Is Northern Ireland still on track for marriage equality?
After three years of deadlock, the political parties of Northern Ireland have reached a deal that enables the power-sharing devolved government to resume functioning.
But what does this mean for marriage equality? It was only because of the political dysfunction that the UK Parliament was able to step in and extend marriage equality to Northern Ireland.
So far, there’s no indication that the resumption of devolved government presents any imminent threat to the marriage equality legislation that will enable LGBTQ people to get married from 14 February. Although there remains barriers to same-sex couples wishing to convert their Civil Partnership into Marriage.
It’s possible that the DUP could try and pass new legislation that would override the provisions put in place by the UK Parliament, but it’s highly unlikely that the DUP would have enough votes to pass such a measure.
What’s more likely is that the DUP and conservative religious groups will focus on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion provisions to create exemptions for businesses not wanting to deliver same-sex wedding services, and for schools who don’t want to teach children about the existence of LGBTQ people.
How did we get here?
One of the complexities of the UK, from a political and legal perspective, is that much of government and legislative powers is devolved to the national assemblies. That means that on some issues, you can have different laws in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
When it comes to LGBTQ equality, this is particularly apparent on the question of marriage equality.
Marriage is one of those areas of law that is devolved. Decisions about marriage are not made by the UK government on behalf of the entire country, but each national assembly has the power to make relevant decisions.
In 2013, the necessary legislation was passed to bring about marriage equality for England and Wales. Marriage equality legislation was also passed in Scotland in 2014. But when it comes to Northern Ireland, up until now, there has been no marriage equality.
However, as the clock passed midnight and 22 October began, Northern Ireland’s LGBTQ community finally got the same rights as everyone else in the UK – Marriage Equality became law.
It’s a victory for the LGBTQ community of Northern Ireland, and it’s one that they’ve spent years campaigning for. However, there is a sense of anti-climax with this victory. Unlike the referendum that was held in the Republic of Ireland, or the plebiscite of Australia, Northern Ireland adopted Marriage Equality by default. Because the devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland has been locked in a dysfunctional stalemate, there was no one that was able to vote for it or against it, it just happened.
How did change happen?
Although a new power-sharing deal has recently been struck, the Northern Ireland Assembly – the legislative body that governs Northern Ireland – has been suspended and inoperative for a period of three years.
The political dysfunction in Northern Ireland arose due to a dispute between the main political parties. This meant that there was no functioning authority in place that could vote on those areas of law that have been devolved to it.
In July 2019, the UK House of Commons – the lower chamber of Parliament – voted in favour of a bill that required the Government to liberalise abortion and extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland if devolution was not restored – that is, if the Northern Ireland Assembly remained dysfunctional and suspended.
The vote was part of a Commons debate aimed at keeping Northern Ireland running in the absence of devolved government – the main purpose of the original bill was to extend the government’s legal power to delay a fresh election in Northern Ireland.
Members of Parliament – led by Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn – used the opportunity to table a series of other amendments, arguing that issues such as access to abortions and same-sex marriage should not be stalled due to the lack of a devolved legislature.
The vote in relation to same-sex marriage was passed by 383 votes to 73. The vote on ensuring access to abortion was also passed.
The deadline for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be restored and take back control of the legislative process on both same-sex marriage and abortion was 21 October. Despite some last minute attempts by the DUP – who were particularly motivated to try and prevent any liberalisation of access to abortion – the deadline passed and the Westminster legislation came into effect.
A disconnect between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – when it comes to LGBTQ equality – is not a new thing.
In 1967, when partial decriminalisation of homosexuality was introduced to England and Wales, this did not apply to Northern Ireland.
It wasn’t until 1982, when a decision by the European Court of Human Rights found that the criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity by Northern Ireland was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, that the UK government was forced to step in and pass the necessary legislation to legalise homosexuality.
In 20015, the UK Parliament passed the Civil Partnership Act. This legislation applied to people living in Northern Ireland because it was not a devolved area of law. Civil partners are entitled to property rights, tax benefits, and parental responsibilities.
Northern Ireland is generally seen as a socially conservative part of the UK. Religion plays an important role in day-to-day life, and over the years there has been a lot of public opposition to any moves towards LGBTQ equality.
Before now, there have been five attempts to introduce the legislation required for Marriage Equality into the Northern Ireland Assembly – the most recent being in 2015. The complexity of politics in Northern Ireland means that the Democratic Unionist Party – a political party that is particularly conservative on social issues – was able to veto the 2015 vote on the legislation, despite there being a parliamentary majority in favour. Polling suggests that there is a public opinion majority in favour of marriage equality.
The process that has now been triggered puts the UK House of Commons on track to legislate for marriage equality in Northern Ireland by January 2020, paving the way for same-sex couples to wed from 14 February 2020.
Valentine’s Day is going to be a big deal in Northern Ireland.
The celebration of LGBTQ Pride takes all sorts of different forms around the world. What began as a political movement, demanding equality and human rights for LGBTQ people, has evolved in many places. Today’s Pride events often include festivals, parades, and parties of all shapes and sizes.
What’s undeniable is that the focus and character of a Pride event is very much shaped by the city and people that it represents, and you see this best illustrated in smaller communities.
The Foyle Pride Festival - which brings together the people of Derry-Londonderry in Northern Ireland for celebrations each summer – is a great example of how smaller Pride events can often pack the biggest emotional punch.
2019 Pride celebrations in Derry
Held on 24 August, 2019’s celebrations was the 26th time that a Pride event has been held in Derry-Londonderry.
What makes Derry Pride special?
The city of Derry-Londonderry has a bit of a broken history. The fact that it’s a place called different things by different people is an indication that religious and cultural differences run deep and time heals slowly. In recent months, there seems to have been an increase in sectarian tensions, with violence and bombings that echo the Troubles.
The first LGBTQ Pride celebrations in Derry-Londonderry were started in 1993 by a couple of community leaders, who advertised in the classified sections of local papers to get people involved. Everything is organised by a volunteer committee – the success of each Pride is dependent on the energy that people bring to the organising committee. Locals report that each year, more and more people are returning to Derry-Londonderry to be part of the Pride celebrations.
How many people take part?
Around 15,000 people participate in some way during the week-long Pride celebrations each year, with about 8,000 people actually marching in the parade. The route followed by the Pride parade is the Bloody Sunday route – a route that is historic and highly significant in terms of the civil rights history of this city. Every year there is a small group of anti-gay protesters, this year was no exception but they were held at a safe distance by police.