ALLIANCE leader David Ford has explained his dramatic change of heart on gay marriage — from opposing it three years ago to endorsing it as Alliance policy on Saturday.
A meeting of the Alliance Party’s ruling council debated the issue on Saturday and voted to endorse same-sex marriage — a bold move on an issue that threatens serious splits in most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland.
The creation of civil partnerships split the party in 2005 and Saturday’s motion again saw a clear divide among senior members, though the motion was overwhelmingly backed.
In an attempt to placate those within the party fearful that gay marriage could see traditionalist churches being prosecuted, Saturday’s motion was passed with the inclusion of explicit support for churches who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds.
The motion said Alliance only supported gay marriage if “robust protections are provided through legislation to ensure that faith groups and religious celebrants will not be forced to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies or to have them conducted on their premises”.
But on Sunday night an Alliance MLA said that despite those apparent safeguards, he still disagreed with the policy.
Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn told the News Letter: “The party is entitled to take a view on these things but I do not agree with them on this occasion.
“To me marriage is simply between a man and a women. I see no need for this . . . it may have been better left to individual party members to vote whatever way their conscience dictates.”
It is understood that more than 80 per cent present on Saturday supported the motion.
Prior to Mr Lunn’s comments, Mr Ford told the News Letter: “I don’t see this as causing any split at all. We had a very open and honest debate. There were those who expressed, in the main for religious reasons, concerns about this approach.
“Others took the view that individuals would have views and values but that it was not up to them to tell others how to live their lives.
“The key thing for me was the issue of religious freedom.”
In 2009, Mr Ford attended a debate at Belfast’s annual Gay Pride festival and said at that point that he was opposed to gay marriage.
When asked what had changed his mind, Mr Ford said: “At that stage, I believed the issue of equality was met by civil partnerships.
“At that meeting, and this is rarely quoted, I made clear that I had used my influence within Alliance to ensure that council facilities were made available to perform civil partnerships, something which one then prominent member of the party was not happy about.”
Mr Ford said that although he now supported “equal civil marriage” for same-sex couples, he still had a “personal religious understanding of marriage”. The Alliance leader said that the party whip would not be enforced on the policy, meaning that Alliance elected representatives will be free to vote for or against gay marriage in council chambers, the Assembly or at Westminster.
“It was made very clear that this would be party policy but on an issue of conscience such as this there will be no question of enforcement of the whip if someone cannot go along with it.”
However, the party said on its Facebook page said that “our elected representatives will be supporting any motion or piece of legislation that is in line with our new policy on same-sex civil marriage”.
Although Alliance’s policy is now in favour of gay marriage, Mr Ford did not suggest that it will attempt to put the issue on the agenda at Stormont.
In a reference to Sinn Fein, he said: “It would appear that another political party is going to push it onto the agenda without the safeguards we are talking about because proposals by Sinn Fein in several councils have not recognised the issues here for churches.”
Asked whether he was concerned that his party’s policy was now at variance with that of all the main churches, Mr Ford, who is a Presbyterian elder, said that his party had tried to “balance the rights of churches and their members with equality”.
Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long said: “For me as a Christian and a liberal, I believe that equality and religious freedom are fundamental to a democratic society and both must be promoted and protected. I believe our motion reflects that reality.”
The motion in full, which was passed on Saturday by the Party Council, read:
“That, in line with Alliance’s core commitment to equality and to freedom of religion, Party Council supports the extension of civil marriage provisions to same-sex couples, provided that robust protections are provided through legislation to ensure that faith groups and religious celebrants will not be forced to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies or to have them conducted on their premises.
“In recognition of the importance of freedom of religion, Alliance further believes that faith groups which, in conscience, wish to marry same-sex couples should not be prevented by the state from doing so. We would also support the extension of the authority to solemnise marriages to accredited Humanist Celebrants, which cannot currently do so.”