Lucy Aylmer gives us a run-down of the history of gay rights in Northern Ireland after landmark same-sex marriage takes place in Belfast.
impeccably timed, the first gay marriage in Northern Ireland commenced on 11th of February; just a few days before Valentine’s Day. Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards tied the knot after meeting five years ago at a gay bar in Belfast. Robyn, originally from Belfast, was delighted at the recent legislation change and has stated how together, she and Sharni have made history through love. The couple received an overwhelming amount of support from politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn congratulating the MPs and activists who worked relentlessly to achieve equal marriage status, along with highly esteemed actresses like Nicola Coughlan, praising local movements and protests to legalise gay marriage. Unequivocally, the legalising of gay marriage has been a long time coming. Could this issue, one that has inflicted so much pain and blatant discrimination towards the LGBQT+ community, have been resolved sooner?
Comparatively speaking, Northern Ireland’s history of gay rights is surprising. As the first country to legalise civil partnerships, it was, in fact, the last to legalise gay marriage. Northern Ireland is characterised by a traditionalist Catholic structure that is heavily embedded within the political system. This has hindered the progress of gay rights due to the highly influential nature of religion in Northern Ireland, both historically with The Troubles, and with the present-day divisions of religious affiliations based on geography. Evidence of geographical-religious divisions have been observed through blatant demarcations of schools and residential areas attracting either Protestants or Catholics.
As the first country to legalise civil partnerships, Northern Ireland was, in fact, the last to legalise gay marriage.
Part of the reason why Northern Ireland has been excruciatingly slow on the legislature towards gay marriage has been due to the inefficient political model of two-party governance; effectively a permanent coalition similar to that of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition of 2010.
Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, governmental power has been shared between two different political parties under a consociational model of democracy. As of late, these two parties have been comprised of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Alas, these two parties are painfully conflicting on a range of issues. Typically, the DUP has taken a more conservative stance through vetoing gay rights legislation by wielding the Petition of Concern law that initiates a motion of cross-community support. The guileful use of this law by cunning DUP politicians has delayed gay marriage legislature. The law has acted as a veto mechanism for the DUP and has been utilised 37 times by the DUP since its inception in 1998. This may suggest why Northern Ireland was six years behind the rest of the UK to legalise gay rights.
Contrastingly, Sinn Fein has been the more accommodating party for LGBQT+ rights and thus is a party characterised by tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity towards endorsing the legalisation of gay marriage. As such, these contrasting political and social ideologies have rendered a parliamentary system prone to political deadlock and disagreement as the two parties take such polarising views. To put it mildly, the DUP and Sinn Fein are not a match made in heaven.
Ultimately, the challenge is not the legislature as that is a matter of procedure, but instead the deeply embedded cultural norms that have become so customary in Northern Ireland.
However, due to the arbitrary nature of politics and the often too frequent whimsical nature from which governance is decreed, an opportunity for pushing gay rights legislature arose. This originated from the deputy first minister, Martin McGuiness resigning in protest over the bungled green energy scheme of 2017. Subsequently, this led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, which is the institution orchestrating the devolved governance of Northern Ireland. Due to the consociationalism that characterises Northern Ireland’s political system, the government had not reached the reformation deadline of October 21st, earlier this year. Therefore, Northern Ireland’s executive responsibility of litigation has been passed on for Westminster to decide due to the inability to restore governance by the organised deadline. The result was a landslide victory with 383 MP’s voting to legalise gay marriage in Northern Ireland.
Whilst the legislation is in place, there is a great deal more to be done in eradicating homophobic viewpoints and the flagrant facilitation that the Catholic Church enshrines. The divisive social structure in Northern Ireland is predominantly based on religious viewpoints with evidence pointing towards Catholic and Protestant children taught in septate schools to diasporic communities, separated by Catholicism and Protestantism. This can create radicalisation of viewpoints as communities fail to assimilate and be exposed to alternative beliefs. As a result, this breeds a culture of intolerance and conflicting political deadlock, that can and has deprived people of marriage – allegedly the ‘happiest day of your life’. Ultimately, the challenge is not the legislature as that is a matter of procedure, but instead the deeply embedded cultural norms that have become so customary in Northern Ireland. Assimilating and exposing different cultural, social and religious groups together could help re-shape pre-existing beliefs that arguably are the root and source of the homophobic problems that Northern Ireland is troubled with.