DEMOCRATIC Unionists will be voting as one to oppose the introduction of gay marriage when the Bill comes before the House of Commons tomorrow.
Conservative members of the Cabinet, as well as junior ministers and other leading party figures, are also among the 180 MPs expected to oppose or abstain in the controversial vote.
The proposals, which are supported by Prime Minister David Cameron, will also allow civil partners to convert their partnership to a marriage and enable married people to change their legal gender without having to end their union, for the first time, when the Bill has its second reading.
North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, the leader of the eight-strong DUP grouping at Westminster, said: “The fact that the Government has even considered redefining marriage rather than supporting marriage should be a source of great shame.
“Well over 500,000 people have now signed the Coalition for Marriage’s petition against changing the definition of marriage. This is more than any petition on the Government’s own website.”
Mr Dodds added: “Rather than fixate on issues like this, if the Prime Minister were to come to my constituency, he would hear about the issues that really matter.”
Twenty-five chairmen or former chairmen of Conservative Party associations have written to Mr Cameron warning that the policy will cause “significant damage” at the ballot box.
Many Tory backbenchers have made no secret of their opposition to any change in the current legal definition.
They have also expressed their anger that the party leadership will not now include marriage tax breaks in next month’s budget as a concession to the unhappy traditionalists.
Mr Cameron views the introduction of same-sex marriage as the “Conservative Party delivering the promise it made”.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has been a prominent supporter of the new proposals, said yesterday: “Every year thousands of people choose to marry in a church rather than a registry office because they believe marriage is sacred.
“Religious freedom is not just for heterosexuals – we should not deny anyone the right to make a lifelong commitment to another person in front of God if that is what they believe and that is what their church allows.”
Despite the Prime Minister’s support for change, Conservative MPs are being given free vote on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.
Former Northern Ireland secretary of state Owen Paterson, now environment secretary, is expected to vote against the Bill while work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith is likely to abstain, according to a Sunday Telegraph report yesterday.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller has insisted the plans will ensure equal and fair treatment for same-sex couples, while protecting religious institutions that have objections to performing such ceremonies.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said that “over the last couple of years” he has become a supporter of gay marriage – having considered whether it was right in principle, had sufficient enough public support and if there were protections for those who didn’t agree with it.
“I think as times have changed,” he said: “Civil partnerships came in, within a remarkably short period of time those things become accepted,” he told BBC1’s Sunday Politics show.
“I think the same will happen with this.”
Sinn Fein has four MPs following Martin McGuinness resigning his Mid-Ulster seat in December. They will not be participating in Tuesday’s vote as the party has a strict abstentionist policy at Westminster.
None of Northern Ireland’s other five MPs – three from the SDLP, Alliance’s Naomi Long and independent Lady Sylvia Hermon – were able to be contacted yesterday for comment.