My Lords, I acknowledge the sensitive nature of the issues we are debating. Over my years as a Christian minister, I have found that gracious words have the power to heal and that unguarded words have the power to hurt. I do not wish to be offensive to anyone by my words, but I want to be honest in the expression of my heartfelt beliefs. I do not doubt the sincerity of others who hold a different view, but respect goes two ways. It must be given not only by those on one side of the argument but also by those on the opposite side of the argument. I trust that those who hold biblical views on marriage are treated with equal respect.
Until recent years, throughout the United Kingdom marriage was recognised to be a lifelong and exclusive union between one man and one woman. It was generally accepted that marriage was instituted by God in the beginning and was God’s gift to the whole of society. However, we are faced with a clause which has been commended to the Committee today. I want to draw attention to what I believe is a fundamental consequence to which this Committee needs to give serious consideration.
During the recent debate on leaving the European Union, it was stressed over and over again by Members across the House that the imperative was not to undermine the Belfast agreement and that there were grave dangers in so doing. Indeed, some Members of your Lordships’ House warned of the dangers to the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland and of the possibility of a return to violence.
Under the devolution settlement and the Belfast agreement, it is clear that legislating for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Indeed, the Belfast agreement states:
“The Assembly will exercise full legislative and executive authority … within the responsibility”,
devolved to it. It is acknowledged that, under that arrangement, key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis, which includes the provision for a petition of concern to be brought by a significant minority of Assembly Members—that was a vital ingredient of the Belfast agreement. The devolution settlement was founded on the much-heralded Belfast agreement. Members of this House cannot have it both ways, one moment proclaiming the virtues of the Belfast agreement and strict allegiance to it and the devolution settlement, and the next casting them all aside in the dustbin whenever it suits.
It can rightly be said that, at present, the devolved Government are not meeting in Northern Ireland. That is the fault not of the people of Northern Ireland but of those who pulled it down at their whim for their own political ends. When same-sex marriage was brought to the court, it ruled that it was for the Northern Ireland Assembly, not a judge, to decide social policy. There are those in your Lordships’ House who are seeking a way forward to have devolved government restored, and I must faithfully state to this House that to override the Northern Ireland Assembly on this most sensitive matter could not only hasten the demand for direct rule—and many are now calling for that—but could destroy the restoration of devolved government for a generation. One could rightly ask: what is the use of having devolved government when, at the whim of Westminster, it will decide contentious issues that must be resolved between the peoples of Northern Ireland from the ground up rather than by dictation from the top down? What this amendment proposes is in reality an imposition on the people of Northern Ireland, not devolution. Indeed, this House needs to think long and hard before it rubbishes the hopes of devolution being returned.