been fully thought through and proposed that those calls should be resisted on legislative competence grounds.

"In the event, the order-making power was added to the Bill.

"However, I hoped that, given the concerns that had been raised, the power would not be exercised."

Mr Hamilton went on to cite concerns that couples entering a civil partnership in Northern Ireland and then converting that to a marriage in Scotland would have "dual status" as no court could determine which legal relationship should take precedence.

"That could cause particular difficulties in the context of gender recognition," he continued, "because those in a Scottish marriage will have the option of remaining in the marriage if there is an application for a gender recognition certificate but those in a Northern Ireland civil partnership will not".

He then asked that the order-making power not be exercised or, failing that "that the power is exercised in such a way as to exclude Northern Ireland civil partnerships."

In his reply, then minister Biagi wrote: "Since in Northern Ireland there are no marriages for same sex couples, the two jurisdictions are already faced with differences of legal status that must be managed if the couples move from one to the other".

'Exclude NI civil partnerships'

On September 4, 2015, Arlene Foster wrote, as Simon Hamilton's successor as Minister of Finance & Personnel, to then Minister Biagi.

She also raised the issue of "dual status" which she said could create "unforeseen difficulties".

Mrs Foster wrote: "I am sure that neither of us would wish to place same sex couples in uncertain legal position, which may be difficult and expensive to resolve.

"In this instance, we can achieve legal certainty by restricting the definition of a 'qualifying civil partnership' so as to exclude civil partnerships which were entered into in Northern Ireland."

With regard to dissolution, Mrs Foster said: "We believe a deemed civil partnership can only exist in Northern Ireland if the Scottish marriage did not result from the conversion of a Northern Irish civil partnership (i.e. a deemed civil partnership cannot exist alongside the original partnership). That belief is, however, untested and that is another reason why the definition of 'qualifying civil partnership' should be restricted."

On November 24, 2015, Minister Biagi replied to Mrs Fosters saying "it would not be appropriate to exclude civil partnerships registered in Northern Ireland from the Order" which had been agreed by Parliament and was due to come into force.

Stormont's department of finance has responsibility for marriage regulations in Northern Ireland.

In response to the publication, a DUP spokesman said: "This correspondence was exploring technical legal matters and was not personally driven by the minister.

"Marriage legislation is a fully devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly."

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