Thursday 8 December 2016

Majority vote not enough to secure same-sex marriage legalisation in NI

David Young

Published 02/11/2015 | 14:47

(Left to right) same sex marriage campaigners Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty International, same sex couple Jayne Robinson and Laura McKee, and John O'Doherty from LGBT organisation the Rainbow Project, as they celebrate outside Parliament Buildings in Belfast after a majority of Stormont Assembly members voted to legalise same sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Credit: David Young/PA Wire
(Left to right) same sex marriage campaigners Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty International, same sex couple Jayne Robinson and Laura McKee, and John O'Doherty from LGBT organisation the Rainbow Project, as they celebrate outside Parliament Buildings in Belfast after a majority of Stormont Assembly members voted to legalise same sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Credit: David Young/PA Wire

For the first time a majority of Stormont Assembly members have voted to legalise same sex marriage in Northern Ireland, but the law change will not happen due to a voting mechanism triggered by the Democratic Unionists.

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The "petition of concern" tabled by the DUP at the outset of the debate in Parliament Buildings, Belfast meant the proposal could only succeed if a sufficient number of both unionist and nationalist MLAs backed it.

While not enough unionists voted yes, the slim overall majority (50.5%) in favour has nevertheless been hailed as a symbolic victory by campaigners for same sex marriage in the region.

It is the first time a majority has backed the proposal on what was the fifth occasion the issue has been voted on in the Assembly.

Following the signing into law of same-sex marriage legislation in the Republic of Ireland last week, Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK or Ireland where civil marriage is denied to same-sex couples.

The issue divides public opinion in the region, with vocal campaigners on both sides of the argument.

While advocates claim same-sex couples are being denied the rights afforded to heterosexuals, a number of Christian organisations insist the institution of marriage should not be redefined.

A number of same-sex couples are currently seeking to overturn the Assembly's ban in the courts.

In the summer about 20,000 people marched in Belfast city centre demanding a law change.

In 2005 Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to allow same-sex civil partnerships.

The four previous votes on gay marriage at Stormont would have fallen on a simple majority basis, regardless of whether a petition of concern was tabled.

Amnesty International said the vote marked a "significant milestone towards marriage equality".

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty's programme director in Northern Ireland, said: "It shows that, slowly but surely, politicians are catching up with public opinion here, which has been in favour of equal marriage for same-sex couples for some years.

"However, the abuse of the petition of concern, to hold back rather than uphold the rights of a minority group, means that Stormont has once again failed to keep pace with equality legislation elsewhere in the UK and Ireland."

Ahead of the vote, Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland issued an open letter warning against a yes vote.

"Those who vote in favour of this motion have no way of knowing what the full consequences of such a vote will be," they said.

"The truth about marriage derives from its intrinsic nature as a relationship based on the complementarity of a man and woman and the unique capacity of this relationship alone to generate new life. This truth does not change with the shifting tides of historical custom or popular opinion."

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