Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes that other jurisdictions on these islands have moved forward with equal marriage rights for same-sex couples; believes that all couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, should have the same legal entitlement to marry and to the protections, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage; supports freedom of religion by allowing religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage according to their beliefs, granting them the freedom whether or not to conduct same-sex marriages; calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to introduce legislation to guarantee that couples of any sex or gender identity receive equal benefit; and further calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure that all legislation adheres to the Executive’s commitments to protect equality for all. — [Ms Ruane.]
This will be the second time that I have spoken on the issue in the Assembly. I previously voted in favour of an amended motion on 29 April 2013, and my contribution will be similar to before. I will speak in support of the motion on behalf of the Alliance Party.
It is the vision of the Alliance Party to build a shared society based on religious and civil liberty and equality for all citizens, regardless of age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It is Alliance Party policy to support the extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples and legislative protection for the religious freedom of faith groups and people of faith to define and observe marriage as they determine. I therefore welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue. My party and I believe that respectful and meaningful dialogue is clearly needed if we are to address the concerns of Members of the Assembly and the public about the issue.
I have carefully considered a wide range of sincerely and strongly held views on the issue. Some people oppose the proposal because they believe that equality is afforded to same-sex couples via civil partnerships; others oppose it because they believe that it is against their Christian faith or conscience; some support it because of their Christian faith or conscience; and some believe that it is the duty of the state to treat all citizens fairly and equally before the law. I believe that the democratic principles of freedom of religion, freedom from religion and equality before the law for all citizens is the best framework for government by the people, and that they can guide us on this particular issue.
As a Christian, I value greatly the freedom of religion that I have in a democracy to live and communicate my faith and my belief that marriage is the voluntary lifelong union of one man and one women to the exclusion of all others under God.
I therefore believe that the religious freedom of people and groups of faith to define and observe their understanding of marriage should be upheld.
However, I take very seriously my responsibility as a democratically elected representative to uphold not only the principle of freedom of religion but freedom from religion, and equality before the law for all citizens. It is my assessment that the law on marriage in Northern Ireland, as set out in the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, distinguishes between religious marriage and civil marriage, and that the law makes it a legal requirement that civil marriage be conducted with no religious or spiritual basis. The proposal before us is that state-provided civil marriage be extended to same-sex couples, with legislative protection for faith groups and people of faith to define and observe marriage as they determine. I therefore find it reasonable that a couple of same-sex orientation — a legal sexual orientation in Northern Ireland — under these principles and provisions, should expect to have access to state-provided civil marriage, with legislative protection for faith groups and people of faith to define and observe marriage as they determine.
We heard quite a few points here today about marriage being undermined or abolished, thin edges of wedges and far-reaching consequences. It is my sincere belief that people and groups of faith who have the freedom to define and observe religious marriage as they determine can ensure that the aspects of marriage that they hold dear and value greatly for themselves and for society can survive and thrive within this framework.
For all those reasons, and in line with Alliance Party policy and our vision for a shared society for everyone in Northern Ireland, I support the motion.
The Assembly has voted conclusively on two previous occasions — I trust that it will do so again today — to uphold the institution of marriage as the union between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. That definition of marriage has been the foundation of our society, predating Governments. However, over time, Governments have recognised that union, because of its undeniable benefits, as opposed to creating the institution.
Sinn Féin uses this issue as a weapon to attack those in our society who disagree with its perverse interpretation of equality. Given its track record as a sister organisation of the Provisional IRA, which was responsible for gross human rights violations, it is hardly in a position to present itself as a paragon of virtue when it comes to rights.
The motion is fundamentally flawed in that it calls for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Marriage being between a man and a woman is not discriminatory; it is the recognition of the natural truths that men and women are different and complementary, and the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman. But, when it comes to children, those who advance same-sex rights ignore all the evidence and place the demands of adults over the needs of children.
The motion is also flawed in that if you accept — I patently do not — that marriage should be redefined and extended to same-sex couples on the basis of a loving, committed relationship, why discriminate against people in multiple relationships? Some in the Chamber believe that the state should recognise polygamy, but why stop there? Why discriminate against brothers and sisters who have a brotherly and sisterly love towards each other and are in a lifelong committed relationship? Surely they should have the same legal and financial entitlements if marriage is to be defined as being a loving, committed relationship. That can be the only logical position of those who argue for redefining marriage to include homosexuals.
Some in the gay rights lobby aggressively attack anybody who takes a contrary opinion and go out of their way to be offended. Yet, those who hold to a biblical position or just a logical position, recognising the fundamental physics of procreation and how best to support that reality in the interests of society, are labelled as bigots and homophobic.
"Unjust discrimination against any person is always wrong. But [this law] is not ‘unjust discrimination’; rather, it merely affirms and protects the time-tested and unalterable meaning of marriage. The suggestion that this definition amounts to ‘discrimination’ is grossly false and represents an affront to millions of citizens."
I could not agree more.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has recognised that the demand for gay marriage is not a matter of equality. Importantly, the European Court of Human Rights has accepted that it is a matter for member states, under article 9 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states:
"The right to marry and the right to found a family shall be guaranteed in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of these rights."
I believe in devolution because it allows the people of Northern Ireland to take their own position on all of the issues devolved to us. Marriage is a devolved matter, and, within the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on the issue, as it was Westminster for England and Wales and the Parliament in Holyrood for the people in Scotland. Notably, it was not the courts that changed the law in any of those United Kingdom jurisdictions. It cannot be for the courts in Northern Ireland, whom some will seek to use to bypass this democratic institution, to change the law. The courts should not usurp the legitimate role of the Northern Ireland Assembly to take decisions on sensitive social policy that will have far-reaching consequences for the fabric of our society.
Increasingly, senior members of civic society have expressed their concerns to me at the commentary on these areas, not just from judicial figures in Northern Ireland but from members of the UK Supreme Court. Reassuringly, however, when I met the vice-president of the European Court of Justice recently, we discussed how European courts recognise different laws on social policies within devolved regions of member states, and he was emphatic in his response that they do. So, those who call for the same law within the United Kingdom on this issue are, again, mistaken.
I trust that not only will politicians and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission respect the Assembly's responsibility for this matter, but so, too, will the courts in Belfast, as any form of judicial activism on this issue would be a gross abuse of that office and a serious and fatal blow to the democratic legitimacy of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I urge the House to reject the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I think that a lot of progress has been made on this issue since it first came to the House. Marriage equality will be introduced and, in years to come, many in this and other societies will look back and ask, "What was all the fuss about?", similar to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which was opposed by the opposite same-sex Bench, as we have today. It has happened in a number of other issues as well.
People, of course, have the freedom to disagree with same-sex marriage on the basis of their individual religious views. However, as legislators, we have to legislate for everybody. The legislation we are proposing will not cover religious groups; it is civil marriage. The argument today from the other Bench has been pretty poor. They say that marriage is sanctity, but marriage is what you make of it. Marriage is unique to each and every one of us. The argument used about the institution of marriage could be used against adultery or divorce, but I do not see any legislation coming from those opposing the motion in regard to those particular areas.
This is being rolled out across Europe. It is being rolled out in Britain and will be shortly in the South of Ireland as well. The North will be left behind and will be an embarrassment because of the DUP and others, which, of course, is no surprise. We hear nonsense from those on the Benches opposite. I sometimes think that they are obsessed with sex, because that is all they talk about when it comes to arguments in regard to this issue.
Since this was introduced in England and Wales, I would just like to confirm that there has been no plague of locusts in London; the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have not ridden into Cardiff; and he sky has not fallen in on Liverpool — although that is perhaps open to interpretation.
All that has happened is that people who love each other have got married. In England and Wales, that has not lessened anybody else's marriage in any way. In England and Wales, in Scotland and in the South, this will be introduced. Of course, that being the case, and given the proximity of all those jurisdictions, gay people living in the North will go and get married anyway. So, it is an absolutely —
The Member says that this is all about allowing people who are in love to get married. Can I test just how far he takes that facile argument? If a man says, "I am in love with two women", is he entitled to be polygamous? Does the Member's view of equality — a perversion of equality just as this is a perversion of marriage — embrace polygamy?
Is he going to say that we have to provide for everyone because that is their right?
I am sorry. I have the Floor at the moment.
I remind Members that Mr McKay has the Floor, so I encourage other Members to please remain quiet and listen to what is being said. Continue.
Under the law at the moment, members of the public have married more than once. There are Members in this House who have married more than one woman or who have married more than one man, I am sure. So, that is a totally separate argument to what we are debating here today.
At the end of the day, there is a very serious aspect to this through how people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) community are treated in Ireland and further afield. Unfortunately, homophobia is fuelling the political representation in much of the debate here today. This is about gay people being treated as less than everyone else. Gay men and women are deserving of the same rights that I have and of the same rights that you have, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Two people who love each other and who have their love recognised through marriage pose no threat to anybody. I urge the House today to do the right thing and to think about the consequences of this in the prejudice, bullying and suicides that occur, as that is a big issue in the LGBT community. So, do the right thing and vote in favour of the motion.
Marriage is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. It has been the bedrock of society for generations and has enabled communities to prosper. The Sinn Féin motion is entitled 'Marriage Equality', but it is, in fact, not about equality at all. It is about redefining marriage. It is about removing the traditional and biblical definition of marriage and replacing it with a new definition. It is about redefining marriage, thereby bringing about a societal change in the understanding of what marriage is. This would be a radical redefinition of society's most fundamental institution and a radical deconstruction of the institution of marriage.
The terms "husband" and "wife", and, indeed, "father" and "mother", would become meaningless. Of course, some advocates of so-called same-sex marriage argue that this would not interfere in any way with the rights of those who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage. However, that is simply not true. Marriage would be redefined for everyone, and our historic understanding of marriage as the union of one man and one woman would be replaced by a new paradigm for marriage as the union of two people, regardless of gender.
This is about imposing a new, genderless definition and a new genderless version of marriage on the whole of society. Thereby, this new, redefined version of marriage as a genderless institution would be the only legalised definition of marriage in Northern Ireland. That new definition of marriage would become the norm and would be taught in our schools as being the norm, even to young children, thereby interfering with parents' rights to pass on their own values to their children.
The true nature of marriage cannot be changed by Parliaments or Assemblies, but rewriting the definition of marriage would lead to confusion and would erode and downgrade the status of marriage in society. Advocates of this same-sex marriage say that there can be a distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage and that they want to redefine civil marriage, leaving religious marriage alone. That is impossible. There can be only one definition of marriage in society. Whether the wedding is in the form of a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony, the outcome is the same: the joining together of a man and a woman in marriage. The ceremonies and the settings may be different, but the institution is the same.
Redefining marriage as a genderless institution would mean merging two things that are radically dissimilar under the single word "marriage". A same-sex relationship and a traditional marriage would be recognised and promoted by the state as being the same thing. This legal redefinition would abolish the traditional definition of marriage.
I am pro-marriage and pro-family, and I believe that we would go down a very wrong road today if we were to redefine such a fundamental institution. I implore the House to reject the motion.
Go raibh maith agat. Sinn Féin is committed to the equality agenda, and we believe that all citizens, regardless of race, religion or sexuality, should be treated as equals in the eyes of the law. Human rights should be enjoyed by everyone without discrimination.
"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
In addition, the declaration states that everyone is:
"entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution."
Article 18 states:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion".
It is important to make it clear that this right also extends to religious groups and organisations, which have the right to freedom of religion. Overall, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it clear that, no matter who we are, what we look like or where we come from, we are entitled to equality and human rights.
I recognise and respect that there are deeply held religious, cultural and personal views, but we must respect and appreciate the views of each individual with regard to this very important issue. Sinn Féin advocates the right to social, economic, gender and cultural equality. The rights of the LGBT community and human rights are not separate; they are one and the same. You cannot support equality and be a racist, nor can you support equality and perpetuate sexual discrimination. You cannot support equality and be homophobic.
All MLAs represent every section of our community, including our LGBT members. The motion is about ensuring marriage equality for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. A growing number of states allow same-sex marriages. Along with France and the UK, other countries, including Spain, Canada, the Netherlands and Argentina, and nine US states have extended marriage rights.
I thank the Member for giving way. She mentioned some of the states that have changed their laws to allow for same-sex marriages, as did Caitríona Ruane. Will she confirm that none of those states has gone on to legalise polygamy and, equally, that none has challenged the Churches' right to define marriage as they see fit?
No, there is really no point.
The constitutional convention in Dublin voted in favour of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. Seventy-nine per cent of convention members voted to recommend that the constitution be amended to allow for same-sex marriage. The convention's recommendations will, hopefully, be viewed by the Government quite soon. Every citizen should enjoy the same rights and entitlements under state law, and that includes those in relation to marriage. What the Churches do is a matter for them, but the state needs to treat everyone with equality. It is important to note that the motion supports religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage according to their beliefs.
All family forms should be given equal respect and value in law. The traditional family form based on marriage should not be given higher status in law or practice than any other family form. Law and social policy should recognise the diversity of family life in Ireland. All families, including unmarried families, have the same rights to respect, care, support, protection and recognition. The equality regulations and sex discrimination regulations state that it is unlawful for service providers to discriminate against a person because of his or her sexual orientation in the provision of services and public functions.
Surveys have shown that negative perceptions about lesbian, gay and bisexual people were getting progressively worse in the North of Ireland, and a report on mental health showed that a quarter of young gay or bisexual men in the North of Ireland have attempted suicide. There is no doubt that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are valued and are seen as participating members of society, although there remain prejudice and barriers to accessing equality of opportunities.
Fermanagh man Dwaine Vance, who is in the Public Gallery, wrote an article in last week's 'Impartial Reporter'. He comes from a unionist point of view and would prefer equal marriage to be brought through Stormont rather than through the Supreme Court in London.
Finally, the Assembly, by supporting the motion, can give a strong message that prejudice, discrimination and intolerance must be rejected.
I thank the proposers for bringing this important motion forward, albeit it seems somewhat pointless because there is a petition of concern. Nevertheless, it is still important that the Assembly debates the motion and recognises that a lot of people in our community would love to see this motion pass today — in fact, recent polls would say, a majority. What those figures show is that an increasing number of people, year on year, support this policy. I think that that has been lost in all of this. Society's opinions on these issues have changed, because of people's own experiences, their family's experiences and their community's experiences. They have changed for the better.
I was very proud, when I was mayor of the city of Derry, to lead, along with other public representatives, the first Foyle Pride march in our city. You would not believe the number of people who were out in our community supporting that festival. That has happened right across the North. It has happened right across this country, and that is a very positive step. It shows that this community is moving forward and is prepared to view members of the LGBT community as a full and equal part of our society.
I understand that people have a difficulty with this. I understand that people have a deeply held religious view on this, and I have no difficulty with that. That is what democracy is about; that is what a modern democracy is supposed to be able to accommodate. However, if I can respect that point of view, people need to respect the fact that many people in our society from the LGBT community feel left out; feel left behind; feel as if this Assembly has a lot of work to do to make them feel full members and full citizens of this country. That is a lesson that we all need to learn.
Lots of figures have been given today about the number of young people who struggle with depression and difficulties in coming to terms with these issues. The Assembly has a duty of care to them, and we have a duty of care, I believe, to say that this is not about diminishing marriage; it is about strengthening it. It is about ensuring that more people can have access to this great institution.
I am not against marriage — I got married in December. I do not know whether that was a good idea or not, but I believe very strongly — [Interruption.] Hopefully she is not watching. I believe very strongly in the institution of marriage. I believe that two people — let us not all get upset now — who love each other and who are prepared to commit to each other in a loving relationship should be afforded recognition by the state.
I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned the importance of marriage, and the number of people getting married has been going down. Does he agree that people who are willing to campaign for the right to marry show a great commitment to that institution?
I thank the Member for his intervention, and he makes a very good point. We are all saying that we believe very strongly in the institution of marriage. It is an institution that people are not exactly queuing round the block to get involved in or to stay committed to. These are people who want to be married, who want to do all —
It may interest the Member that, since 2005, 66,529 marriages have occurred in Northern Ireland and only 727 civil partnerships. So, it looks like traditional marriage is pretty popular in Northern Ireland.
That is good to hear. Unfortunately, a lot of people do not have the option of getting married, and that is what this is about. I hope that Members opposite join us, get rid of their petition of concern and recognise that there are many unionist people who would love to be married as well. This is not a nationalist/unionist issue, though, unfortunately, it is portrayed as such.
Marriage is an institution that has evolved over time. One hundred and fifty years ago, Catholics and Protestants in Ireland could not be married at all; now they can. Marriage used to be a property transaction rather than an institution in which two people loved each other and wanted to commit to each other. It used to be the case that, if a man was accused of rape, it would be all right if the victim was his wife. That is how far we have come in society. Adultery used to be a criminal offence. Divorce in Ireland was not legal. It was only in 1981, because of the Dudgeon case, that homosexuality was decriminalised.
