THE Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected a motion calling for gay marriage after a passionate debate on the controversial issue.
The defeat of the motion, introduced jointly by the Green Party and Sinn Fein, was a foregone conclusion as the DUP had tabled a ‘petition of concern’ which effectively gives it a veto on anything in the Assembly which it is determined to block.
It is the first time the Assembly has debated same-sex marriage but even if the motion had passed it would not have changed the law, but rather just stated the opinion of the Assembly.
The motion, which split both nationalism (which was largely in favour) and unionism (which was largely against), was rejected by 45 votes to 50.
Three unionist MLAs voted in favour of the motion, while all 37 nationalist MLAs supported the motion. Just six MLAs designated as neither unionist nor nationalist voted for the motion, indicating that several Alliance MLAs abstained.
However, although the result appeared to be close, the DUP’s veto meant that even if the majority of the Assembly had voted for the motion, it’s 38 MLAs could have single-handedly blocked it getting through.
Introducing his motion, Green Party leader Steven Agnew said that it sought to create equality in society but also to enhance religious freedom and widen access to the institution of marriage.
Rejecting claims that such a move could lead to dissenting churches being prosecuted for refusing to perform such ceremonies, he said that in all of the countries where gay marriage had been legalised there were no instances of churches being forced to perform same-sex marriages against their will.
The TUV leader Jim Allister asked Mr Agnew “how far his aspirations about equality go....if you now say marriage can be a union between one man and another man and you say that on the basis of equality - what about the man who says ‘I’m in love with two women; I want to marry two women’; does it become an issue of equality that we have to legalise polygamy...where do you finish if you start down the member’s road?”
Mr Agnew said that marriage had changed many times during its history - to allow for inter-racial and inter-religious marriages and for divorce — and said that having two wives harmed society but there was “no evidence” that same sex marriage harms society.
The UUP has allowed members a free vote on what it sees an issue of conscience.
Basil McCrea spoke passionately in favour of gay marriage while Danny Kennedy firmly outlined his opposition to the proposed change.
Mr McCrea suggested that there were gay MLAs unable to speak out in support of the motion, saying: “Mr Speaker, I may be one of the few members from the unionist benches to actually speak for this motion.
“I do so aware that there are many people within my community who are uneasy about the proposition.
“But I know also that there are members of this house who feel unable to speak on this motion despite their personal inclination and despite the personal circumstances of those they care for. This is a terrible position to put anybody in.
Mr Speaker, I do not understand why the DUP felt the need to present a petition of concern on a matter that should have been a free vote.”
However, Newry and Armagh UUP MLA Danny Kennedy spoke strongly against changing the law.
He said that as someone “with a clear personal faith yet tolerant of others to hold and express their views, I do not and cannot support the principle of same-sex marriage”.
He went on: “I’m opposed to it not just on the basis of my church, the Presbyterian Church...but also most importantly the reaching of Holy Scripture.”
Mr Kennedy, who is the regional development minister, said that he did not see it as an issue of equality as equality was “already offered” through civil partnerships.
Mr Kennedy said that many at home watching or reading about the debate in a newspaper would wonder why the Assembly was debating gay marriage at a time of economic turmoil.
The DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, whose department is responsible for registering marriages, stressed his, and his party’s, opposition to the proposal.
Dismissing claims that MLAs should legislate for all those who they represent, Mr Wilson said that “there are occasions when you cannot facilitate everybody’s needs”.
And he said that despite assurances from some that legislation could be framed to protect churches opposed to same-sex marriages, Mr Wilson said that there “will be a conflict that will arise which will impact on people’s religious freedom” if the motion is passed.
He said that if the legal definition of marriage was changed to allow for same-sex marriages then schools would have to teach that definition, something which could put teachers at odds with the authorities if they are Christians or members of other faiths which oppose same-sex marriage.
The East Antrim MP and MLA added that he could think of “very many more priorities” for legislation emanating from his department than the proposal to redefine marriage.
The Alliance Party was split on the issue, with one MLA voting against the motion and several abstaining, despite the party voting to back gay marriage last month.
Alliance MLA Anna Lo said of the motion: “It is very much in line with policy which was passed by our governing policy council. We support the extension of civil marriage provisions to same sex couples.”
However, she added that the party was clear that “robust” protections for religious groups who oppose same-sex marriage had to be enshrined in any legislation.
Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane said that it was “very worrying” two Executive ministers opposed gay marriage while party colleague Daithi McKay said it was “very much to be welcomed” that the Assembly was debating its first motion about a specifically gay issue.
Speaking in favour of the motion, SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood said: “The sinews of bondage between two people, encased and sustained by the growing nature of love, is a value worthy of extension to those who would choose it. Heterosexual marriage embodies those values; so too does same-sex marriage.”