THE Alliance Party’s decision last summer to support gay marriage led to an unusually public display of disunity within the party, lost it a councillor and left both supporters and opponents of the policy angry with the outcome.
While most major parties treat policies in areas such as abortion or gay marriage as issues of conscience, Alliance decided that it would support the introduction of same-sex marriage so long as there were protections for churches who oppose such a change.
That led to several MLAs voting against gay marriage when it came to the Assembly last autumn and veteran Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn – one of those opposed to the change – saying that the party should have left the issue to the conscience of individual MLAs.
Supporters of gay marriage were similarly unhappy when it became clear that those who voted against the party policy were not going to be disciplined.
Mr Ford says: “It was always going to be a difficult issue because moral issues are always difficult but there was lengthy and detailed discussion within the party which Naomi Long led.”
Mr Ford concedes that running the party’s internal consultation process over the summer may not have allowed for a full internal debate on the issue and admits that “there was not unanimity among the [Alliance] Assembly group”.
But he insists: “I believe that what we struck there was a balance between the services that the state should provide to all its citizens and the rights of churches to define their own role.”
Alliance treats abortion as an issue of conscience and allows its MLAs a free vote; is not this within the same category of moral issues?
“It was an issue which we did consider... in the end the decision was taken that it was not in the same category as abortion and therefore on the basis of looking at the issue of rights for everybody on an equal basis in civil society, the view was taken that it was appropriate that there should be a specific party policy.
“I certainly said that I saw it as something where there would be a ‘soft whip’, that there would be an expectation that people would not be campaigning against party policy but it was accepted that some people on an issue of conscience would feel not able to go with that.”