When will it be time for Bert & Ernie?

The Northern Ireland Assembly continues to block same sex marriage with an unfair use of the veto. Annette Pryce discusses the political and religious issues around Northern Ireland’s same sex marriage debate.


As a Scottish Protestant lesbian, I should understand the weird sectarian politics of the Northern Ireland assembly when it comes to same sex marriage, after all Scotland still has has something simi… oh wait… it doesn’t – which is why I’m mystified but still barely surprised at their democratic deficit.

The Northern Ireland public will vote in a new assembly on March 2nd but I fear that the LGBTQ+ citizens of Northern Ireland will have to wait much longer for the justice they seek, for the affirmation that their southern Irish republic colleagues got only a year ago. How much time must pass before this small part of Western Europe will end this deadlock and have a heart?

It would seem that conscience really doesn’t play any part of the DUP’s position on this issue. They would argue fiercely that it does, but when you argue that who you love and who you want to marry is wrong, then you have little or no conscience to speak of, but that’s just my opinion.

Amnesty International found that after the last election a majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members were in favour of equal, (civil) marriage. Amnesty International everyone! That very well-known organisation that advocates for human rights around the world, found itself having to wade into a political fight in a devolved first world parliament.

I fear that the LGBTQ+ citizens of Northern Ireland will have to wait much longer for the justice they seek, for the affirmation that their southern Irish republic colleagues got only a year ago.

Do Irish republicans need a time machine to visit the North? It must be like that scene from Star Trek ‘First Contact’ when Picard follows the Borg ship into the time travel slipstream, to see what the world would have been like if they had allowed the UK to continue its reign over the now Irish Republic.

Last November, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of the introduction of same‐sex marriage for the first time, by a very small margin. Yet, the Democratic Unionist Party blocked the motion using a “petition of concern” veto mechanism, which was originally designed to protect minority rights. Let me say that again…. it was originally designed to protect minority rights. This addressed the religious community minority, each of the two main parties the DUP and Sinn Fein (being from different sects of the Christian faith), to ensure that no one party/community had the right to out manoeuvre the other. This was part of the Good Friday agreement – to keep the peace – and now it is being abused.

I can understand them using it to stop the DUP from ploughing up all the fields next to Sinn Fein community lands or other such legislative ‘whirly gigs’, but in this context they are abusing the veto for their own religious and political ends. I say that because if the politicians have a varied consensus, we wouldn’t be here. Yet, we are here because the Northern Ireland Assembly is entrenched in partisan politics.The DUP won’t vote for equal marriage because it was Sinn Fein’s idea, and if it was the DUP’s idea then Sinn Fein wouldn’t vote for it, or at least that’s how all the other stuff works, and now it feels like the word veto just means ‘up yours’ or ‘jog on’  or ‘No No No No No!’. It no longer protects communities, it betrays them.

I’ll not pretend to know the entirety of the ins and outs of the ‘troubles’ in NI, but a recent delegation to both parts of the country suggests that Northern Ireland has well and truly been stuck in the 80’s, and can’t for the life of it, get out without an extreme makeover of Parliament.

My patience fails when I have to endure the sounds of religious diatribes about sin and homosexuality, and how same sex marriage will somehow bring about the fall of society. Oh please! I’m a person of faith and no one, absolutely no one (Protestant or Catholic) who is true to their faith, would believe that; but the zealots exploit and twist it and so this is where we end up.

A colleague of mine said once that he’d be ‘more comfortable coming out as gay in a room full of Catholics than coming out as Catholic in a room full of gay people’, such is the hostility to religion within the LGBTQ+ community. Though religion in itself is at fault, the people of faith who practice this in a truer sense are not the enemy of the LGBTQ+ community. Plenty of people of faith voted yes in the Republic of Eire.

Now it feels like the word veto just means ‘up yours’ or ‘jog on’  or ‘No No No No No!’. It no longer protects communities, it betrays them.

Rev Nicholas Holtam the Bishop of Salisbury has talked at length about the portrayal of the church in the media, especially related to the same sex marriage debate. There is a uniquely hypocritical argument about same sex marriage being outside of church or religious values when more and more young heterosexuals are living together and having children before, or even without, getting married. He went onto say that the support the Bible showed for things we now deem abhorrent, such as slavery, he says shows: “just how deeply we’ve become separated from wider society.” The church in itself isn’t moving along with society at the same speed or volition on social issues, it would seem some parts just don’t want to.

In our own battle for equality at the time both Angela Eagle and the Rev Holtam referred to the Coalition for Marriage as being a front for more sinister religious organisations and extreme groups which seek to block any attempt to bring about equal marriage.

He went onto say it was an: “evangelical imperative that the church recognise that covenantal same sex relationships can be Godly and good for society, and are at least as good as heterosexual marriage. It is a disaster that we’ve been allowed to be seen as the opposition to equal civil marriage.”

I believe that the church will come round in its’ own good time, and perhaps we need to not let them aggravate us quite so much.  However, the DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly hiding behind religious arguments for the sake of their issue with Sinn Fein, is just a middle finger up to the entire LGBTQ community to say that they don’t care, and that they would rather they fell out of step with the entire world, before they gave anything to the opposition.

It’s time for the Northern Ireland Assembly to grow up and practice what they preach. Love, compassion, justice and equality. After all, Jesus was all for that, wasn’t He?

Follow Annette on twitter (@lgbtexec)

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