Go ahead for gay marriage legal challenge

Shannon Sickles (right) and Grainne Close leaving Belfast City Hall following their civil partnership ceremony in 2005
Shannon Sickles (right) and Grainne Close leaving Belfast City Hall following their civil partnership ceremony in 2005

Two couples have cleared the first legal hurdle in their bid to challenge a ban on gay marriage in Northern Ireland.

A judge in Belfast High Court granted them leave to judicially review the refusal to legalise same sex marriage in the region.

Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane are taking the joint action.

They were, respectively, the first and second couples in the UK to enter into a civil partnership after Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to make that option available to same-sex couples in December 2005.

However, the Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected a proposal calling for the introduction of gay marriage on four occasions since, with unionists opposed to the move using a contentious voting mechanism to effectively veto it.

Following the “Yes” vote in May’s referendum on marriage equality in the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland is now set to be the only part of the UK or Ireland where civil marriage is denied to gay couples.

Earlier this month, about 20,000 campaigners marched in Belfast city centre demanding a change in the law.

Neither couple was in court for this morning’s brief hearing.

Their barrister and her counterpart for the Northern Ireland Executive were anticipating making oral submissions, but judge Mr Justice Treacy said he had read the case papers and had already satisfied himself that the matter should proceed to judicial review.

“The applicant has an arguable case,” he said.

The case was listed for a mention hearing in September.

Campaigners from Amnesty International and LGBT health organisation the Rainbow Project were in court.

Other supporters of the legal bid, including former Northern Ireland Assembly member Dawn Purvis and comic actress Nuala McKeever, also attended the hearing.