A major step forward for LGBTQ equality in Northern Ireland but same-sex marriage remains out of reach
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, there is no marriage equality. However, following a vote by Members of Parliament in Westminster, that may all be about to change.
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.
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.
While Northern Ireland has not embraced marriage equality, there is some legal recognition for same-sex relationships.
In 20015, the UK Parliament passed the Civil Partnership Act. This legislation applied to people living in Northern Ireland. Civil partners are entitled to property rights, tax benefits, and parental responsibilities.
So far, there have been five attempts to introduce the legislation required for marriage equality into the Northern Ireland Assembly. 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.
While public opinion in Northern Ireland appears to be moving in favour of marriage equality, the Northern Ireland assembly – the legislative body that is required to vote on the changes to marriage that would be necessary – is currently suspended and inoperative.
The Assembly has been suspended since January 2017 due to a dispute between the main political parties. This means that there is no functioning authority in place that could vote on the question of marriage equality.
There have been a number of attempts by UK politicians to bring forward a discussion about addressing the issue in the absence of a functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland, but – as recently as February 2019 – the UK Equalities Minister ruled that it is a devolved matter and must be determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The latest developments
In a vote today, the UK House of Commons – the lower chamber of Parliament – has voted in favour of a bill that requires the government to liberalise abortion and extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland if devolution is not restored. 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 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 marraige was passed by 383 votes to 73. The vote on ensuring access to abortion was also passed.
While there has been a vote in favour of same-sex marriage, this doesn’t automatically change the law in Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the vote, no action is required by the UK government unless devolved government has not been reinstated in Northern Ireland by 21 October 2019. Even if that deadline is reached, it’s not clear how the UK government would legally extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. In the meantime, inequality continues in Northern Ireland.