Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Gary Spedding speculates on the possible legal problems faced by Northern Ireland unless it begins the processes to allow equal marriage.
With same-sex marriage now a reality in England and Wales, many LGBT people in other parts of the United Kingdom hold concerns that British Citizens are to be unequal before the law in different jurisdictions of the same country. Northern Ireland must us this opportunity to approve an equal marriage bill very soon or risk an inevitable, lengthy and costly legal challenge in the courts.
Just over a year ago, on 5 July 2012 a public gathering at the Queen’s University in Belfast brought together supporters seeking the extension of full same-sex marriage rights to the people of Northern Ireland. Today frustration is building, campaigners and politicians alike have witnessed three opportunities for the assembly to legislate for same-sex marriage destroyed by the Democratic Unionist Party.
Now it appears as though Northern Ireland will be the last part of the United Kingdom, a sort of feral outpost if you like, where discrimination against LGBT people lingers on, institutionalised, in laws that not only impede normalisation of same-sex relationships but degrade marriages recognised in England and Wales. The realization that a two tiered (Civil Partnership – Civil Marriage) system is now in place hits at the heart of LGBT communities who don’t want their location or postcode to determine whether they are equals in UK society.
Intolerance, even outright hatred, towards LGBT people in Northern Ireland is, unfortunately, a normalised discourse and homophobic language common place in speeches by political and community leaders. Worse still, the party currently holding most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly continues to push a well-documented and virulently homophobic agenda. For years, ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ dominated DUP discourse and the party still permits its politicians to utilise abhorrent, denigrating language towards the LGBT community.
Considering the type of society in Northern Ireland – polarised extremes where religious groups hold disproportionate influence, permeating anti-gay doctrines among easily influenced people – a new concerted effort that takes the unique nuances of our political climate into account, is needed if we are to deal with the wider issues plaguing Northern Irish attitudes toward LGBT people.
It isn’t a simple case of setting out where next for Equal Marriage in Northern Ireland – if we cannot pull together as a society then our politicians will keep on failing in their obligations to deal with the fallout from harmful and cruel remarks towards LGBT people. Of course homophobia has extensive and multiple effects of which the worst is definitely the severe damage to the mental health of vulnerable young people, leading on to self-harm and even suicide. We are pushing for more than just same-sex civil marriage – this is about encouraging Northern Irish society to not only accept LGBT people but treat us as equally as human beings in every sense of the word.
This is one of the reasons why when I founded the Equal Marriage Northern Ireland campaign I stressed that a key focus must be upon turning negativity into positives. Indeed, almost immediately after the campaign was launched, progressive political parties (Green Party, Alliance, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and some Unionists) came out for marriage, adopting policies based on robust external and internal consultation.
Where next for Marriage Equality is the question at hand and there have been many positive signs of change.
According to a recent survey published by the Northern Ireland Life & Times 57% of people in Northern Ireland believe that marriages between same-sex couples should be legally recognised, in the same way as opposite-sex marriages.
Unfortunately, because the DUP have the ability to abuse a petition of concern in the Northern Ireland Assembly – effectively a veto on any motion or private members bill – the likelihood is that a legal challenge will drag Northern Ireland kicking and screaming into the 21st century and marriage equality.
Because the legislation that passed through Westminster – gaining Royal assent from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on July 17 – includes an exemption that “Under the law of Northern Ireland, a marriage of a same sex couple under the law of England and Wales is to be treated as a civil partnership” and “accordingly, the spouses are to be treated as civil partners”, Northern Ireland may fall foul of obligations under international law. In essence States cannot discriminate with regards to the right to marry and found a family on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
If local same-sex couples are left with inferior rights to the rest of UK society because of the exemption and the continuation of the 2003 Marriage Order, then UK authorities could be held culpable in deliberate discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender.
Politicians must put forward our own version of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for Northern Ireland otherwise they risk a court case because of the inferior and discriminatory treatment towards same-sex couples with regards to the right to marry and found a family.
The road to equal marriage in Northern Ireland is going to be a long, hard slog. Ironically, the first UK city to host a gay civil partnership ceremony back in 2005 was Belfast and now it seems will be the very last to witness a same-sex marriage.
Same-sex couples wanting to marry in Northern Ireland will take some solace and comfort in the knowledge that the rest of the UK, in particular PinkNews, isn’t going to abandon us just because they have won the struggle at their end. Campaigners will be particularly excited to discover that Benjamin Cohen has announced that Out4Marriage will pick up the fight in Northern Ireland and compliment local activism in this area. We have much to look forward to and things can only get better for the LGBT people of Northern Ireland.
The end result I hope for is that Northern Ireland will end up adopting a bill that incorporates consultation from wider society and which in the long-run delivers more than just equal marriage.
As with all comment pieces the views expressed do not necessary reflect those of PinkNews.co.uk