A Tale of Two Votes: What about Equal Marriage in Northern Ireland?

By Orla Murray (Staff Writer)  

It is a funny time to be gay in Northern Ireland. First the UK re-elects the most horrendous Conservative government, but even they knew the time had come to legalise equal marriage. Then the Republic of Ireland votes Yes in an equal marriage referendum, the first country in the world to bring it in by popular vote, and suddenly my wee homeland is the only place on these isles which still discriminates between straight people tying the knot and the rest of us.

Sitting in Scotland, recently crowned the best nation in Europe for LGBTI legal equality, it is easy to look across the Irish Sea and think how much better I have it here, living my big gay life, free and happy as a queer woman.  Not that it is a gay utopia, far from it, but at least rampant homophobia is not politically acceptable.

Let’s recap the recent political discussions in Northern Ireland, particularly in the lead up to the UK General Election. Beginning in West Tyrone where an Independent candidate Susan-Anne White got 166 votes standing on a platform to recriminalize homosexuality, or sodomites as she sometimes likes to call us. Whilst she is the absolute extreme of this conversation and was widely critiqued, laughed at, and booed at the hustings, her position is not that far off the socially conservative norm in Stormont, the Northern Irish Assembly.

The recently resigned Health Minister, Jim Wells, said that children who grow up with gay parents are more likely to be abused, and was defend by his party leader, Peter Robinson. Whilst he assured the media that Wells’ position was not that of the DUP’s, he went on to defend another party member’s comments that homosexuality should not be legal, stating that he was “entitled to that opinion” and if it was illegal that he hoped people would “obey the law”. Previous to this electoral cycle Wells, and his predecessor Edwin Poots, spent thousands of pounds in legal fees fighting to maintain the ongoing ban on gay men donating blood. For those unfamiliar with Northern Irish electoral politics, Peter Robinson is the First Minister of Northern Ireland, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who won eight out of 18 Westminster seats and would have potentially held some sway over the Tories if the hung parliament predictions had come to pass. 

The DUP are not representative of the changing views of the populace and yet they still remain the largest party at Stormont and the biggest voice for Northern Ireland at Westminster. At best it is embarrassing, at worst dangerous. But they cannot hold back change much longer. Opinions are shifting and the ‘national question’ over whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or unite with the rest of Ireland is less dominant in electoral politics than it once was.

Unfortunately what has replaced it is a conservative Christian consensus, or what has been called ‘sextarianism’ – the shift from political division along sectarian lines between Catholics and Protestants to a conservative consensus between old foes on issues like equal marriage, abortion, and the regulation of sex work. Abortion and sex work are very difficult arguments to win both north and south of Ireland, with abortion effectively being illegal across the island and the criminalisation of buying sexual services effective in the north as of June 2015. But with equal marriage the fight seems winnable.

Yes, equal marriage does not even begin to address the heteronormative and cissexist nature of British and Irish societies, but the passing of the same-sex marriage bills in England & Wales and Scotland and now with the Irish referendum, there is an important confirmation of what many already knew – it is okay to be gay. In Ireland, this vote confirmed that the tide has changed in Irish public opinion; it was a national moment and it is a big deal.

Whilst we shouldn’t even be having this conversation through a popular vote - why should we have to ask the majority for basic equality under the law? – I think such a rallying point provided an important focus in the Republic around which to have an open discussion. Some utterly horrendous viewpoints were urged, and ‘for balance’ the bigots got a lot of air time. But in Northern Ireland the level of public homophobia, particularly around this past general election, is already so present and damaging that perhaps a conversation would do more good than harm.

In the wake of the Republic of Ireland’s Yes vote, people have begun to call for a similar referendum in the north, but The Rainbow Project, a leading LGBT organisation in Northern Ireland, does not support this call, explaining that a bill would still need to be passed by Stormont to become law. And so they are supporting a legal challenge, which if it goes the same way as the ‘gay cake’ incident will finally lead to equal marriage. But whilst this would lead to legislative equality on marriage, it wouldn’t be the symbolic moment I think we need in the north. I was moved to tears by the passing of the Irish referendum not because I cannot wait to run down to Dublin and get married but because the scenes of jubilation on the streets, the kissing in public, the infamous Panti Bliss speech, all would have been unimaginable 15 years ago, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in the Republic. And I think we need similar moments in Northern Irish politics to shake off the conservative consensus in much of the political establishment, to have a national conversation challenging bigotry, and of course have a big gay party in the street.

Update: We've just had one of those moment with this massive pro-equal marriage march: