Back in Christmas 2005 I was still living in Northern Ireland and proud to say so. As a gay person, I was ecstatic that the first same-sex civil partnership had just taken place in Belfast’s iconic City Hall. Shannon Sickels and Grainne Close took the historic step as other parts of the UK were still wrestling with the complexities of the new law, meaning that, for once, it was left to Northern Ireland to act as the nation’s beacon of progress.
That’s not to say that in 2005 the official union of a lesbian couple was met with universal enthusiasm – quite the opposite. But it did offer some hope for a more equal future.
In 2017, however, that beacon of progress has been severely dimmed. Northern Ireland is now better known as the only part of the UK not to have introduced same-sex marriage after the DUP vetoed it, when even its traditionally Roman Catholic southern neighbour has done so. The lack of progress is also seen through the lens of the Tory/DUP alliance that was established after the last General Election, something that shone a huge torch on the DUP’s staunch resistance to the rights of LGBT+ people, as well as those of women seeking to have an abortion.
So, this week’s ruling by a judge at the High Court determining that the ban on same-sex marriage is perfectly legal doesn’t come as a surprise at a time when the global tug of war between equality and tradition seems to be at a heightened state. The case was admirably taken by Shannon and Grainne, along with Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, one of the UK’s first male couples to enter into a civil partnership. Their argument asserted that the ban breaches Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, by denying respect for their private and family lives.
It was always going to be hard case to prove. The UK’s devolved governments were established while we were very much still part of the European Union, so it would have been a remarkable turn of events to find out that we had all along been contravening human rights law. So the judge duly declared the same, stating that it was for the Stormont Assembly and not the courts to decide social policy. And, within the current constitution, he’s right.
But there lies the crucial point. The ban may not be illegal, but it shows that there is a fundamental flaw in how UK social policy is implemented.
The couples have now appealed to Theresa May to intervene, forcing same-sex marriage to be legalised in Northern Ireland, in line with the rest of the country. And this focus on changing the flawed law is the wisest course.
There has been some suggestion that the DUP will eventually give up their opposition. Indeed, just before the ruckus surrounding the Tory deal, the party had assented to Turing’s Law (which gave pardons to gay men convicted before decriminalisation) being extended to Northern Ireland, some DUP members tweeted well-wishes during this year’s Belfast Pride, and their leader Arlene Foster is seen as a much more moderate, amenable politician than her predecessors.
But it’s not enough to kick our heels and hope that change will come. On social issues that are as big as this, I believe government policy should, without exception, be implemented on a UK-wide basis. The four nations of the UK make one country and these policies define who we are as a people and also what we stand for.
Cultural differences between the four nations are inevitable and enhance the diversity that is a credit to the UK, and it’s completely right that the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have control over issues that uniquely affect their areas. But I don’t believe that same-sex marriage falls into that category. To deny a section of the community the same rights it enjoys in every other part of the country, especially because of personal religious beliefs, is just plain wrong.
And if Theresa May genuinely wants to be seen as the advocate for equality that she so often pertains to be, she will do well to listen to the calls for her intervention. Let me look at Northern Ireland with pride again.
Words by Brian Campbell