So, I do not despair. I am very, very confident that, in time, whether in this House or in a court of law somewhere, this part of Britain or Ireland — however you want to describe it — will catch up with the rest of these islands and with the way the rest of the western world is going. I am very confident that those people, on whom we have turned our backs and whom we have not shown that they are proper, true and equal members of society, will finally one day be entitled to access the great institution that is marriage.
I do not wish to tread on the faith sensibilities of anyone, but simply to speak for myself, from my personal experiences and on behalf of people I have known through my constituency work.
As is patently obvious, I am neither a lawyer nor a theologian. I am just over 60 years of age, closer in many ways to the last chapter than the first in my own journey, and the world has changed immeasurably in the 60 years that I have been in it. Things that were beyond comprehension 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago are now viewed differently. In my constituency work and within my family, I have seen the disastrous implications that flow from the prejudice that is felt by those who know themselves to be different by reasons of gender, where their feelings and affections are viewed by society as being in some way corrupt or incapable of being spoken about in polite society. I have had young people in my office driven almost to the point of suicide, including a young woman, born within the shadow of this Building, who was confined to her room for about six months and continual attempts were made to exorcise — whatever that means — this demon that was allegedly possessing her.
Marriage has been held up as an institution, I know. I have been married for 32 years, I think. I did some research, incidentally, just to introduce a degree of laxity, prior to the previous vote. I met a guy on the Newtownards Road outside a public house who had obviously had several beers. I asked him his opinion about what I should do in the vote on equal marriage. His gruff Belfast reply was, "Is that the gay thing?" I said yes. He said, "Wait till I tell you, Michael, I have been married to a woman for 30 years, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. If gay people want to get married and be as miserable as me, it is up to them." There is a truth that runs through that, which says live and let live.
The institution of marriage has a legal position that has changed throughout the years. I was going to say "as recently as 1782", but it actually was in 1782 that Presbyterian weddings were adjudicated to be unlawful. The Presbyterian form of worship was adjudicated to be unlawful to such a degree that thousands of people had to row from Donaghadee to Scotland to be afforded freedom of worship according to their choice. The children of those marriages were considered to be illegitimate and the marriages null and void unless they were re-performed in a Church of Ireland parish and a stipend was paid to the minister. That changed.
I do not know the moral rights and wrongs of this, but I know that the words that we use in the Chamber will echo to reinforce prejudice, or not to reinforce prejudice. We must bear in mind that the ultimate judgement on issues of morality are with a much higher authority than is exercised in the House. I do not consider myself to be a worthy person to sit in judgement, moral or otherwise, on the emotions of other human beings.
I must say that I am surprised by the argument that has been made by Members on the Benches opposite that go under the title of unionists. When England and Wales and Scotland — the rest of the United Kingdom — think that it is a good idea and, in fact, the Prime Minister said that it sends out a "powerful message" to the rest of the world, I am surprised that they have distanced themselves from it. I am also conscious that the message that we send out from the Chamber is also powerful. I am disappointed that Members have, yet again, felt the need to table a petition of concern. That means that, no matter what vote we have, nothing will happen. We then get into the situation of asking why we are having the debate.
Members who spoke earlier talked about homophobia, the bullying that comes from it, the suicides and the victimisation. I think that people on other Benches who profess that they do not worry about gay activity are not telling us the real truth. There is actually a reaction against that. You can dress it up any way that you like and say, "Oh, no. I do not want to do that." Whatever. That is not the truth.
I think that it was Mr Kennedy who said that he has a deep personal conviction. I think that it is really wrong that we allow personal morals to influence what should be a legislative assembly. I do not think that this should be a free vote. I think that it should be a proper whipped vote, because this —
I am sorry, I will not take it. I do not have enough time. There is an issue here about people recognising that there is a debate that has to be had. I have to say to you that, at some stage, we will need to confront this properly. Members who are present might consider bringing forward a private Member's Bill through which we can deal with these issues. Of course, I understand that Members opposite will oppose it. At least, on that particular position, I know that that is their standing. I can also admit that there is deep disquiet in our society from certain quarters that must be respected.
