London Notebook: No love lost in Commons over same-sex marriage
Published 29/05/2013 | 08:00
There can be advantages to being in a minority, as the 13 MPs from Northern Ireland who sit in the Commons know. The Speaker, John Bercow, is very keen on making sure a diverse range of voices are heard: women and men; small parties as well as large; Ulster, Scottish and Welsh voices, as well as English.
During two days of debate last week on the same-sex marriage Bill, Northern Ireland MPs took every opportunity to make their views very clear indeed.
Jeffrey Donaldson lectured the Commons on what marriage is. It is for everyone, he said, as long as they are heterosexuals.
Jim Shannon, who sat on the committee that examined the Bill in detail, was aghast at the lack of opposition from Labour.
He and his DUP colleagues, along with the SDLP and Lady Hermon, voted for amendments to protect registrars and teachers who have objections to gay marriage. They were heavily defeated.
Shannon claimed to be speaking for "millions" of Christians across the UK who fear a "chilling effect" in expressing their views.
He said 1,700 of his own constituents have contacted him to object to gay marriage.
"Members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, Methodists, Elim Pentacostal Church, Baptist Brethren, evangelical groups, Roman Catholics, Sikhs and Muslims" had been in touch. Who knew Strangford was so diverse?
Northern Ireland has already secured some notable opt-outs on this issue. The Assembly will decide if gay and lesbian couples will be able to get married in the province. Even marriages conducted lawfully in England and Wales won't be recongised.
In spite of the DUP's efforts, the Bill passed its third reading. As the final vote drew near, the euphoric mood was dampened by William McCrea's contribution.
"I know that, for some, this is a day for self-congratulation," he said. "Others in our society and our country are deeply wounded. Some suggest that we hold on to our traditional views of marriage because of culture, or tradition, but I do not believe that that is so.
"I believe the biblical definition of marriage... God gave it to us in his precious word."
This sort of language is unusual in the Commons. For the DUP, it summed up how the people of Northern Ireland feel.
One Labour MP asked me: "Why does no one in your part of the world back equality?"
I pointed out that the SDLP had voted for gay marriage and, if Sinn Fein took their seats, they would have voted for it, too. "Then why do only Catholics support gay rights?" she asked.
"It's complicated," was the best response I could come up with.