Belfast Pride Parade, July 2013. Photo: Wikimedia 

For the first time ever a majority of MLAs at Stormont voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage yesterday. No change in the law will be enacted, however, as the DUP managed to pass a ‘petition of concern’, arguing that the proposal did not enjoy ‘cross-community support’.

Petitions of concern were put in place to ensure that all communities in Northern Ireland were having their voice heard. A successful petition of concern means that any motion being proposed at the Assembly has to be passed by a 60% majority, including 40% from each community, meaning that the 50.5% achieved in yesterday’s vote, whilst representing a majority of MLA’s, was insufficient to be carried into law.

Green Party NI leader Steven Agnew, who voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, expressed disappointment with the result, stating that this was the fifth time the DUP had used a petition of concern to block such a proposal. He criticised the DUP for misusing a device that is meant to protect minorities, stating that the proposal offered no threat to religious institutions, but sought to redress discrimination towards a ‘much maligned and disenfranchised community’. The party leader also stated that his party remain committed to equality.

Speaking to Bright Green, Mr Agnew said that he was delighted that same-sex marriage achieved majority approval for first time ever in the Assembly. Mr Agnew has worked to challenge misconceptions of what such a bill would actually mean in practice, and he believes that the support he received from the LGBTQ community because of his work was not unnoticed by other parties. The party leader said he was aware of several potential legal challenges being brought forward, and that if successful the courts will be “reflecting the democratic will of the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland”.

This is not the first time that concern has been raised about the use or attempted use of petitions of concern, particularly when Sinn Fein came under fire for attempting (unsuccessfully) to block a proposal to stop former prisoners with serious convictions from becoming political advisors at Stormont. With the SDLP refusing to back the petition of concern Sinn Fein on that occasion fell short of the 30 MLA-backing required for the petition, but with 38 MLA’s currently sitting, DUP have relatively little problem gaining the required amount.

DUP Chief Whip Peter Weir highlighted that this is only one out of five votes on same-sex marriage that had achieved a majority in favour, questioning why some MLA’s had changed their minds.

Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK left that does not recognise same-sex marriage.