The past, present and future of the Marriage Equality campaign in Northern Ireland
On the afternoon of the 17th August 2017, the campaign for equal civil marriage equality in Northern Ireland was dealt another devastating blow. Two separate cases were brought to the Belfast High court by couples whose only wish was to have their love recognised as equal to their peers – both were unceremoniously rejected when Justice O’Hara claimed that current law compelled him to rest this issue firmly at the hands of our currently dysfunctional local assembly. What a mess!
This is not the first time that the Queer community’s campaign for equality has been frustrated at the hands of our oppressors. In the 70’s they were led by the late Ian Paisley, the Free Presbyterian Church and the DUP with “Save Ulster from Sodomy”, a campaign group created to oppose decriminalisation of homosexual acts- they were later defeated in the European courts.
They attempted to erode our employment rights in 2003 and the provision of goods & services in 2007 and they lost. DUP MLA Edwin Poots squandered thousands of pounds of public money in the courts, fighting to keep a permanent ban on MSM blood donations – Edwin Poots lost. His colleague Paul Given MLA attempted to legalise anti-LGBT discrimination on the grounds of religious belief with the proposed “conscience clause”- he lost. Every time that they have sought to marginalise and demoralise us, they have failed.
On marriage, The Green Party was the very first party to come out in support of marriage equality in Northern Ireland. Our leader, Steven Agnew, made the then most unpopular choice imaginable in politics and stood up for what he believed in regardless of political capital. Now, years later, his leadership has paid off with every other party in Northern Ireland stumbling over themselves to follow the lead of the Green Party in recognising that we are all equal & deserve equal rights under the law.
All of this came to a head when in 2015, on the fifth time that our devolved assembly voted on the issue of marriage equality, we received a majority in the house for the very first time. Years of campaigning from sector groups, civic society and political parties almost paid off, but was shot down by the undemocratic abuse of the Petition of Concern* by the DUP. The Petition of Concern was designed to protect minority rights – in this instance it had been used in the very opposite manner.
So what’s next?
Before the recent collapse of the Assembly, the Green Party, along with the SDLP, Sinn Fein & Alliance were working together on a marriage equality bill. This cross-community consensus and collaboration had not been seen in Northern Irish politics since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Marriage equality had emerged as an issue which transcended all supposed sectarian boundaries and an issue which truly united, rather than divided people, a rare occurrence in Northern Irish politics.
The subsequent election which returned 18 less MLA’s to the assembly (due to electoral changes) saw those who would oppose equality lose out the most. Clare Bailey’s election ensured that no party would have the 30 members required to trigger a Petition of Concern on their own. This meant that for the very first time, marriage equality through the assembly is a reality once devolution is restored.
Every battle that we have fought against our oppressors, we have won and every campaign that we have mounted has succeeded. Our strength lies in the sheer determination and the unquestionable perseverance of a community who, when faced with the most insurmountable of odds, organises and unifies around a purpose and fights for the belief that we are equal members of our society, that our rights are inalienable, that our rights are ours and that we will never give up fighting for them.
To conclude, I would ask that you please support the Northern Ireland Marriage Equality Fund (NIMEF)- this will help pay for the court fees of the couples who brought the two cases to the high court. https://localgiving.org/silc
*Petition of Concern is a mechanism by which 30 members of either designation in the assembly (Nationalist or Unionist) could effectively veto any piece of legislation that they felt threatened their community, however rules around it’s use are so lax that it has been used to discriminate against minority groups instead of protecting them, DUP were only party pre-2017 election with over 30 seats so could use this mechanism any time they liked, now they have 28 and cannot use by themselves, making prospect of getting Marriage through assembly a lot more likely