One of the things that attracted me to the motion was that it states that there will be no imposition on Churches or people of faith to do things that are not in their philosophy. That is the standard that has to prevail. I heard Members refer to what Catholic bishops or archbishops said. As I understand it, there is a prohibition in the Roman Catholic Church on divorce, yet I do not see any legal challenges to force second marriages in a Catholic church. These things are scurrilous. They do not happen. They are red herrings.
An issue was brought up — I have been waiting for Mr Allister to interject — on the issue of polygamy, which was a great challenge that he put out. The real issue is that I have three tests about any legislation. First, does the activity that you are talking about do any harm? Whatever that activity is, does it do any harm? Secondly, would legislation be effective and make things better or worse? Finally, does it affect a lot of people? I would be against polygamy, because the evidence is that they are not real wives, and you are getting into servitude and other issues — [Interruption.] That was the Supreme Court.
The Member says that he would be against polygamy and that one of the tests would be whether it causes any harm. Is that not a moral judgement? If he is entitled to make a moral judgement as the touchstone as to whether you legislate on something, why are the rest of us not entitled to make a moral judgement on whether you legislate for same-sex marriage? He cannot have it both ways. If a moral judgement is apt for him, it is apt for everyone else.
The one thing that I will say about Mr Allister is that when I give him the courtesy of taking an intervention, he should be a little bit more succinct in his argument.
The issue is this: I am not giving him the moral right to decide any of these things. I am saying that this is a legislative body that has to legislate for everybody. We are not attacking the institution of marriage. It is an honourable institution. However, there are many people in our society who live different lifestyles. That is what we have to try to legislate for.
I remember a great campaign that started something like "Save Ulster from sodomy". Well, look where that got us. Our society is moving forward. It is a wonderful, diverse society made up of lots of different individuals, and our job is to try to find a way to make sure that all people can live together —
I am sorry, I do not have time, Mr Kennedy.
Our job is to do that. Let me put out a challenge to the xenophobes, homophobes and people who think that bullying is OK: that is not the right way to go forward. Let us have a proper debate. Let us not put forward petitions of concern, and let us not have a debate that is constrained to one and a half hours. Why can we not have proper discussions back and forth? I would like to engage with Mr Kennedy, and I apologise for not being able to let him in, but I am short of time.
This is a signal opportunity for all parties in the House to say what they want to do, and I have to say to those parties that espouse equality that I think that all their Members should be voting for their party policy along with NI21.
I am sure that the Member will agree that moderate language is very appropriate at all times. Indeed, there are times when no language is appropriate. There was too much shouting across the Chamber. I hope that the Minister will be given greater courtesy than some Members got.
A motion on same-sex marriage was debated by the Assembly on 29 April 2013. On that occasion, I spoke on behalf of my party to oppose the motion. As I said at that time, the opposition was not grounded on opposition to what a person is or how a person chooses to live his or her life, but rather on support for the traditional, longstanding, centuries-old definition of marriage.
I have listened with great care and interest to the points that Members made during this further debate today. However, my support for the traditional approach to marriage has not waned, and I cannot, therefore, support the motion. I will not, as the motion asks me to, bring legislation to the House to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
The motion suggests that:
"other jurisdictions on these islands have moved forward with equal marriage rights for same-sex couples".
I assume that this is a reference to the British Isles, which includes Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and our offshore islands. The jury is still out in the Republic of Ireland, and I suspect that there are quite a few in that jurisdiction who would be quite happy to align themselves with the position that the Assembly has adopted on previous occasions. Likewise, the Isle of Man has not introduced same-sex marriage.
Legal developments in other jurisdictions may be of interest, but they are not determinative of the law in this jurisdiction, and it is wrong to suggest that they should be. Differing laws in different jurisdictions is the very essence of devolution. It is for this Assembly and this Assembly alone to determine. It is not for any other Parliament or Assembly in these islands, and certainly not for any judge in a court, to determine the law of Northern Ireland.
When we decide what the law of this land ought to be, we should do so by reference to principled and informed debate, rather than by automatic adoption. We should not make our minds up on the basis of who shouts the loudest, although I have to say that this is not an issue that especially exercises my constituents, who seem much more interested in jobs, the economy and the health service, and nor should we decide simply because some argue on the grounds of discrimination, without testing whether an issue of inequality exists.
