The Assembly has voted to block gay marriage from extending to Northern Ireland, deciding that same-sex marriages in the rest of the UK should be treated as civil partnerships in the Province.
During a late-night sitting which stretched to 1am yesterday morning, MLAs debated and passed – via an oral vote – a Legislative Consent Motion which excluded most of the provisions of the Bill currently going through Westminster to introduce same-sex marriage.
The Assembly has twice voted against private member’s motions on gay marriage in recent months, but, unlike yesterday’s vote, those motions would not have changed the law.
Both opponents of the change and MLAs who support the new unions backed the motion brought before the Assembly by Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.
Opponents argued that the motion before them reduced the chances of any court challenge to Northern Ireland’s decision to oppose same-sex marriage.
Supporters of the change argued that, given a majority of MLAs are opposed to gay marriage, it was pragmatic to legislate for how those who enter such unions in the rest of the UK will be treated in the Province.
During the debate, Mr Wilson said that same-sex marriage had “nothing to do with people’s rights”.
The DUP minister said that by treating GB same-sex marriages as civil partnerships when those individuals enter Northern Ireland, Stormont was being consistent with how foreign gay marriages are currently recognised in the UK.
But Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay said that it was “clear that the proposed policy is likely to run into legal challenge on human rights or equality grounds, and I personally believe that, ultimately, the north may be forced by the courts to move on this matter”.
He warned that a legal test case was “inevitable”, adding: “We [Sinn Fein] look forward to such a case being brought, and we hope that it will be successful.”
The DUP’s Paul Givan interjected: “On the legal issue, does he not agree that, ultimately, it is for the democratically-elected people in this Assembly to set the law, not for judges and courts to usurp the responsibility that rests with the legislators?”
TUV leader Jim Allister said that he was “implacably opposed to same-sex marriage” and added: “By any proper definition, marriage – indisputably and irreversibly – is the union of one man and one woman, and so it must and should remain.”
Gay marriage has moved another step closer to becoming law in England and Wales after the legislation finished its committee stage in the House of Lords.
Earlier this month, a move to throw out the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was rejected on a free vote by 390 to 148 and peers yesterday completed three days of detailed committee stage scrutiny debate on the Bill without any votes.
But the controversial legislation is expected to face sterner challenges when it returns to the House of Lords for further debate next month.
MPs have already backed the Bill, which applies to England and Wales, despite fierce opposition from dozens of Tory backbenchers.