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Don't think of same-sex marriage is as radical and disruptive... it actually goes to heart of tradition and family

By Fergus Ryan

Published 06/08/2016

Truly, deeply: extending marriage to same-sex couples sends a message of acceptance
Truly, deeply: extending marriage to same-sex couples sends a message of acceptance

For some time now, Northern Ireland has been debating the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples. Polls show strong support among the public for such a move. In late-2015, a slim majority of MLAs in the Assembly voted in favour of change, but, due to the lack of sufficient cross-community consensus in the chamber, marriage equality currently remains elusive.

England and Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland (among others) have all extended marriage to same-sex couples. This may be a persuasive factor.

Nonetheless, the fact that "everyone else is doing it" is not, on its own, a sufficiently compelling reason to follow suit. Northern Ireland must decide for itself.

While the prospect of same-sex couples marrying may seem radical to some, I suggest that it is, in fact, a relatively modest proposal. Same-sex couples in Northern Ireland may already enter into civil partnership and have been able to do so for more than 10 years. Between 2005 and 2015, 1,026 same-sex couples formed a civil partnership in Northern Ireland (based on data from

Civil partners have virtually all of the same rights and obligations as married couples. There are some notable distinctions, but the differences between marriage and civil partnership in Northern Ireland are generally wafer-thin.

Thus, Northern Ireland has two separate (albeit very similar) regimes for the legal recognition of same-sex and opposite-sex couples, civil partnership for the former and marriage for the latter. This smacks of a "separate, but (largely) equal" approach that divides "us" from "them", that marks same-sex couples out as unusual and implicitly inferior.

Many people have genuine and deeply-held religious views about marriage. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the marriage of which I speak here is civil marriage - marriage in the eyes of the law.

Based on the experience of other jurisdictions, extending civil marriage to same-sex couples would not adversely affect the right of religious denominations and bodies, in relation to the formation of marriage, to retain their particular understanding of religious marriage as a heterosexual union.

Indeed, in England and Wales, churches and religious ministers are free to refuse to marry same-sex couples.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Marriage Act 2015 expressly preserves the freedom of all faiths, if they so choose, to marry only opposite-sex couples.

Those who maintain that marriage is mainly for the purpose of bearing and raising children should keep in mind that the ability to procreate is not an essential prerequisite for the creation of a legally valid marriage.

Two 90-year-olds may feasibly marry, though they have no real prospect of having children together. Many married couples cannot have children, or decide not to do so. Their marriages are, nonetheless, legally valid, worthy and meaningful.

By the same token, being married is not a prerequisite for having children. According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), 43% of all children born in Northern Ireland in 2014 were born to unmarried parents.

Bear in mind, also, that many same-sex couples are already caring for and raising children together. Multiple international research studies demonstrate that, on average, children being raised by such couples fare at least as well as those raised by opposite-sex couples.

The fact that many gay and lesbian couples wish to marry, far from being a rejection of mainstream values, is, arguably, a hearty endorsement of marriage.

Indeed, one might say that those who advocate for access to marriage by same-sex couples are adopting a conservative approach, one that appeals to tradition and family, and that copper-fastens, rather than challenges, the privileged position of this age-old institution.

Indeed, for many LGBT people, the value of marriage lies in its affirmation of family ties. The aspiration to marry reflects a profound wish to share in the celebrations of family life on the same basis as our heterosexual brothers and sisters.

Far from being radical, or disruptive, the aspiration to same-sex marriage is arguably traditionalist and pro-family in its fundamental orientation.

As one woman remarked to me during the Republic's marriage referendum campaign: "Sure, I've been married myself for 50 years. I could hardly vote against it."

Extending marriage to same-sex couples sends a profound and important message of acceptance and inclusion to LGBT people. In practical terms, however, the impact on the day-to-day lives of heterosexual people is modest to negligible.

In the Republic, opposite-sex marriages overwhelmingly outnumber same-sex marriages. Bridal magazines still overflow with blushing brides. Hen and stag parties march on undaunted. Churches continue unfettered in their practices of faith. Life proceeds as normal.

But there is a little more hope - and a little more love. In these uncertain, anxious times, that can hardly be a bad thing.

Dr Fergus Ryan is a lecturer in law at Maynooth University

Belfast Telegraph

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