Liberal Alliance Party should allow its MLAs a choice on same-sex marriage
There is a growing clamour to allow same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland. Those who support such a move have been buoyed by the result of the referendum in the Republic, which showed a significant majority of those who voted in favour of allowing such marriages.
This newspaper has been on record consistently as opposing discrimination against anyone on any basis and firmly retains that position. Yet we believe that the Alliance Party's decision to force candidates in next year's Assembly elections to vote for same-sex marriage if it comes up at Stormont should give us all pause for thought. The party is perfectly at liberty to adopt whatever policy it wishes, but surely it will trample on members' most personal beliefs at its peril.
This is not like saying it supports welfare reform or some economic issue and that members must toe the party line. This is a much more profound issue going right to the core of people's religious and/or moral beliefs. In a way, by saying that candidates must adopt an active pro-same-sex marriage line, the party could be discriminating against some of its own members by forcing them to do something that in their heart of hearts they disagree with.
Of course, those who oppose same-sex marriage are free to join another party or leave the political arena altogether. Two of three Alliance Members who abstained in the last Stormont vote on the issue say they will not be standing in the next Assembly elections. The other has said he has changed his position and is now prepared to accept the new party policy when it is introduced.
The other consideration for the party is how this new policy will play with its constituents. One of those who abstained last time around, Judith Cochrane, was the party's highest polling MLA in the key East Belfast constituency. Given that the party ran hot favourite Gavin Robinson of the DUP close in the last Westminster election, this is a constituency in which Alliance has built a solid voter base.
Ms Cochrane said her abstention on the same-sex marriage vote was based on the views expressed to her on the doorstep by voters who were opposed to such unions. Such views will be widely shared and deeply held in other areas of Northern Ireland as well, a point that Alliance should bear in mind.
Some may feel uncomfortable that a liberal party should adopt this dictatorial stance.