Marriage equality has been a point of contention on the north for some time now. Legalised in England and Wales through an Act in Westminster in 2013, in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament in 2014, and in Ireland following a resounding victory in the 2015 referendum, the north is now the only part of either Ireland or the UK where marriage equality is not recognised in the law of the land.
This absence of recognition can be explained in three letters: DUP. On five occasions, bills have been introduced to the Stormont Parliament providing for legal recognition of marriage equality. Indeed, northern Green Party leader Steven Agnew along with two Sinn Féin MLAs introduced a Private Members Bill on the subject as far back as September 2012. Support has been consistent from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, and the Green Party; however, none of the five attempts to introduce it through Stormont have succeeded. The first four lost votes on the floor; the last attempt was supported by a majority of MLAs, but was blocked by a Petition of Concern from the DUP.
The use of the petition of concern on this issue has been a source of controversy. Included in the Good Friday Agreement in order to ensure neither unionist nor nationalist MLAs could legislate to favour their own community, the rule stipulates that if at least 30 MLAs sign a petition of concern on a Bill, it can only pass with cross community support: 60% of MLAs, including at least 40% from each of the nationalist and unionist communities. The DUP’s use of the petition of concern over marriage equality has been seen by some as an abuse of the process, since marriage equality would not favour either community.
In the recent negotiations to re-establish the Executive, Sinn Féin had stated that marriage equality would be one of the core issues. In the final deal, subsequently rejected by the DUP, it was notable that no agreement had been reached on the subject, although the DUP no longer have enough MLAs to trigger a petition of concern without additional support.
Now, UK Labour MP Conor McGinn, originally from South Armagh, will today introduce a Private Members Bill in Westminster, to legislate for marriage equality in the north.
This has been seen in some quarters as a defeat for the DUP, and of their own making. Had they not reneged on their agreement with Sinn Féin, they could have continued to block the introduction of marriage equality through Stormont had they attracted just two additional unionists in opposition. This would not be an insurmountable barrier, with the TUV’s Jim Allister almost certain to be one, and only four UUP MLAs voting in favour of marriage equality on the previous occasion. Instead, by breaking up the talks process and calling for direct rule, they left themselves open to the possibility of direct rule in opposition to their policies.
Secretary of State Karen Bradley hinted at the possibility when this was first raised. In response to a parliamentary question from Conor McGinn, she replied:
“In accordance with the Belfast Agreement, this is a devolved matter which should be addressed in the NI Assembly; but the power of the Westminster Parliament to legislate remains unaffected.
Source: Irish News
Many read this response as “We can’t do it, but bring it on”. McGinn announced his Private Members Bill just a few days later.
In one sense, this is clearly a loss for the DUP. Their opposition to marriage equality has been strong and steadfast, even as unionist support for the measure grows; to have it introduced at all is a defeat for them, and to have it introduced as a direct result of their own political posturing must in some way be galling for them.
However, it is also a win for them. They called for direct rule; and even if they don’t like the results, they would be getting direct rule. Nationalist support for the measure, which would be universal, would be used as a legitimisation of direct rule from Westminster.
It also lets them off the hook. A poll as far back as 2015 showed overwhelming support for marriage equality in the north, including a majority 57% support amongst unionists. The DUP policy on the issue is clearly out of step with their community and voters. By introducing the measure through Westminster, the opportunity for unionists to force the DUP policy to match the community’s views has been lost.
This is symptomatic of the main issue with politics in the north. It almost doesn’t matter what the DUP or Sinn Féin’s policies are; as long as they represent Orange and Green, they’ll take the majority of votes from their own communities, regardless of how out of step they are with public views on particular issues. The DUP are significantly more conservative than their community, but are not called out on it, because they are the defenders of the union. By letting the DUP off on this issue, the unionist community has lost a significant opportunity to force the DUP to better represent them.
However, this issue is too important to play politics with. The missed opportunity to start normalising politics should not be used to hold up an issue of fundamental rights. Regardless of how marriage equality is achieved, its introduction is long overdue and will be welcomed by the majority of both communities in the north.
If McGinn’s bill passes, the LGBT+ community will win. Both communities in general will win. The DUP will lose – and they will also win. But that’s not a reason not to do it.