Northern Ireland's gay marriage ban: Judgment reserved on legal challenge

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Shannon Sickles, left, and Grainne Close say the prohibition on same sex marriage breaches their human rights


Judgment has been reserved in a landmark legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s ban on gay marriage

Two couples, Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kanem brought the case claiming the region’s prohibition on same sex marriage breached their human rights.

Mr Justice O’Hara heard the high profile case in tandem with another action in which two men who wed in England want their marriage recognised in Northern Ireland.

The judge told Belfast High Court: “There are a lot of issues raised in this case and the other. I will give my judgment after Christmas.”

Both couples were, respectively, the first and second in the UK to enter into a civil partnership after Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to make that option available in December 2005.

Following the Yes vote in May’s referendum on marriage equality in the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where civil marriage is denied to same-sex couples.

Legal proceedings have been taken against the Department of Finance and Personnel on grounds that the ban contravenes entitlements to marriage and a family life under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Outlining the department’s objections to the judicial review, barrister Tony McGleenan QC said the State had no “positive obligation” to permit gay marriage because civil partnerships met the minimum requirements set out under human rights legislation.

Mr McGleenan said: ” We say there has been no interference with the applicants’ Article eight rights.

“We say that because in this context all the applicants are civil partners they enjoy the rights and benefits that go with that. What they are lacking is the ability to call the relationship, marriage.

“There is no doubt that causes consternation and concern..

“But is it an interference with their Article eight rights? We say not.”

The lawyer said the issue has been “looked at exhaustively” with three rulings at Strasbourg, most recently in October.

“Strasbourg has spoken six weeks ago on this issue,” he added. “There is clear and consistent juris prudence.

“Article eight (of European Convention on Human Rights) does not give rise to a positive obligation to same sex marriage. Article 12 does not give rise to a positive obligation to same sex marriage and both of those taken together with Article 14 do not give rise to any issue of discrimination.”

Earlier this year about 20,000 campaigners marched through Belfast city centre demanding a change in the law.

However Northern Ireland’s devolved Stormont Assembly has repeatedly refused to legislate on the contentious issue.

Although the majority of MLAs voted in favour of introducing gay marriage when it was debated for a fifth time last month, the proposal fell because unionists who oppose the move deployed a controversial voting mechanism to effectively veto it.

Mr McGleenan claimed a court intervention could undermine devolution.

He said: “It is not a matter that is being ignored. It is live in the democratic process. The applicants may not be satisfied with the pace, outcomes or infrastructure but it cannot be deemed that it is not a live issue.”

Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin QC also addressed the court briefly.

Mr Larkin, Stormont’s chief legal advisor, said he wanted to “echo” the views of the department, deal with “devolution” issues and highlight the absence of any “wrongful act” – such as a refusal to marry from the registry office at Belfast City Hall.

On Thursday a barrister representing both couples argued that Northern Ireland was a “blot on the map” and that the ban marginalised gay people as “biological oddities”.

Throughout the hearing, Ms Close and Ms Sickles listened intently from the public gallery where they sat among a number of gay rights campaigners.

The male applicants were not in court.

Outside Ms Close said she felt it had been a “fair hearing”.

She said: “It has been an intense couple of days. We now need to wait.

“Our love is equal. It is not any less. It is equal.

“We are not here to look for a religious ceremony or a religious marriage; we are here for civil marriage and for our love to be represented as equal.”

Amnesty International has supported both couples throughout the legal process.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland programme director who was present throughout the two-day hearing, said: “We look forward to new year weddings. We’re hopeful the judgment will allow many committed, loving couples in Northern Ireland the simple right to get married.

“It is shameful that these couples were forced to appeal to the courts to get equal treatment and that a minority of politicians have continued to block this progress, in defiance of public opinion.”

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