SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has said that MLA Conall McDevitt was wrong to claim that the SDLP supports gay marriage – the day after his party’s press office agreed that Mr McDevitt was right.
The South Belfast MP and MLA suggested that Mr McDevitt, whom he defeated in a leadership contest last year, was “playing to the gallery” and had exaggerated when he told a Gay Pride event that his party was in favour of same-sex marriage.
Mr McDevitt had gone so far as to suggest that two former SDLP lord mayors of Belfast, Pat McCarthy and Pat Convery, who left a council meeting to discuss the issue, would be “given a dressing down”.
However, Mr McDonnell has told the News Letter that the party had not decided its stance on the controversial issue.
The SDLP leader’s comment comes after the party’s press office released a statement to this newspaper which said that “we as a party support equal [gay] marriage”.That statement said that individual members “may act in accordance with their personal conscience but the party’s position is clear”.
Historically, the SDLP has been seen as close to the Roman Catholic Church and the church is one of the most vocal opponents of proposals for gay marriage.
One source told the News Letter that the party’s Assembly group is “split down the middle” on the issue.
Mr McDonnell said: “This is the subject at the moment of debate within the SDLP and discussion at various levels. We have always approached these issues in terms of social justice, fairness and human rights.
“We’re in favour of full equality and human rights for people regardless of their sexual orientation.
“Now the gay marriage issue is an issue that has come on the scene relatively recently. The party has had various discussions and at various levels there are people for, there are people against and there are people in the middle who are not persuaded.
“We will in due course debate this further, I have no doubt that it will be an issue for our conference in November, but the SDLP will do the decent thing – the SDLP respects gay people 100 per cent, in their entirety.
“But I think it was a little bit of an exaggeration, maybe playing to the gallery, to say that the SDLP was 100 per cent [in support of gay marriage]. The SDLP is still debating the issue and I’m not going to second guess [what the party will decide].”
He added: “There’s a sizeable body of opinion in the SDLP that would be supportive.”
Mr McDevitt told the audience at Tuesday night’s Gay Pride debate that those holding views against gay reform were “increasingly marginalised”.
Asked what would happen to the councillors in question, Mr McDevitt told the audience: “I can’t envisage us expelling people. I think they’d get a good dressing down.”