Northern Ireland’s assembly voted narrowly in favour of gay marriage equality but the largest party in the devolved parliament, the Democratic Unionists, have since vetoed any change in the law.
Four independent unionist assembly members joined nationalists and others with 53 votes in favour of same sex marriage – just one vote ahead of the main unionist parties who oppose any reform.
But the motion in the regional parliament fell after the DUP used a “petition of concern” to argue that the law change that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Northern Ireland did not command sufficient cross-community support.
Under the complex rules of power sharing in the region, parties from either the unionist or nationalist community can use this mechanism if they feel there is not enough backing from Protestants or Catholics for particular legislation. It was designed to ensure no one community dominated the other following the 1998 Belfast agreement.
Amnesty International said on Monday it was ironic that a mechanism established to ensure the rights of minorities in Northern Ireland had been used to deny a fundamental right to the LGBT minority in the province.
The DUP veto means that Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where gay couples cannot get married legally. The party is heavily influenced by the socially conservative Evangelical Christian community, particularly the Free Presbyterian church, which was founded by the late DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley.
In an often fractious debate inside the Stormont assembly, there were a number of trenchant attacks on the notion of gay marriage equality from the unionist benches.
Jim Allister, leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, said same-sex couples getting married was a “perverse definition” of marriage. Allister said the gay marriage equality campaign was a “worked-up phoney demand for rights”.
The latest attempt to legislate for gay marriage was introduced in a joint SDLP-Sinn Féin motion to the house. Sinn Féin’s Daithí McKay noted that the three Ulster counties in the Republic of Ireland “all said yes to marriage equality” in the recent referendum there. He said recent opinion polls showed 68% of people in Northern Ireland were in favour of a change to the law.
Among those assembly members who changed their mind to vote in favour of same-sex marriage this time around was the Alliance party’s Trevor Lunn.
He told the parliament that he had been “on a journey” and had listened to his LGBT constituents and their families, and was now persuaded voting yes was the right thing to do.
Before Monday’s vote, gay couples handed out invitations to the weddings they were planning to have if the legislation had passed through without any veto.
At least three LGBT couples are planning legal action to challenge the same-sex marriage ban, pledging to take the fight to the European court of human rights if necessary.
Dr Richard O’Leary, of the Faith in Marriage Equality group, said Northern Ireland’s image as a backward society had been reinforced by the continued ban on equal marriage. “As a vulnerable, peripheral region fighting for its economic life in the teeth of a global depression, the message we risk sending out about Northern Ireland is that it is a region stuck in the past, out of touch with the cutting edge of global society,” he said.
“We should be honest – our history and the religious roots of our communal divisions mean we already suffer from a serious image problem. It is entirely possible that within a few years, Northern Ireland could find itself the last significant jurisdiction in western Europe where same-sex marriage remains prohibited and on the ‘wrong side of history’.”.
In the four previous votes attempting to bring in gay marriage reform, there have been narrow majorities against change. In April, the margin was only two votes against.
- This article was corrected on 2 November. We originally referred incorrectly to Alliance Party assembly member Trevor Lunn as Stephen Lunn. That has been changed