My Lords, in rising to move my amendment, I will make reference to a number of different aspects, but it is appropriate on St David’s Day to start and follow a theme through my comments. That is on comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others in reference to what has changed. Since I last spoke on this amendment four weeks ago, the Welsh beat the English—damn them. I notice at this point the Welsh contingent is moving, although I tried not to offend them and to acknowledge their achievement.
Before I come to my own amendment, I will refer to fears arising from it. First, I refer to my own comments in col. 1308 of Hansard on
“I do not want to delay the Bill or lose it at any point”.—[Official Report, 1/2/19; col. 1308.]
That is the key message I convey to the literally hundreds of people who have written to me in fear of the possibility that they may lose their opportunity for a civil partnership. As far as I am concerned, that is not in question. Actually, gay relationships and gay marriage have gained hundreds of supporters in Northern Ireland, because all the emails I have received have not only been overwhelmingly courteous but have also committed to supporting what I am trying to achieve. From whichever part of the land, they have made that clear.
In saying that and congratulating those who have organised it, I make two observations. One is that there was a fear about what the Conservative Party would do, which is based on an incorrect premise, because what I am asking this House in this amendment is a matter of conscience. People should therefore be allowed a free vote, under the circumstances. That is clear. I have also commented on previous occasions—and I come back to the message of change—that there is a clear indication that attitudes are changing markedly in Northern Ireland. This applies across all sectors of the community, and I believe it will continue. Therefore, the supposition of opposition there is also incorrect.
I say on this in conclusion that I have had some touching comments from the civil partnerships lobby. I will quote from one that clearly exemplifies the reason for this legislation, as one is tempted to forget the key element. This is a message I had from somebody in Newton Abbot in Devon, close to my birthplace. This female partner says in part of her letter,
“I am always afraid if he”— her partner—
“is late from work that something may have happened, and the knowledge that I am not his legal next of kin hurts me deeply”.
That summarises incredibly well what this legislation, as it stands, is trying to achieve. I wish all those well who will benefit from the Bill. The number of representations I have had leads me to the conclusion that so many people will have the opportunity to celebrate their partnerships that we will kick-start the economy in one go by all the parties to which we might be invited—although I note I was not invited to the celebration of the noble Lord, Lord Cashman; I will feel scorned for ever hereafter.
Regarding my Amendment 2, which relates to Northern Ireland, as I said at the start of my comments, things have changed. I concluded my speech here on
“Sooner or later, on behalf of however many people, we have to say enough is enough”.—[Official Report, 1/2/19; col. 1310.]
I believe that. I believe it sincerely, on behalf of large numbers of people, because things have changed. When we stood here on
“There’s nothing wrong with being gay”.
I praise Joe Root for his comments, which meant so much to so many people. That resonated not just with me and the gay community but the whole of this nation. I ask everybody in Northern Ireland to recognise that matters are changing.
I have paid compliments to those who lobbied on civil partnerships. The other thing that has happened since
The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, spoke at the last debate. He was very courteous. He came to me and I acknowledged there was a problem with flights. I therefore did not comment on his comments at the time. He said:
“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”.—[Official Report, 1/2/19; col. 1310.]
I respect people who hold different views from me. I recognise that it is important, in any debate on whatever subject, that we respect people who hold different views. As long as they have been carefully thought through, we must respect every point of view.
But the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, made no reference in his comments to when we might make the change if we go back to a proper devolved Assembly, nor did he indicate what his view would be if that were the position, because the position has changed in Northern Ireland. I made reference previously to the series of votes that had taken place in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Finally, in November 2015, there was a majority, but there was a petition of concern against it. As I indicated in reference to that petition:
“That is quite reasonable, because that is the constitutional practice in Northern Ireland”.—[Official Report, 1/2/19; col. 1308.]
I respect that, but as the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, who is in his seat today, acknowledged in a brief intervention in that debate:
“When … the petition of concern was created, it was intended to be used so that one political party would not impose its will on another … I do not think it was ever considered the means for one community to impose its moral standards on another”.—[Official Report, 1/2/19; cols. 1313-14.]
That was one Northern Ireland representative speaking with authority. After all is said and done, the noble Lord was deeply and heavily involved in the negotiations for the Belfast agreement.
I say it is a question of time, and I ask the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, to identify when enough is enough. Brazil was not recognised as an independent nation by the Portuguese for 13 years. Are we to sit here and wait for ever until there is an Assembly? Please can he give an indication of what timescale one is talking about, because people cannot and should not have to go on waiting for ever? Just as the people who are waiting for civil partnerships will benefit from the Bill, those who are waiting for the opportunity to have a marriage in Northern Ireland want to know whether their parents or grandparents will have the opportunity to witness their marriage. They should be able to look forward to that with a degree of certainty at some point.
In my previous contribution, I referred to the possibility of people from St Malachy’s and Belfast Inst coming together in a relationship, and possibly getting married. I have yet to be told of such a combination, but it is significant that I have had a person from St Malachy’s tell me that they support the Bill. I have had somebody from my own rugby club identify as coming from Inst—a gay guy who wants to have the opportunity to celebrate his marriage. So as far as I am concerned, this is something that one needs to see at some point over the horizon.
I started by commenting that I thought time had moved on—that the times were changing and enough was enough. My own relatives have moved back to Belfast. They are constituents in the most marginal constituency in Northern Ireland, Belfast South. They have moved back to Belfast because they believe that the world is changing, and they are some of the most astonishing advocates of the changing nature of Belfast. In moving my amendment today, I hope that the people who want to see the change can and will have the opportunity to know that they and their families can celebrate what we grant to everybody else across the rest of the United Kingdom. I beg to move.