Belfast Telegraph

Same-sex marriage for Northern Ireland could be delayed until 2020 after Lords amendments

A mural in support of same sex marriage on the Falls Road in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)
A mural in support of same sex marriage on the Falls Road in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

Revised proposals have been agreed to ensure that MP-backed moves to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland can be introduced.

Peers heard the aim of the amendments was to "improve and extend the drafting" of the changes to legislation overwhelming approved by the Commons, which had "technical problems".

However, it means same-sex marriage will not come into force until the new year, to allow for the necessary changes to be introduced.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill seeks to again push back reintroducing a law placing a legal duty on Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to call a fresh assembly election.

This was designed to give the Stormont parties more time to resolve the long-running deadlock in the province and restore the powersharing executive, two-and-a-half years after it collapsed.

However, during consideration in the Commons, MPs agreed a series of changes to the legislation, including liberalising access to abortion as well as same-sex marriage.

Gay marriage is illegal in Northern Ireland, while abortions are only allowed in cases where a woman's life is at risk or if there is a danger of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Introducing the revised amendment, Tory peer Lord Hayward, who founded the Kings Cross Steelers gay rugby club, said: "This will enable the Secretary of State to deliver a comprehensive and effective regime of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

"The amendments would also allow the Secretary of State to introduce opposite sex civil partnerships in Northern Ireland.

"This will ensure that all couples in Northern Ireland irrespective of their sexual orientation will have equal rights to enter the form of relationship of their choice."

DUP's Lord Morrow
DUP's Lord Morrow

The original Commons amendment tabled by Labour's Conor McGinn was to legalise same-sex marriage if a new Stormont executive is not formed by October.

However, under Lord Hayward's amendment the relevant regulations would not come into force until January 13, 2020.

He said: "Pushing back the commencement date for these regulations will allow the Government and the Northern Ireland civil service more time to make the necessary changes to legislation as well mas the essential operational changes.

"Any less time than this would, I understand, jeopardise government's ability to extend the full set of rights and entitlements to both same-sex married couples and opposite sex civil partnerships."

Lord Hayward also said the amendment contained a measure to protect religious organisations and their representatives from legal challenge if they do not wish to marry same sex couples.

He said: "The world is changing. The same-sex marriage act in this country faced substantial opposition. It's now accepted as a part of life a few years on."

However, the Democratic Unionist Party took issue with the wording of the legislation around religious safeguards, with the Bill stating the Secretary of State "may" make regulations when it came to protections.

The party's peers proposed this was changed to "must", stressing the importance of "religious liberty".

Pressing for the wording to be strengthened around religious protections, DUP peer Lord Morrow said a change he proposed "would make it mandatory rather than discretionary for the Government to use their order making power to protect religious liberty".

He said: "We must make sure the religious liberties of Northern Ireland are definitely protected. That there is no room for ambiguity.

"Protection of religion or belief should not be left as a maybe."

During the Bill's report stage, Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Tebbit branded the legislation as a "dog's dinner that no reasonable dog would look at".

His criticism stemmed from the series of changes made to the Bill, unconnected to its original aim.

"When Parliament gave devolved rule to the people of Northern Ireland, that was a clear act.

"Now we are saying if you are not using it we are going to take it back and use it for you."

He added: "In all my experience, when legislation is as complex and muddled as this legislation is, it is fatally flawed."

Lord Hayward's amendment, which had cross-party backing, was approved by peers without a vote.

Labour's leader in the Lords Baroness Smith of Basildon, backing the change, hailed it as a "victory for commonsense and a victory for love".

Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank assured faith-based groups in the province that they wouldn't be compelled to act against their faith, religion or opinion.

Lord Duncan said he did not have any concerns with the amendment as now drafted. The dates for implementation would be a challenge but, he added: "It is a challenge we will meet. We will meet those deadlines by hook or by crook."

Ministers were looking at an "opt-in process" where people would not be compelled to act against their faith or strongly held beliefs.

"I wish this had been done in Stormont but it needs to be done and we are acting on the clear instruction from the Commons," he said.

After rejecting Lord Morrow's amendment, peers moved on to liberalising access to abortion, as Liberal Democrat Baroness Barker introduced an amendment which, she said, would ensure women were no longer criminalised for having an abortion in Northern Ireland.

Lady Barker said those who had fought long and hard for change were fearful that demands for consultation on the issue might be used to "frustrate the will" of MPs and said her amendment would not allow for the proposals to be "dragged out".

But Lord Duncan said consultation would not be about "whether this should be done", and only on how the recommendations could be implemented, complying fully with human rights obligations.

"Any consultation would not be about restricting abortion. It will be about how, in practical terms, to establish a new regulatory regime that fully delivers on the recommendations."

He assured peers that the health and wellbeing of women would be paramount.

Former Liberal leader Lord Steel of Aikwood, who piloted the 1967 Abortion Act through Parliament, paid tribute to women MPs behind the move and said Northern Ireland currently stood out quite distinctly from the UK and the rest of Europe over abortion law.

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