Belfast Telegraph

Lyra McKee wasn’t here to share Sara's joy over same-sex marriage vote - 'it was bittersweet’

Sara Canning has welcomed Westminster vote on same-sex marriage
Sara Canning has welcomed Westminster vote on same-sex marriage
Lyra McKee

By Gillian Halliday

The partner of murdered journalist Lyra McKee has called on Northern Ireland politicians not to undermine the landmark Westminster vote on same-sex marriage.

Sara Canning said the decision, compelling the government to change the law if devolution is not restored by late October, was bittersweet, as Lyra was not alive to see it happen.

On Tuesday, MPs voted overwhelmingly by 383 to 73 in favour of bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.

MPs also backed an amendment to extend access to abortion here. Both votes require Westminster to act if a new Stormont Executive is not formed by October 21.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, 35-year-old Ms Canning pleaded for the "hard-won" right to same-sex marriage not to be used as a "bargaining chip" in the ongoing talks to restore the devolved institutions.

"Here we are at a time when we're starting to see Northern Ireland have equal rights with the rest of the UK and the Republic," she said.

"We've been dragged - some of us kicking and screaming - into the 21st century. Let's stay here."

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Ms Canning, from Londonderry, described the vote as "joyous" for the LGBT community here, but stressed some uncertainty still remains.

"We all recognise that it is a watershed moment in our lives as LGBT people who have grown up and watched the rest of the UK and the Republic be handed rights that were still being denied here," she added.

"Lots of us were celebratory but cautious. I think that is an overall feeling for a lot of people. We have this three-month period and nothing changes until then."

Ms Canning, who works in the health service as a phlebotomist - someone trained to draw blood from a patient - revealed on a personal level that it was a "bittersweet" moment as her partner wasn't there to share in the joy.

Ms McKee, a 29-year-old journalist and author, was shot dead by dissident republicans as she observed street rioting in Derry on April 18.

The couple had been planning to get engaged during a holiday to New York just weeks later.

Ms Canning insisted Lyra would have "100%" welcomed Westminster's intervention on the matter.

"I know Lyra would be dragging me to a wedding planner today to pick a date," she added.

Ms Canning was at home with a friend when she learned the news that MPs had voted in favour of extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.

"I was standing in the kitchen looking at Twitter and looking at Facebook and looking at tweets, frantically refreshing," she added.

"I just started screaming, 'It's passed, it's passed'. And then we both started crying because it was something that Lyra had been really excited about, the idea of equal marriage. And now Lyra wasn't here to share in that, in how joyous a moment it was for people and how it would have been for both of us. It was really hard. It was bittersweet.

"I always said it would come from Westminster."

The decision has sparked criticism from DUP members, including Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who described the votes to legalise same-sex marriage and liberalise abortion law as "in breach" of devolution.

The Presbyterian Church's Clerk of the General Assembly, Rev Trevor Gribben, said that his Church's position "is that the laws on these sensitive issues should not be changed" and also expressed disappointment that "parliamentary process has been used to bypass the devolution settlement agreed over 20 years ago".

Despite the backlash, Ms Canning said the milestone is still a cause for celebration, revealing she took to the streets in her home city with her friends in a 'rainbow cavalcade' complete with Pride flags and music.

"We were cheering, going crazy because that's for now. That's us being conservative, possibly, and should we get to that date in October and we don't have a government, we can actually celebrate properly then," she said.

Ms Canning said waiting for what local parties will do next is a daunting prospect for the LBGT community and its allies.

"If devolution is restored we are looking at those rights being rescinded. Every time they come back to the table there is a checklist," she continued.

"We're part of the UK, we pay our taxes. We should have parity with the rest of the UK and it's an absolute disgrace that we don't.

"I think the DUP might dangle the Irish Language Act as some kind of bait. Sinn Fein have dropped LGBT rights in the past - despite the fact that a lot of the LGBT community are Sinn Fein supporters and activists.

"We're are very cognisant of that fact. We've even been pushed under the bus a couple of times. We've been pushed aside in favour of an act that whilst it is important, it's not stopping people from learning Irish, from speaking Irish.

"Both parties are equally to blame for the fact that they use one right to trump another. I find that a bit distasteful. There's no one losing in this situation. LGBT people having marriage rights doesn't undermine the sanctity of marriage."

Ms Canning said her wish is that same-sex marriage comes into force sooner rather than later. "I hope this time next year I'm buying a couple of hats for good friends who have been waiting for same-sex marriage to be introduced here," she added.

"Lyra would be 100% pulling for politicians to act with level, cool heads, but definitely not to undermine the rights that have been hard fought for and won."

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