A motion to introduce same-sex marriage in the North was narrowly defeated in the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday when only three unionist members supported it.
However, equality campaigners hailed the closeness of the vote as evidence of changed times. The motion to extend the rights already available under civil partnership was brought by Sinn Féin and the Green Party, but it was effectively blocked by the DUP, which tabled a “petition of concern”, meaning it needed cross-community support.
The vote was lost by a slim margin of 45 to 49. Of the 45 MLAs in support of the motion, only three were unionists.
The British government is consulting over whether to extend marriage rights to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, while the SNP government in Scotland has pledged to introduce legislation by 2015.
Gavin Boyd of the Equal Marriage NI campaign said he was “very happy” with the vote.
“A vote this close couldn’t even have been considered some years back,” he said. “There were quite a few MLAs missing from the Assembly for various reasons, so there’s every reason to assume it might have passed.
“The DUP’s tabling of the petition of concern was a cynical ploy and an abuse of the petition. The petition exists as a mechanism to protect minority interests, not as a veto.
“But at the end of the day, we view their actions as an expression of their fear – it shows they believe the motion could have passed.”
Prior to the debate, there were lively exchanges in the Assembly. Jim Allister, of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said that just as civil partnership had been the “slippery slope to same-sex marriage”, the legalisation of gay marriage would be a “slippery slope to gay adoption”. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson said a change in the law would create conflicts between church and state – “for example, church youth groups could be banned from using council facilities” as a result of their religious beliefs.
Conall McDevitt of the SDLP countered this “flawed logic” by posing the question: “Are Catholic schools teaching children about divorce?” Sinn Féin MLA Caitríona Ruane sparred energetically with the DUP, scoffing at the “1866 laws they are quoting at us”.