Same-sex marriage and Northern Ireland – the debate continues

We have previously noted developments in Dublin relating to same-sex marriage and the progress that has been made towards its introduction, including the massive vote in favour of the move in the recently-established Convention on the Constitution. However, we also noted that in October 2012 the Northern Ireland the Assembly had rejected a motion tabled by by Sinn Féin and the Green Party which called upon the Executive to introduce same-sex marriage legislation.

On 29 April the Assembly returned to the matter, debating a motion in the name of three Sinn Féin MLAs – Caitríona Ruane, Bronwyn McGahan and Barry McElduff, as follows:

“That this Assembly recognises the importance of the Constitutional Convention; notes the participation of parties from the Assembly; welcomes the 79 per cent majority vote at the Constitutional Convention in favour of marriage equality; and calls on the Executive to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for same sex marriage”.

The nub of their argument was that “what Churches do is a matter for Churches” but that the state needed to treat everyone equally and that the “traditional” family based on heterosexual marriage should not have any higher status in law or practice than any other form of family life. Law and social policy, in their view, should recognise the diversity of family life in Ireland and all families, including those in which the partners were unmarried, should have the same rights to respect and recognition.

David Ford MLA, leader of the Alliance Party and Minister of Justice in the Executive, proposed an amendment to leave out from “Assembly” to the end of the question and add:

“states its support for the extension of civil marriage provisions in Northern Ireland to same-sex couples, provided that robust legislative measures permit faith groups to define, articulate and practise religious marriage as they determine; and calls for respectful dialogue on this issue between all members of society”.

He believed that the Sinn Féin motion was deficient because it did not balance support for same-sex civil marriage with an acknowledgement of religious freedom and the rights of faith groups. He also accused Sinn Féin of grandstanding on the issue: what was needed, in his view, was constructive dialogue between elected representatives and civil society as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, both the amendment and the original motion were lost – the latter by an overall majority of 53 votes to 42: the Nationalists, broadly speaking, voted in favour and the Unionists against – though there was a thoughtful speech from at least one UUP member in support of the Alliance amendment during which Michael Copeland MLA reminded the Assembly of the disgraceful treatment meted out to Alan Turing. But, in accordance with the rules of the Assembly, the DUP had tabled a “petition of concern” – a mechanism designed to protect the interests of minorities – which meant that the motion would pass only if separate majorities of Nationalists and Unionists supported it. So even if it had achieved a majority of votes cast the motion would still not have been carried because there was no way that a majority of Unionists (of whatever party) was going to vote for it.

So the situation remains deadlocked. The provisions of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 apply equally to Northern Ireland as to the rest of the United Kingdom – but we are unlikely to see same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland any time soon, whatever happens in Great Britain or, for that matter, in Ireland.


By way of a footnote, the Irish Times reports that David Ford stood down as an elder of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland after the Alliance Party had voted on the previous occasion to support same-sex marriage – an initiative that the Presbyterian Church strongly opposes. The PCI press office released a statement which the parish minister, The Revd James Tosh, read to the congregation as follows:

“The kirk session wishes to inform the congregation that David Ford has, with sadness, decided to step aside for a time from the active duties of the eldership to reduce any offence his position has apparently caused to some within the congregation”.

The Clerk of the Templepatrick Presbytery, The Revd John Murdock, said that unease had been expressed by some members of Mr Ford’s congregation at Second Donegore Presbyterian Church.