Northern Ireland lawmakers on Monday for the first time voted in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples.The historic 53-52 vote is the first time a majority of lawmakers in Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. voted in favor of the issue. The Democratic Unionist Party, a Protestant party which has the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, used a “petition of concern” to effectively veto the motion.
The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that formally ended decades of sectarian conflict known as the “troubles” established Northern Ireland’s current governing structure in which Catholics and Protestants share power. The Guardian reported that any political party can introduce a “petition of concern” if they conclude “there is not enough backing from Protestants or Catholics” for a particular bill.
The “petition of concern” requires a bill to receive a simple majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the support of at least 40 percent of unionist lawmakers — those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K. — and nationalist legislators — those who back a unified Ireland — in order to pass.
“It is true that the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) have abused the ‘petition of concern’ to block this vote and are now ignoring the will of the assembly and the people of Northern Ireland,” said John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project, an LGBT advocacy group in Northern Ireland, in a statement after the vote. “We will not allow them to dampen our joy.”
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International UK, another group that urged lawmakers to support the issue, told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, that he and other advocates knew the motion “would officially fail.”
“The significant thing was for the first time the majority of assembly members voted in favor,” said Corrigan.
Monday’s vote is the fifth time the Northern Ireland Assembly has considered the issue.
Amnesty International UK and the Rainbow Project launched an email campaign ahead of the vote that urged lawmakers to support the motion.
Up to 20,000 people in June attended a Belfast march in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples. A public opinion poll released over the summer indicated 68 percent of Northern Ireland residents support nuptials for gays and lesbians.
Gay New York State Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, who co-sponsored his state’s same-sex marriage bill that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law in 2011, last month traveled to Northern Ireland. The Manhattan Democrat delivered a speech at a Belfast university about efforts to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples in New York and across the U.S.
“The (Northern Ireland) Assembly’s vote in favor of marriage equality is an important step in ensuring equal rights and protections to LGBT persons,” O’Donnell told the Blade on Monday in a statement.
Irish marriage referendum ‘closely watched’
Monday’s vote took place less than six months after Ireland became the first country in the world to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples through a popular vote.
Irish President Michael Higgins in August officially signed an amendment to his country’s constitution that allows nuptials for gays and lesbians. Same-sex couples are expected to be able to legally marry later this month after the Irish Presidential Commission last week formally signed a law allowing them to do so.
“The overwhelming vote in the referendum in the Republic of Ireland in May was closely watched north of the border in Northern Ireland,” Corrigan told the Blade.
Scotland, England and Wales are among the European jurisdictions in which same-sex couples can legally marry. Northern Ireland remains the only part of the U.K. in which gays and lesbians are unable to tie the knot.
Two Belfast courts later this month and in December are expected to hear cases filed by same-sex couples who are seeking marriage rights in Northern Ireland.
Corrigan conceded to the Blade that it “remains difficult” to “push” a same-sex marriage bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly because the Unionist Democratic Party remains willing to use the “petition of concern” to effectively block it. Both he and O’Doherty said using the courts remain their most viable option in securing marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“Our campaign continues,” said O’Doherty. “It will not end until marriage equality is a reality for everyone in Northern Ireland.”