Gay marriage vote is food for thought for unionists

Younger voters are strongly in favour of gay marriage


News Letter – 10:11 Tuesday 26 May 2015

Is the Republic more British than Northern Ireland?

After last week’s overwhelming popular vote in favour of equal civil marriage in the Republic, Northern Ireland is now the only part of the British Isles in which it is illegal for gay people to marry.

John McCallister

John McCallister

Gay couples can marry in Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh and London – but not Belfast.

For unionists, this should at least give pause for thought. An enduring theme in unionist political thought has been – in the words of the Ulster Covenant of 1912 – “our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom”. It is why unionists opposed Home Rule: the fear that rights and liberties would be eroded in a Home Rule Parliament dominated by one narrow theological perspective.

That probably sounds a bit ironic now. Now it looks as if Northern Ireland, out of step with the British mainstream, is the last part of the British Isles in which a narrow theological agenda holds sway in politics.

This is not about excluding people of faith and faith communities from the public square. After all, the referendum campaign in the Republic included vibrant, lively debates within faith communities about equal civil marriage, with some faith leaders backing the Yes vote.

It is also obvious that very many people of faith voted Yes, and did so on the basis of their values of respecting the dignity of all people.

This gives us a sense of what this issue is actually about. It is about respect. It is about pluralism. It is about recognising that all citizens, irrespective of sexual orientation, have rights and liberties. It is about recognising that widening marriage to include gay and lesbian couples strengthens both marriage and our society.

And that is why there is equal civil marriage everywhere else in the United Kingdom – because central to British values has been a progressive widening of the scope of liberty, to strengthen the bonds that unite us as a society.

For political unionisim to opt out and oppose this, raises some difficult questions about how unionism sees its future. Pro-Union politics should be about promoting a vision of Northern Ireland fully sharing in the freedoms, opportunities and pluralism of the modern United Kingdom – not being a place apart, embarrassed about mainstream British values.

I know some unionist politicians vote against equal civil marriage on the assumption that it is the only politically ‘safe’ thing to do. I have two words in response to this – Danny Kinahan.

The Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim was one of only four unionist MLAs – I was one of them – to vote in favour of equal civil marriage in the recent Assembly debate. Danny did so in the midst of his campaign in South Antrim. And he won the Westminster seat. The lesson? Pro-Union voters don’t fear equal civil marriage.

Unionism needs to have a serious conversation about not the next 10 months, but about the next 10 years. Younger voters are strongly in favour of equal civil marriage. They see it as normal and routine everywhere else in the British Isles.

They cannot understand why if marriage is good for society, it can’t be legal for their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles who are gay.

And when it comes to deciding whether to vote or not, they will not be able to understand why unionism, which says it is serious about Northern Ireland being a full part of the United Kingdom, believes in equal citizenship for some, but not for all.

John McCallister is an independent MLA for South Down

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