Attempts to have same-sex marriage introduced in Northern Ireland while the Assembly remains suspended have “little prospect” of succeeding, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.
The Lagan Valley MP said a new bill being introduced in the House of Lords today was “more of a symbolic gesture” than the normal procedure for developing legislation.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Bill is being promoted by Conservative peer Lord Hayward, while Labour MP Conor McGinn will introduce a parallel ‘ten minute rule’ bill in the Commons on Thursday.
Campaigners have described the parallel bills as a “powerful demonstration of cross-party, cross-parliamentary support” for the push to change the law in Northern Ireland.
However, Sir Jeffrey said the Stormont Assembly was the only appropriate place to legislate for a devolved matter such as same-sex marriage.
“I think there is very little prospect of the bill getting through all of the stages in the parliamentary process, and it remains our view that this is a devolved matter and clearly should be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“It is more of a symbolic gesture,” he said.
Asked if the lack of a functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland meant it was now appropriate for some MPs to seek a Commons’ vote on the issue, Sir Jeffrey said: “We are of the view it is a devolved matter and should remain a devolved matter.”
Lord Hayward said a petition containing 30,000 signatures being handed in to Downing Street on Wednesday demonstrated the strength of public opinion on the issue.
“I am pleased to introduce the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Bill in the Lords with the support of the Love Equality campaign from Northern Ireland. The strength of public opinion for equal marriage rights in Northern Ireland will be shown by the petition they are due to present to Downing Street later this week.”
Lord Hayward said he was “particularly delighted” to be launching his bill in the presence of John Henry, brother of Ulster Rugby star Chris Henry, who recently revealed that not feeling able to tell his brother personally that he was gay was “one of the biggest regrets” of his life.
Lord Hayward said John Henry’s story “moved me and so many others in recent weeks”.
Patrick Corrigan of the Love Equality campaign, said: “We welcome this important intervention by Lord Hayward. Our preference has always been for the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass marriage equality legislation, in line with the overwhelming support which exists among the public here. However, without functioning devolution for the last 15 months, we now look to Westminster to legislate.”
Mr Corrigan added: “Lord Hayward’s bill, in parallel with Conor McGinn’s bill in the Commons later this week, is a powerful demonstration of cross-party, cross-parliamentary support for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.
“We call on the UK government to introduce its own legislation to ensure equality can now become law for Northern Ireland couples. Discrimination against LGBT couples in Northern Ireland can no longer be tolerated.”
In a written answer to Conor McGinn last month, NI Secretary Karen Bradley said government MPs would have a free vote on any new legislation relating to same-sex marriage.
Peter Lynas, Northern Ireland director of Evangelical Alliance, said: “The legal definition of marriage in Northern Ireland is a question for the people of Northern Ireland. Conor McGinn may originally be from here but he now represents the people of St Helens North and Lord Hayward has no mandate.
“It is also striking to see representatives from other devolved nations happy to support a motion undermining devolution. They might be less keen if Westminster was being used to force legislation through in Scotland or Wales.
“Northern Ireland has serious issues with no government and Brexit looming – the last thing it needs is to be treated as a virtue signalling political football by Westminster.”
The NI Assembly has voted four times against same-sex marriage but on the fifth, in November 2015, a majority supported change 53-52. On that occasion it was blocked with a DUP petition of concern.