Why same-sex marriage debate hasn't gone away
The Assembly's opposition to same-sex marriage leaves it out of kilter with the rest of Europe. Legal challenges are bound to follow, predicts Daithi McKay
In the Assembly yesterday, MLAs debated a legislative consent motion on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill. In the case of this Bill, it is abundantly clear, from debates already held on the floor of the Assembly, that there is no agreement among MLAs on the issue of same-sex marriage, with a small majority of members opposed to it.
Because of this, it was necessary that we put into place some practical arrangement for same-sex married couples who move here from Britain, or from other places, where same-sex marriage is legally recognised.
The most important issue contained in this motion is to ensure that those who enter into a legally recognised same-sex marriage in Britain will be recognised here as civil partners.
The finance and personnel committee is clear that the approach proposed by the minister, Sammy Wilson, was in keeping with the majority view in the Assembly.
At the same time, it was also clear that assessment of the implications of the proposed policy was necessary, both before and following the implementation of the policy. During the Finance and Personnel Committee's investigation of this matter, we received evidence from representative stakeholder groups, including the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Rainbow Project, the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
The evidence given to my committee highlighted that the approach taken by the Assembly will leave it out of kilter with other jurisdictions in western Europe.
But it is equally clear that policy variation on matters which have been transferred to the Assembly is a natural outworking of devolution.
Similarly, my committee accepts that it is very likely that there may be legal challenges on human rights, or equality, grounds and I believe that the north may ultimately be forced by the courts to move with the times and fall into line with other jurisdictions.
It was also suggested that there could be an economic impact as a result of having a different policy position to that of Britain and, potentially, the rest of Ireland, which is currently considering legalising same-sex marriages.
For all these reasons, the committee believes and is strongly recommending that there should be a review of the practical and legal implications of the agreed policy within three years of its implementation.
The process that the committee has been thorough in examining the proposed legislative consent motion in relation to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill, but, still, it has thrown up a number of issues.
It was not clear why there was no provision made for dealing with same-sex marriages contracted outside of Britain. Responsibility for adoption policies – and the position of adopted children of same-sex couples coming from Britain – falls within the remit of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but is clearly of interest to anyone examining same-sex marriage.
The committee had a very brief window for its investigations – a period of just over two weeks. With the sensitive and complicated matters involved, it would have been more beneficial if a longer period of time could have been devoted to teasing out all the issues.
I am certain that this is not the last we will hear about the debate over same-sex marriage.
My committee believes that, under the circumstances and given the great differences of opinion, we have come to the only conclusions practicable at this stage.