My Lords, I am pleased to rise in support of the amendment to which I have added my name. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, on his introduction of this amendment. He covered a wide range of issues and principles with which I absolutely agree, not the least being that in a United Kingdom equal rights should apply equally across the entire union and not be administered separately.
It has been asked: what is the use of having a devolved Government? I might argue: what is the use of having a devolved Government when they do not govern? This situation has now been going on for two years and this House has consistently called for it and other issues to be dealt with.
The Belfast agreement has, quite rightly, been referred to. In our debates on—one might say “sadly”—exiting the European Union, I referred to the effect on human rights, not least in relation to the Belfast agreement and the Republic of Ireland. On the Belfast agreement, I was much reassured by Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—you do not often hear Labour politicians saying that—when she confirmed that Parliament remains competent to legislate on this matter. On
“In accordance with the Belfast Agreement”,
“is a devolved matter which should be addressed in the NI Assembly; but the power of the Westminster Parliament to legislate remains unaffected. If this issue were to be raised in Westminster, the Government’s policy is to allow a free vote on matters of conscience such as equal marriage”.
So there we have it: this would not undermine the Belfast agreement. It is high time that Parliament took action on this matter. We have waited too long.
Is Northern Ireland ready for equal rights in terms of equal marriage? I say by way of slight digression that I warmly refer to the work that I did with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on this issue. Indeed, we began to commission a Private Member’s Bill on it from a friend of ours at the University of York, but the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, made a wonderful start ahead of us.
It is worth reflecting that the most recent Assembly election in March 2017 elected a majority of Members who support equal marriage. At least 55 of the 90 Assembly Members have publicly declared that they would vote to introduce marriage equality. Do the Northern Ireland public support marriage equality? We all know that in polls the question is often designed to bring about the required answer, but marriage equality has enjoyed clear and growing support among the Northern Ireland public for many years. A Sky Data poll conducted in March 2018 of a representative sample of 1,140 people in Northern Ireland recorded 76% support, with just 18% being opposed. I would like to see a much wider poll conducted.
How can this amendment help? I believe that it is beautifully worded. It provides for an extension of the right to marry to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland. It provides a reasonable time period after the Bill becomes law for the possibility that a new Northern Ireland Executive will be formed and that the Assembly might then wish to take a different approach, respecting devolution. In the absence of that eventuality, it provides time for the Government to make the necessary regulatory changes. I believe that the amendment strikes an appropriate balance between the role of the Assembly to legislate if it is re-established and the responsibility of legislators at Westminster to ensure that equality is implemented if it is not done by the devolved Government.
I have nothing more to say other than to thank Stonewall for its support and briefing, as well as Love Equality of Northern Ireland, which has done incredible and ground-breaking work on this very important issue.