Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Demanding same-sex marriage laws before returning to Stormont is just another stalling tactic by Sinn Fein

The republican party doesn't want to revive devolved government. Its actual aim is to achieve a border poll, argues Eilis O'Hanlon

Protesters at a rally calling for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland
Protesters at a rally calling for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Michelle O’Neill announcing that Sinn Fein won’t go back into government until same-sex marriage is introduced in Northern Ireland is reminiscent of the scene in Casablanca where the police chief blows his whistle to shut down Rick’s cafe, saying: “I’m shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on here.”

Immediately a man runs up to him and passes over a handful of money with the words: “Your winnings, sir.”

“Oh, thank you very much,” replies the policeman, pocketing the cash.

That’s Sinn Fein’s position in a nutshell. The party’s deputy leader is now pretending to be shocked, shocked at discovering that same-sex marriage is not on the statute book in Northern Ireland.

Sure, they would never have gone into the Executive at all if they’d known this was the case. Why did no one tell them? Instead, the poor dears have been forced, year after year, to keep pocketing salaries and expenses as MLAs and ministers while gay people were denied the right to equal marriage.

From anyone else the hypocrisy would be staggering. From Sinn Fein, it’s just another day at the office. Heaven knows what Michelle O’Neill (bottom)  will say when she finally finds out where Martin McGuinness’s fellow “Chuckle Brother” Ian Paisley, alongside whom the proud IRA volunteer lorded it up happily as Deputy First Minister, stood on gay rights.

That Sinn Fein now supports equal marriage, despite being happy to put it on the back-burner for years, is not in question. Support for a change in the law was in the party’s Assembly election manifestos for 2016 and 2017. What wasn’t there was any threat that the introduction of same-sex marriage was a pre-condition of taking seats in Stormont. In fact, as recently as April leader Mary Lou McDonald was insisting only that the issue must be dealt with as part of the ongoing and interminable “process” of inter-party talks.

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“We are ready for a dialogue, we are ready for solutions, for answers and for resolutions,” the Dublin woman declared with her usual propensity for never using one word where an avalanche of slogans will do. 

Suddenly it’s a red line?

They must think we were born yesterday.

Michelle O’Neill’s insistence that she won’t now agree to any restoration of power-sharing without a guarantee that same-sex marriage will be introduced in Northern Ireland was made during a debate at the Belfast Pride Festival over the weekend.

It could be that being made “Politician of the Year” at this year’s Pride Awards went to her head. Whatever the reason, demanding that Westminster must legislate on the issue before progress can be made is ludicrous.

As good republicans, it would be perfectly reasonable to argue that the petition of concern be taken out of the arsenal of parties at Stormont so that MLAs can have their say in a free vote on important matters. The Ulster Unionists have made clear that they’d support such a move. Alliance also believes the best long-term solution is for these issues to be dealt with by Stormont.

Sinn Fein could even have called for a referendum to break the logjam, following in the footsteps of the Irish Republic, which in 2016 became the first country in the world to legislate for same-sex marriage by popular mandate, a hugely symbolic moment that would, fingers crossed, be repeated in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein, though, seems to have decided that “an phobail” must not be allowed a say. We can have a border poll, but not one on same-sex marriage. Instead, they want Boris to do it for them from Downing Street.

That shows republicans’ true priorities, and they were on full display again yesterday as Mary Lou McDonald insisted the only way out of the Brexit impasse was for the British Government to trigger a referendum on Irish unity in the event of no-deal.

The number of things which Sinn Fein is calling on the old enemy to legislate for grows longer by the day. It’s a wonder they ever wanted out of the UK at all. British rule seems to be their answer to every problem.

Surely it’s becoming undeniable by now that republicans don’t want to revive Stormont at all? They’re back in that giddy post-June 2016 mood when they thought Brexit would bring a united Ireland as surely as night follows day, and promptly collapsed Stormont within months in the hope of helping the situation along, using the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal (remember that?) as a convenient excuse. Now they’re sniffing opportunities for a disorderly hard Brexit at Halloween and thinking that maybe, just maybe, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on their side, they can push for unity once again. It’s hardly a coincidence that Mary Lou also used the event to call, less than helpfully, for the Irish Government to appoint a minister tasked with preparing for Irish unity.

Making the introduction of same-sex marriage a precondition for going back to Stormont is another cynical manoeuvre of the same type. If Sinn Fein can make these demands, why shouldn’t other parties also set down new red lines? On the one hand it criticises the British Prime Minister for laying down the law to Brussels by insisting that the backstop has to go before there can be a resumption of talks on the withdrawal agreement, then does exactly the same thing here.

How can talks lead anywhere when parties hijack them like this for their own particular hobby horses? It used to be an Irish Language Act. Now this. Tomorrow, who knows?

By the end of September it could be that Westminster will have legislated for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, thereby cutting the ground from under this latest delaying tactic. In the meantime, we’re supposed to go along with the charade that this has anything to do with equal rights. One can only wonder once again who’s really pulling the strings of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill.

In Casablanca, the police chief isn’t his own man. He only shuts down Rick’s cafe when the Gestapo is angered by locals defiantly singing the anthem of the Free French.

It seems that our own local tin-pot dictators are equally outraged they can’t get their way on everything, and are doing their damnedest to whistle us into line as well.

The republican movement would gladly throw every gay person in Northern Ireland under a bus if it got them their precious 32 county socialist republic in return. They let their own hunger strikers die for political gain. They’re hardly going to lose sleep over sacrificing Pride marchers for the cause.

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