opinion

‘As you celebrate five years of same-sex marriage, please don’t forget about gay people in Northern Ireland’

Half a decade after the first same-sex weddings took place in England and Wales, Northern Ireland's gay community is no closer to equality, writes Ben Kelly.

2019-03-29

As England and Wales marks five years of same-sex marriage in - a monumental moment which was quickly followed in Scotland too – don’t forget that gay men and woman in Northern Ireland still do not enjoy this right.

This doesn’t just affect people in Northern Ireland who cannot marry the person they love. If you took a trip from England, Wales or Scotland to Northern Ireland with your same-sex husband or wife, your marriage would not be valid there. This gross injustice is an ongoing blight on equality and justice across these islands, and must be fought.

In June 2018, I crossed the border from Derry to Donegal to marry my husband legally. Thanks to the Democratic Unionist Party, I was unable to celebrate this landmark moment in my home city. When we are in London or Dublin, our marriage is valid, but back in Derry it is not. This is absurd and unacceptable.

Marriage rights are a devolved matter to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, and in theory this is a good thing. The people of Ireland should be making their laws in their own land. But same-sex marriage has been consistently blocked by the DUP - a stubborn, ultra-conservative party, whose penchant for blocking political progress is currently being enjoyed by the country as a whole.

Despite a majority of members at Stormont voting for same-sex marriage, the DUP have employed a veto which is supposed to be used to protect the rights of minorities. In a cruel irony, Arlene Foster’s party have used this to deny rights to a minority - the gay community - a group which they have a long history of demonising and discriminating against.

The DUP uphold Northern Ireland’s link with the UK while claiming to be as British as you can get. In fact, they are so British, the British Prime Minister no longer appears British enough for them. Her very necessary Brexit backstop is deemed so abhorrent to them, they’re willing to hold the rest of Britain to ransom to show just how British they are.

But while the rest of the country enjoys same-sex marriage, and now lauds it as a British value, the DUP shamelessly reject it. A slightly different trading arrangement from the rest of the country they absolutely cannot accept. But letting two consenting adults marry? They can make an exception. For a party with such dogmatic ideology, their principles are often sacrificed on the altar of hypocrisy.

It didn’t even shame them to witness the Republic of Ireland voting by 62% for same-sex marriage in a 2015 referendum - a moment which warmed hearts around the world, and showed that formerly conservative nations can change, and even lead the way on social progress.

Ben Kelly was forced to cross the border into Ireland in order to marry his husband in June 2018.

Many have probably tuned out from the ongoing absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, which has now not been sitting for 26 months. One of the primary reasons why this arrangement collapsed - and why it has not yet been restored - is because the DUP will not yield to Sinn Fein’s calls for same-sex marriage to be legalised.

Stormont must be restored as soon as it possibly can be - the current situation is utterly unsustainable - but nor can we go back to a system where the DUP get to block a democratic vote because it goes against their conservative, religious beliefs.

As on many topics - including Brexit - the DUP do not speak for Northern Ireland. In April 2018, a Sky Data poll found that 76% of people there support legalising same-sex marriage - a massive margin which even eclipses the Republic of Ireland’s referendum result. The DUP, who are so keen to uphold ‘the will of the people’ on Brexit, are happy to ignore it when it doesn’t suit their own outdated ideology.

But the people of Northern Ireland will not give up. We will work with MPs in the House of Commons who support this change. We will pursue equality in the courts. And we will demand reforms which will stop this political discrimination from continuing, as we seek to build a new, fairer country.

When it comes to celebrating our achievements in the LGBT community - whether it’s at Pride, or on anniversary such as this - it’s always important that we remember those who are not yet enjoying the same freedoms and rights, as well as remembering that we cannot take our own progress for granted. It was Martin Luther King Jr who said it best: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I appreciate there is little that the average person in the rest of the UK can do about the situation in Northern Ireland, but your voices are always heard, and your solidarity is invaluable. So please, don’t forget us.

Ben Kelly is Deputy Social Media Editor for The Independent. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.