With the passing of the Republic’s marriage equality referendum and with marriage equality already a reality in the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is now the only region that does not permit or recognise marriages between same-sex couples. Northern Ireland is falling further behind the times in the fight for marriage equality and LGBT+ rights. It’s high time our Assembly rectified marriage equality in Northern Ireland, which is increasingly becoming the norm in Western states. Marriage has been available to same-sex couples in the rest of the UK for almost a year and will be available in the Republic later this year following this month’s referendum. The momentum for change in the rest of the UK and Ireland is bittersweet for same-sex couples here in Northern Ireland, where marriage equality is but a flicker in the future.
Motions to legislate marriage equality in Northern Ireland have been consistently vetoed by Assembly, via the voting force of the DUP, in spite of significant public and political support for it. The DUP and others opposed to marriage equality espouse many justifications for their opposition, which are neither morally, nor logically defensible. The audacity and mendacity of these individuals is nothing short of insulting to the LGBT+ community.
Opponents of marriage equality often claim that equal marriage is incompatible with the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage as existing between one man and one woman. A brief look at the history of marriage through the ages shows that this is simply not the case. Polygamy, among other marital phenomena we would consider reprehensible today, was once perfectly legitimate. It is often argued that marriage exists as an institution to facilitate procreation and the raising of children. Yet we do not deny marriage to couples who cannot have (or indeed do not want) children and we do not deny marriage to heterosexual couples, regardless of their suitability as potential parents. Why? Quite simply, we treat marriage as the ultimate bond between two private individuals in a loving, committed relationship. Same-sex couples fulfil this criterion so why should they be precluded from marriage? Opponents of marriage equality often argue that churches and religious bodies could be compelled to take part. This is not the case in any jurisdiction that permits equal marriage and would not be the case here.
In fairness, we have made some progress regarding LGBT+ rights in recent years. Same-sex couples are able to enter into civil partnerships and adopt jointly. While these advances are laudable, they are no substitute for marriage, which is an unparalleled expression of commitment and love that has been afforded to heterosexual couples since time immemorial.
In the face of political opposition to equal marriage, a case is currently before the Family Court. A same-sex couple who married in England and reside here in Northern Ireland are challenging the fact that their marriage is not recognised as such in Northern Ireland. The outcome remains to be seen. However, if the case does not succeed, the right to same-sex marriage will again be at the mercy of a predominantly unwilling Assembly.
Indeed, there has always been an element of institutionalised homophobia here. Northern Ireland was the last part of the UK to (reluctantly) decriminalise homosexuality in 1982. The ban on equal marriage and the continuing ban on gay men donating blood are modern manifestations of this institutionalised homophobia, which cannot continue. There is no rational reason to deny civil marriage to same-sex couples and our politicians can no longer drag their heels on the issue.
There is more impetus than ever to legislate for equal marriage here. Northern Ireland cannot continue to lag behind our neighbours when it comes to LGBT+ rights. All men and women are said to be equal under the law in Northern Ireland. Marriage equality is a necessary next step to enhancing the veracity of this statement, not ten years down the line, but now. Our elected representatives must make it happen.