It’s commonplace to find equal marriage within the Western world today with countries such as the USA, France and the United Kingdom all adopting it, or so it would seem. Within the United Kingdom the issue of marriage is devolved for both Scotland and Northern Ireland, this means that their own local government legislates marriage. The legislation to allow for same-sex marriage in England and Wales was passed in July 2013, Scotland swiftly followed in February of 2014, unfortunately Northern Ireland did not pass the same legislation. I hear you reluctantly mumble how you suppose it is the will of the people, well I can assure you that is not the case. Since 2012 the issue has been debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly five times, the first four of those a majority no was the result, meaning that same-sex marriage was left unrecognised. However finally on the 5th time a majority yes was heard 53 for to 51 against. Sweet! That would mean the government chose to recognise same-sex marriage and now the appropriate legislation could be put in place, surprisingly that was not the case.
To explain why a majority vote, as expected in any democracy, did not allow for its recognition we need to take a peak in the history of the country. You may be familiar with the the Troubles, if not, in brief the Troubles was a conflict between unionists (generally protestants) and nationalists (generally catholics). Unionists support Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom whereas Nationalists support leaving the UK and forming a united Ireland. The tension between the communities can be tracked as far back as the 1600s whenever Scottish and English protestants settled in Ireland. The native Catholics had their land taken away and oppressed, not exactly a unique occurrence. Tensions increased in the 60s between the communities and a loyalist paramilitary formed declaring war against the IRA, a republican paramilitary. The conflict during the time killed many innocent civilians, who were deliberately attacked. I miss out much of the conflict but I won’t digress too much as this article is about how this ultimately has affected us today. A ceasefire occurred in 1997 and resulted in the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement on various issues and which set out the devolved Northern Ireland assembly, within the assembly a system was put in place on votes as a safeguard to protect minority (nationalist/catholic) rights.
If 30 out of 108 MLAs sign a petition of concern on proposed legislation it must then be passed on a cross community vote. This makes it mandatory that the legislation has a 60% majority for yes and that 40% of Unionist MLAs and 40% of nationalist MLAs must vote Yes. It can be seen how at the time this would be beneficial and necessary for peace, however no guidelines came with it and it can be applied to any vote, this has effectively given the biggest party (and other parties if they petition together) the ability to veto proposals they dislike. The largest party is the DUP with 38 seats, being members of the same party they generally have the same views, if they chose to petition of concern legislation it cannot pass as that party comprises over 60% of unionist MLAs.
The petition of concern is a fundamental flaw within Northern Ireland’s assembly, it has allowed a minority of people to reject the wishes of the majority for equality simply because they don’t like it. Equal marriage does not hurt the unionist community or affect it in any shape or form, there is no justification for this usage of the cross-community vote. The result is that the undemocratic misuse of this safeguard has allowed 35% of MLAs to deny the right of marriage to LGBT people. Of course MLAs outside this party opposed the recognition of same-sex marriage however the point still stands that it was 35% of MLAs who decided that because they didn’t like the idea of same-sex marriage that therefore it could not be democratically decided.
Whats next for Northern Ireland?
Before Christmas two same-sex couples in civil partnerships were granted a judical review of the ban on same-sex marriage, this is similar to what happened in the USA. Unfortunately the last information posted about this is from before christmas and states that the Judge would reach a decision after christmas. It has now been over 7 months from then and it seems that this case has quite simply fizzled away and nothing came of it. However I cannot find anywhere about the decision reached by the judge. As it seems the judical review has failed the decision again lies with the assembly, wherein it can be vetoed again and again until there is further intervention. The DUP will not fall as a party, people do not vote for it because it opposes same-sex marriage, they vote because they are unionists, its tribal politics, all that matters to many voters is whether or not the party is unionist or nationalist. The petition of concern cannot be removed or amended to add restrictions, it could be proposed however the parties can veto the legislation.
This is not just a Northern Ireland issue, it’s a United Kingdom issue. Citizens of the UK are being treated unequally by their government and are not being given the democracy they are entitled to. The UK needs to consider this issue in Westminster, for its the only way the people can be heard democratically and be given what they voted for.