Mile End Institute

Will Northern Ireland be next to legalise same sex marriage?

In this post, Jennifer Thomson considers the implications of recent rulings on same-sex marriage for the situation in Northern Ireland.

10 July 2015

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The USA Supreme Court judgement on same sex marriage highlights a phenomenon which has swept through the contemporary Western world. 

In the UK, England and Wales introduced same sex marriage legislation in 2013 with Scotland following suit shortly after in 2014. More recently, Ireland held a referendum in May of this year to change its constitution to extend the right to marry to same sex couples, making it the first country to do so through a public vote. 

This now leaves Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Isles where it is illegal to marry someone of the same sex. Jennifer Thomson looks further.

Although civil partnerships exist, they were introduced at the behest of the Westminster government which had direct rule over the province at the time. These measures were criticised by several political parties in the province. Northern Ireland has not followed the rest of the UK and extended marriage rights to same sex couples. Why is this the case?

The situation can partly be explained by the particular attitudes of political parties in the province. Same sex marriage laws haven’t failed for want of trying – legislation has been attempted four times through the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont. Every time it has failed, largely due to the strongly conservative stance adopted by the province’s main party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are staunchly opposed to any liberalisation.

Moreover, the DUP have – on each occasion - used a veto mechanism, a particular feature of post-conflict governance in Northern Ireland. The veto (known as the petition of concern in the province) has been used but unnecessarily so, given that votes on same sex marriage have, as yet, failed to gain a majority in the Assembly. There are however, signs that this could be changing.

In April this year, the proposed same sex marriage amendment saw a vote against the change win by just two votes. A large number of Members stayed away, however, suggesting that they are still undecided on the issue or too wary of how they might potentially be damaged at the ballot box if they were to nail their colours to the mast.

Northern Ireland’s particular situation on same-sex marriage also has to be situated in the broader context of social conservatism in the province. The province maintains its difference on a wide range of social issues. Abortion is only available when there is a serious, long-term risk to the woman’s health, which is a far stricter set of conditions than the rest of the UK. Sexually active gay men cannot donate blood, a decision which has been (partially) reversed in the rest of the UK. Following a widely publicised court case into a bakery which refused to produce a cake with a slogan celebrating gay marriage, a senior DUP politician attempted to have a ‘conscience clause’ inserted into Northern Irish legislation, which would have allowed businesses to refuse services on the basis of strictly held religious beliefs. More widely, the province has struggled for years with racially motivated attacks aimed at the population’s growing ethnic minority communities. Recent estimates suggest there may be as many as two race hate attacks or incidents per day in the province.

Despite these challenges, proponents of same sex marriage have reasons to be hopeful. A judicial review has been granted by the High Court in Belfast to allow for a consideration of whether or not the current situation is discriminatory and will be heard later this year. Given how difficult it has proven to generate movement on this politically, legal mechanisms may be the only way for Northern Ireland to be moved – willingly or otherwise - into line with the rest of these islands.

Jennifer Thomson is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations. Her focus is the politics of abortion legislation in contemporary Northern Ireland. More information about Jennifer's research is available here.