Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has indicated that he will not vote for gay marriage in the Assembly next week – despite saying that such a stance puts him “on the wrong side of history”.
However, Mr Nesbitt did not firmly rule out voting for the fifth Assembly motion on the issue in five years, suggesting that he could abstain – “I cannot imagine me voting in the aye lobby the next time it is debated”.
At the UUP conference on Saturday, Mr Nesbitt made a significant shift in the UUP’s language on the issue, even though he told delegates that he had no intention of taking a party stance on the issue.
On Monday Mr Nesbitt said that he still believes marriage to be “between a man and a woman” and said that he will not vote for same-sex marriage when it comes before the Assembly next week.
He told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show that the issue gives him “sleepless nights” and said he was “challenging myself always on these issues”.
The Strangford MLA said that he was “against same-sex marriage” but was “warning our conference that I think that the argument will be lost” as he believes that the courts will legalise same-sex marriage even if the Assembly continues to oppose it.
Mr Nesbitt also linked opposition to gay marriage to the higher rates of mental health problems among gay people.
He said that research shows that “47 per cent of people in the LGBT community have considered suicide and the attitude of people like me to them in regard to opposing same-sex marriage is a factor”.
No elected UUP representatives spoke out against Mr Nesbitt’s comments, but one rural party member privately said that there was unease that Mr Nesbitt had “opened a can of worms”.
Veteran east Belfast councillor Jim Rodgers said that he was happy that the leader had stated that the issue would remain as an issue of conscience.
The former Belfast Lord Mayor, who said that he was opposed to same-sex marriage, said he had “no problem leaving it to someone’s conscience ... that’s what been happening for the last few years in our party”.
He said that “the leader is trying to be fair and reasonable” and added that it “may be an issue which we will want to bring to the party executive and they will discuss it and come to a decision”.
As it happens, next week’s vote will be largely symbolic as the DUP has tabled a petition of concern to effectively veto the joint SDLP-Sinn Fein motion.
SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood condemned what he said was the DUP’s “abuse” of that mechanism, coming just a week after the DUP tabled another petition of concern to block a bill which would have exempted amateur sports clubs from rates.
But DUP chief whip Peter Weir said: “This will be the fifth time that Assembly members have debated this issue and on each occasion the result has been the same.
“The DUP’s position will remain consistent with how we have voted previously.
“It is an issue which must be debated sensitively as there are strongly held views on both sides. It is for other parties and their members to comment on their positions.”