Same sex marriage campaigners parade in Belfast

Activists campaigning to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland take part in a parade through Belfast city centre on 2 June 2018. Photo: Peter Morrison/PA Wire
Activists campaigning to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland take part in a parade through Belfast city centre on 2 June 2018. Photo: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

Same sex marriage campaigners have insisted any deal to restore Stormont powersharing must include reform of a controversial voting mechanism that has blocked a law change in Northern Ireland.

Thousands of activists marched through Belfast to demand an end to the ban on gay marriage.

Demonstrators made it clear they would not support a revived powersharing executive if it was not accompanied by a radical overhaul of the petition of concern.

As many as 20,000 people, including former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, lined the sunny city centre on Saturday, according to Amnesty International.

Chants of “Change is on the way” and “You can’t stop change” rang through the air outside Belfast City Hall.

A majority of MLAs backed the introduction of same sex marriage the last time it was debated on the floor of the Assembly before the institutions collapsed almost 18 months ago, but the use of the petition of concern (PoC) by the Democratic Unionists rendered that irrelevant.

The petition, which is a peace process construct designed to protect minority views in a post-conflict society, means a proposal can only be passed in the Assembly if a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalist MLAs support it, rather than a straightforward majority head count.

The DUP is far from the only Stormont party accused of abusing the mechanism, with rivals also criticised for deploying it on other issues many claim have little to do with protecting minority rights.

The party has also said it is willing to scrap the petition entirely if others, including Sinn Fein, agree.

John O’Doherty, a prominent activist with the Love Equality coalition campaigning for a law change, told the rally any future deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein needed to encompass reform of the PoC.

“It has been almost 18 months since the Northern Ireland Assembly last sat,” he said.

“I know many of our MLAs are here today. We thank them for their support.

“We know that at least 55 out of 90 MLAs now back equal marriage. Yet still they cannot deliver.

“No party or group of MLAs should hold a veto over people lives, over people’s rights - and this campaign will not be held to ransom by those who seek to hold Northern Ireland back, who refuse to recognise the rights of LGBT people and our families.

“Our message is clear - any return of the Executive and the Assembly must include real reform of the petition of concern.

“Up front reform, not an afterthought or a postscript to any deal, or a can to be kicked down the road.

“And to the DUP and those who seek to use this veto to deny us our rights - history will judge your actions.

“Over 75% of people across Northern Ireland now support the introduction of marriage equality - and we will not be silenced.

“We will not be deterred.”

In a blunt message to Prime Minister Theresa May and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, Mr O’Doherty said human rights “could not be based on postcodes”.

The UK Government has come under pressure to legislate on the issue amid the ongoing absence of powersharing.

Armagh-born Labour MP Conor McGinn, who failed in a recent bid to change the law through a private member’s bill at Westminster, warned Mrs May the issue was “not going away”.

“The message from the thousands here today in Belfast is loud and clear,” he said.

“It is a message for the Prime Minister and the Government, and it is: we love equality, we stand with LGBT couples, we demand the same rights as everyone else in the UK and the island of Ireland, and we want equal marriage now.

“We are on the right side of history. We will not give up. This is not going away. And we are going to win.”

Paula Keenan and her partner Pauline Dempsey, who got married in Dublin as they were unable to in Belfast, were among those at the colourful parade.

“I’m a Belfast woman, this is my home, all my major life events have happened here, except one,” said Ms Keenan.

“I had to leave my home and go to Dublin to get married.

“So Pauline and I got married in Dublin - when we go to England, Wales or Scotland, we’re married.

“I fell seriously ill in Spain a couple of years ago, Pauline sat by my bed for five weeks, the Spanish nurses and doctors addressed Pauline as my wife.

“When we visit our son in Trump’s callous America, even there we are a married couple.

“We spend a lot of time in Dublin with Pauline’s family - again, we’re a married couple.

“We spend Sundays in Ikea the same as all the other boring married couples.

“As we head home from Dublin, about 56 miles up the road, we are suddenly no longer married.

“Doesn’t matter if it’s a hard border or a soft border, we’re stripped of our rights as soon as we cross it.

“What kind of logic is that? It makes as much sense as Northern Ireland’s abortion laws - and they don’t make any sense at all.”

Actor Bronagh Waugh, who is heavily involved in the campaign, called on Mrs May to “deliver on the promise of equality”.

“There can be no second class citizens in the UK or Ireland,” she said.

“Theresa May, we have a message for you. Prime Minister, it is unacceptable that your Government is now colluding in the denial of human rights to people in Northern Ireland.

“We are not second class citizens. We refuse to be treated as second class citizens.”