Michelle O’Neill, the Northern Ireland leader of Irish republican party Sinn Féin, has called for MPs in the UK Parliament to help bring through equal marriage.
Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK that continues to ban same-sex marriage, due to opposition from the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party.
Following the collapse of Northern Ireland’s devolved power-sharing government, campaigners on the region have said that responsibility for bringing about equal marriage now lies with the UK Parliament.
A Labour MP is introducing a Ten Minute Rule bill to the House of Commons this week, while a Tory peer is introducing parallel legislation in the Lords – after the UK government said it would not stand in the way of a push to bring forward equal marriage.
In an interview with PinkNews in Westminster, the leader of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly Michelle O’Neill gave her backing to the move – even though, as republicans, Sinn Féin do not typically recognise the authority of the UK Parliament over Northern Ireland.
Ms O’Neill told PinkNews: “We have no government in the North at the moment, we haven’t had for 14 months, and one of the issues that’s right at the heart of the political impasse is the fact that we weren’t able to secure marriage equality in the Assembly despite quite a number of attempts.
“I was very clear throughout the [recent power-sharing] negotiations that if I wasn’t able to secure it as a deal with the DUP, we would go an alternative route.”
She added: “Obviously, as an Irish republican, it does not sit easily with me that we would legislate here in Westminster – but we believe there is a way to do it, which is written into the Good Friday Agreement, which is a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with the two governments working together.
“The two governments have responsibility within the agreement for equality and rights, and for me this fits into that category.
“We are happy and content that this is a route that can hopefully lead to a positive outcome for our citizens who just want the same rights that people have elsewhere. It’s a very reasonable request.”
Of pursuing change through Westminster, she said: “It doesn’t sit easy with us at all, but sometimes you have to put the issues of people before your own views.
“We do believe that we don’t want to see carte blanche everything going through Westminster and imposed – but because we have the Intergovernmental Conference, because the two governments have co-responsibility for equality and for rights, that allows us a way for this to be delivered.
“If it goes through we would be delighted, because it’s something that shouldn’t be denied in this day and age.”
Addressing MPs ahead of the vote, she said: “I would implore them to support the legislation. People in the North should not be denied rights that they afford to all their own constituents.
“Across England, Scotland, Wales, and the South of Ireland, the LGBT community can enjoy marriage equality. It is disgraceful that people in the North of Ireland cannot get married, so I would ask them to support this legislation to show solidarity with the LGBT community who have been denied this right because of certain politicians with personal views.”
The equal marriage bills may be a headache for UK PM Theresa May, who is reliant on the DUP for votes – but Ms O’Neill said that resolving the issue separately from power-sharing talks may actually boost the likelihood of restoring devolution to Northern Ireland.
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She said: “Does it help restore the politics at home? Possibly in the longer-term yes, because these issues are the nub of the problem – marriage equality, Irish language rights, the Bill of Rrights.
“If you look at all of those issues, if those things are delivered through another route, then it perhaps paves the way for us to get back around the table and get an Executive back up and running again. I can’t see it having a negative impact.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Ms O’Neill gave her backing to reform of the Gender Recognition Act, and hit out at the “disgusting” practice of gay ‘cure’ therapy.
Conor McGinn, a Northern Ireland-born Labour MP, is bringing forward a Ten Minute Rule bill in the UK Parliament on the issue this week.
Writing for PinkNews earlier this month, he said: “If the Commons is in favour, as I expect it will be, the Government will have a moral and political duty to act and bring in legislation to end this discrimination once and for all.
“While I am confident we can secure a convincing majority in support of my bill in the Commons, the rights of LGBT people in Northern Ireland should not be delayed by a parliamentary process that can knock backbench bills like mine off course.
“It is vital the Government also gets behind this change and makes sure that we get legislation to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and Ireland on equal marriage.
“Every day that same-sex couples have to wait for this change is a day too long. They cannot and should not have to wait for the ongoing political impasse at Stormont to be resolved.”