The High Court has ruled against recognising equal marriage in Northern Ireland.
Belfast’s High Court issued a long-awaited ruling today on lawsuits seeking equal marriage in the region, which is the only part of the UK that does not permit or recognise marriages between people of the same sex.
One of the two cases was brought by an anonymous Northern Irish couple who entered a same-sex marriage in England.
Under Northern Irish law, the region treats same-sex marriages from elsewhere as if they are civil partnerships, but the couple argued this violated their human rights.
In the High Court today, Mr Justice O’Hara rejected their challenge.
The judge held that there were no grounds to conclude under case law from the European Court of Human Rights that the couple’s rights have been violated by the refusal to recognise their marriage as a marriage.
The judge explained: “It is not at all difficult to understand how gay men and lesbians who have suffered discrimination, rejection and exclusion feel so strongly about the maintenance in Northern Ireland of the barrier to same sex marriage.
“However, the judgment which I have to reach is not based on social policy but on the law.”
Progress on the issue has been stalled for many years.
Though a majority of Northern Ireland Assembly Members voted for equal marriage in 2015, the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party employed ‘petitions of concern’ to veto all legislation on the issue.
The DUP has vowed to continue employing its veto. To further hinder progress, the Assembly is not currently functioning due to the collapse of power-sharing.
The Judge acknowledged: “To the frustration of supporters of same sex marriage the Assembly has not yet passed into law any measure to recognise and introduce same sex marriage.
“Their frustration is increased by the fact that the Assembly has voted by a majority in favour of same sex marriage, but by reason of special voting arrangements which reflect the troubled past of this State, that majority has not been sufficient to give the vote effect in law.”
In a statement issued by their solicitor, Ciaran Moynagh, the couple in the case said: “We want our vows to be recognised in Northern Ireland because the traditional values associated with marriage are important to us.
“Of course, we are disappointed by today’s ruling.
“What it shows is that more work needs to be done to explain a truth that, to us, is self-evident; the love two men or two women share is never a threat to society – in fact the world could do with a little more love today.
“Today we are calling on the mums, dads, siblings and friends of LGBT+ people to no longer remain on the side lines. Speak, write or tweet to our political leaders reminding them that the majority of people in Northern Ireland support same sex marriage”
“Our fight to have our love recognised continues and we will discuss our options with our legal team.”
Ciaran Moynagh said: “We sighed when the ruling was read out not through disappointment but simply because the inevitable recognition of same sex marriage has been further delayed in Northern Ireland. The work will continue, the wind is to our back.”
Speaking after the judgment, Director of The Rainbow Project John O’Doherty said: “Of course we are bitterly disappointed for our clients who just wanted to be treated the same as everyone else.
“They were lawfully married in England and all they sought was recognition of their marriage at home in Northern Ireland.
“Today, the court was unwilling to grant them this simple recognition of their lawful marriage. We know that this decision will be very disappointing for our clients and we thank them for their courage in seeking this declaration, not only for themselves, but for every LGBT person in Northern Ireland.”
Mr O’Doherty added: “However, the battle for marriage equality in Northern Ireland continues and although we will study the judgment and consult with our clients and legal team about the prospects of a successful appeal, this judgment makes clear that it is the ultimate responsibility of legislators to protect the marriage rights of LGBT people.
“Of course, we would prefer that the Northern Ireland Assembly were in a position to grant these rights; the Assembly is not currently functioning.
“It is, therefore, the responsibility of Theresa May’s government to make the necessary amendments to the marriage legislation to make it applicable in Northern Ireland.
“The eyes of LGBT people around the world will now be on Theresa May. She says that she has changed her mind on LGBT equality over her years in Parliament. Now is her chance to prove it.”
Clare Moore of Love Equality added: “While today’s judgments are disappointing our campaign for full legal recognition of same sex couples in Northern Ireland will not end until we have achieved our goal.”
“While the law has changed throughout these islands the Northern Ireland Assembly has continuously failed to follow the will of the people and of the majority of assembly members in Northern Ireland.”
“During this period of political instability it is now imperative that the Westminster government takes immediate action to ensure that the rights of LGBT people in United Kingdom are available for all UK citizens.”
A second case, from a couple seeking to challenge the Assembly on the issue was also rejected.
Declan Meehan of Love Equality said: “We are hugely disappointed by today’s rulings. We would like to thank the couples who brought forward these cases for their bravery and leadership.
“We hope that those engaged in these cases will appeal these decisions and offer our support and thanks.”
Grainne Teggart of the Love Equality campaign said: “Despite this disappointing outcome, we will continue to campaign until same-sex couples are afforded an equal chance at civil marriage.
“The current laws in Northern Ireland preventing this are discriminatory, and belong in the past. It is unacceptable that same sex couples can marry in the rest of the UK, but not in Northern Ireland.
“We know that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to live in a country where unequal laws are consigned to the history books. It’s time politicians reflected the will of the people and urgently legislate for equality.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently expressed her personal support for same-sex marriage, in an exclusive column for PinkNews.
Writing for PinkNews, Mrs May affirmed: “I want all British citizens to enjoy the fullest freedoms and protections. That includes equal marriage – because marriage should be for everyone, regardless of their sexuality.
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“And while that is a matter for the devolved government of Northern Ireland, I will continue to make my position clear – that LGBT+ people in Northern Ireland should have the same rights as people across the rest of the UK.”
The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster recently reaffirmed plans to continue using peace process powers to override the Northern Irish Assembly and block equal marriage.
She defended her actions by insisting gay people don’t really want to get married anyway.
She said: “This suggestion that every single person who’s a homosexual wants to change the definition of marriage is actually wrong.
“I know plenty of people in that community who don’t want to see marriage redefined and are quite content to live in partnership… it’s all become a bit of a storm in a teacup.”
Foster also branded the campaign for equal marriage “toxic” – for suggesting she has homophobic views.
She said: “[The] most frustrating thing about this whole debate is the fact that if you stand up for marriage and if you stand up for the definition of marriage as we believe in it, then in some way that makes you homophobic and a hater of gays.
“Nothing could be further from the truth as far as I personally am concerned and it really does hurt me when people call me a homophobe just because I stand up for the definition of marriage which I believe in and I think this debate has become very toxic.”
A senior DUP minister previously branded LGBT Pride events “totally repugnant”.