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Northern Ireland: new Westminster move to lift same-sex marriage ban

Campaigners, including Lord Hayward (front row, second from right) in Westminster Hall last March © Amnesty International

‘This amendment respects the role of Stormont, but also recognises the reality that those devolved institutions are not currently functioning’ - Lord Robert Hayward

A Conservative peer has launched a fresh attempt to legislate for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland with an amendment to the Civil Partnerships Bill which will be debated in the House of Lords on Friday (1 February).

Lord Robert Hayward, who introduced a Private Member’s Bill on the issue last year, has tabled an amendment to the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths Bill, which would extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has been without an Assembly and Executive for more than two years, which has stalled progress towards equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Lord Hayward’s amendment would bring same-sex marriage legislation to Northern Ireland, while including a clause that would give the Northern Ireland Assembly six months to overturn the equal marriage provision following the Bill becoming law, to allow for a scenario where the devolved government returns to power.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland which still bans marriage for same-sex couples, despite majority support for equal marriage amongst the public and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. At least 55 out of 90 Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have publicly voiced their support for marriage equality legislation but have been unable to legislate since the collapse of Stormont on 9 January 2017.

Lord Hayward said:

“This amendment respects the role of Stormont, but also recognises the reality that those devolved institutions are not currently functioning.

“Same-sex couples in Northern Ireland should not be asked to wait indefinitely for equality with the rest of the UK. It is time for Westminster to put right that wrong.”

Campaigners in Northern Ireland have welcomed the move. Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director at Amnesty International and a member of the Love Equality campaign for equal marriage in Northern Ireland, said:

“This is a welcome move from Lord Hayward. More than two years after the collapse of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, we need legislators at Westminster to secure equal marriage for all.

“If Stormont returns, we are happy to continue our work with MLAs across the parties to change the law, but meanwhile, equality can’t wait.”

Collapse of Stormont

In January 2017, both the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly collapsed after Sinn Féin withdrew their support. Attempts to restore power-sharing have failed.

Same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland

In November 2015, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to support equal marriage, but the measure was blocked by the Democratic Unionist Party which issued a Petition of Concern, a voting mechanism originally designed to protect the rights of minorities in Northern Ireland.

On 20 February 2018, Karen Bradley MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that Parliament can legislate for equal marriage in Northern Ireland in a written answer to Conor McGinn MP:

“In accordance with the Belfast Agreement, [marriage] is a devolved matter which should be addressed in the NI Assembly; but the power of the Westminster Parliament to legislate remains unaffected. If this issue were to be raised in Westminster, the Government’s policy is to allow a free vote on matters of conscience such as equal marriage.”

However, to date, the UK Government has refused to legislate or allocate parliamentary time for either of the two Private Members’ Bills which have been submitted to Parliament on equal marriage legislation.

Wide public support

A Sky News opinion poll in April last year showed 76% support for marriage equality amongst the Northern Ireland public. Meanwhile, Amnesty’s petition calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to introduce a bill to legalise equal marriage in Northern Ireland has more than 35,000 signatures.

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