Despite last week’s equal marriage defeat in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in a comment piece for PinkNews.co.uk, Gary Spedding says there are reasons to be optimistic when it comes to securing LGBT equality in Northern Ireland.

Monday, 1 October 2012 was a day of many firsts for Northern Ireland especially in relation to LGBT rights and basic equality. A debate took place in the Northern Ireland Assembly, prompted by a motion on marriage equality, which was pushed to the chamber floor having been tabled by Green Party leader Steven Agnew.

With such an amazing push for marriage equality in this tiny corner of the United Kingdom finally underway spirits were high with the motion itself being strongly welcomed by the Equal Marriage Northern Ireland campaign.

The debate itself lasted for an hour and a half in the chamber with numerous MLAs speaking in favour and against, during what was a hotly worded and robust exchange of points. Several highly outspoken individuals gave excellent support for marriage equality based on civil and human rights points.

Worthy of note was Basil McCrea’s keynote speech, the only Unionist MLA to bravely speak up for the LGBT community on this issue.

“I want to live in an open, tolerant and pluralist society that celebrates diversity, accommodates difference and protects individuals who happen to be different,” Mr McCrea said.

Unfortunately despite highly articulate arguments from Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party, the motion itself fell as a result of a majority of unionist MLAs who voted against the adoption of the policy. Despite the inclusion of robust protections for religious institutions to conduct their own affairs various MLAs cited their deep personal religious convictions as reason enough to oppose the motion with some even citing their involvement with church institutions during the debate. This brings into question the ability of some MLAs to recognise the secular nature of British democracy.

Despite various MLAs requesting that those who make speeches moderate their language, TUV MLA Jim Allister dived straight into opposing the motion to the delight of the DUP as he said that he didn’t view this as “an issue of equality” but rather he saw it as “an issue of the perversion of marriage,” he went on to describe that: “Historically, for a very good reason, marriage has long been defined as the union of one man and one woman”.

LGBT rights campaigners who had gathered at Stormont for a demonstration in support of marriage equality earlier in the day were outraged by some of the statements from politicians who supposedly take equality seriously. Their frustrations were also prolonged by a delay on the vote – the assembly held it back until after other set business had been concluded.

The DUP MLAs as a block entirely opposed the motion with Michelle McIlveen not only claiming that: “It is simply a myth that this is an equality issue, as equality already exists.” But also contradicting herself as she suggested that “everyone is free to choose to marry” but later clarified “provided they marry someone who is of the opposite sex” which actually epitomises the ideology of inequality that exists within the DUP.

Many media outlets including PinkNews.co.uk broke news of a “defeat” for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, however I would say that the voting record coupled with the fact that numerous elected representatives utilised the platform of the assembly floor to speak out in favour of equal marriage provided, what I must honestly say, is an inspiring and empowering beginning to a challenging campaign which must begin to change hearts and minds towards what marriage equality actually entails.

Having been present at Stormont for the day I witnessed a very close outcome especially when you consider those opposed to legislating for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, namely the Democratic Unionist Party, felt the need to misuse a petition of concern which in my view shows us that politicians opposed to full equal marriage legislation were fearful of this motion passing.

For those unfamiliar with Northern Irish politics a petition of concern is essentially a veto on policy and legislation that was originally designed to protect minorities. In terms of the division that exists in Northern Ireland between nationalist and unionist communities the main stipulation is that a 40% of the nationalist and unionist groupings must have agreement in the assembly by voting in favour of the motion for it to pass.

Effectively this means that, provided enough representatives (30 MLAs) from a given community come together to apply a petition of concern and oppose the motion they attach it to, then said legislation will never be carried forward at legislative level.

Steven Agnew adeptly criticised the DUP, who with 36 MLAs have the power to wield a veto all on their own, as he tweeted that their attachment of the petition of concern in regard to the marriage equality motion was a use of: “Legislation designed to protect minorities being used to prevent the passing of a motion to enhance minority rights.”

Analysing the rejection of this motion further I think we can say that this remains a historic moment signalling the change that inevitably will come as, despite a defeat of the motion itself, we have now successfully held the first debate over LGBT equality of its kind to ever be held in a devolved assembly here in Northern Ireland and what’s more a substantial number voted for the motion.

Breaking down the results we can see just how close the vote came with 45 out of 95 (47.4%) of MLAs who took part voting in favour of the motion. If we take into account that several MLAs who are likely to have given a yes vote were regrettably not present it is feasible to estimate that the vote could have come in at 51 in favour and 50 against.

Given how close the vote was I feel that the direction of the Northern Ireland assembly should be to push the issue further in a persuasive manner that follows ideas presented by Basil McCrea who has worked tirelessly to persuade his peers to support full and equal civil marriage for same-sex couples.

Gary Spedding is a freelance Journalist. Views expressed in this article are his own and not that of PinkNews.co.uk