The latest motion seeks to emphasise the concept of equality and implies that same-sex couples do not receive equal benefits. When the Assembly first debated same-sex marriage, my colleague Michelle McIlveen said:
"It is time to tear down the smokescreen that this is about discrimination." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 77, p317, col 1].
It is regrettable that some in the Assembly are still maintaining that smokescreen. People in Northern Ireland have an equal opportunity to enter into a committed relationship with all the benefits that that entails. Opposite-sex couples can do that through marriage, and same-sex couples can do it through civil partnerships. It has been acknowledged that a same-sex marriage in England and Wales confers the same benefits as a same-sex civil partnership. Equality per se is not, therefore, the issue.
Article 16 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as upheld by the UN Human Rights Committee, defends the traditional view of marriage. In European law, article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights also upholds that definition, and the European Court of Human Rights has deemed the definition of marriage not a matter of equality but a matter for individual state law. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has highlighted the international treaties that protect the right to marry but has conceded that:
"The restriction of marriage to opposite-sex couples does not violate the international standards and this is clear from both the International treaties and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Committee."
It is clear, therefore, that the United Nations, Europe and our own Human Rights Commission all agree that this is not an issue of equality.
The key questions that we should be asking ourselves are these: "Is the balance of our current law right?"; and, "Has the range of interests that fail to be accommodated been afforded equal respect?" In my view, the answer to both those questions is an unequivocal yes.
Our law already affords same-sex couples legal recognition of their relationship and, at the same time, respects freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Supporters of same-sex marriage are quick to point to the so-called protections that have been built in to the various pieces of legislation in Great Britain. However, leading lawyers have queried how effective those protections will be. Moreover, the protections are largely designed to protect the clergy and to prevent any claim that a member of the clergy is obliged to conduct a same-sex marriage. They do not protect the religious beliefs of others, such as teachers or registrars, and it is entirely possible that faith organisations in Great Britain will be precluded from accessing public funding, services or public buildings because they object to same-sex marriage. I, for one, would not want that to happen here.
Furthermore, I am in no doubt that the same individuals who offer up tokenistic protection for Churches today would, if same-sex marriage were legal in Northern Ireland, be the first to jump on a future bandwagon when the inevitable lobby begins for Churches to be required to permit same-sex marriages on their property.
There will always be those who call for more and who want their personal interests to be prioritised above all else. However, I have to place those calls alongside the many other calls for legal reform and must ultimately decide the priority actions. I have done so and have determined that there are other more important issues that need to be addressed. Those issues are of concern to people across Northern Ireland rather than of concern to one small but very vocal lobbying group.
The current law on civil partnership is in place and is operating effectively. I see no need to revisit it at all. In adopting that position, I am neither demeaning nor discriminating against people. Rather, I am ensuring that there are appropriate protections for all and that the current balance of the law is maintained. I want to make it clear that, whilst there is obvious disagreement in the House on this issue, that should be no excuse for us to be intemperate.
Just as no one has the right to abuse anyone physically, mentally or verbally because of their sexuality, so too is it unacceptable to belittle or besmirch someone simply because they possess a different view from you.
It is not appropriate to brand those who oppose same-sex marriage as being bigoted or backward. Good people — people of the Protestant faith, people of the Catholic faith and people of no faith — oppose same-sex marriage, and they should not be lambasted because they do so.
For saying what I have said today, I will no doubt be damned by some as a bigot and as being intolerant. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do not expect some who support same-sex marriage to accept that, because of the personal stance that I have taken on the matter, but it is the truth nonetheless.
All I seek to do today is to state my view, which I believe is the mainstream view in Northern Ireland. We all need to be careful with our language, be considerate in our choice of words, treat each other with respect and accept that there are differences. As I have said in the House previously, I was always taught that you show tolerance when you disagree with people, but you respect their right to have a different position from you. Today, unfortunately, it would seem that, for some, when you fail to fall in line with their thinking, you are the intolerant one.
I place on record my admiration for Members who will display great courage today in the face of the personal pressure that they have been placed under from inside and outside their parties. Their resolve stands in stark contrast to others who defy the teachings of the Church of which they have been senior members for years, or others who are not brave enough to vote the way they want to and are, oddly, absent today.
Some Members can choose to ignore the deeply held views of the majority of people in Northern Ireland if they wish. I will not. I oppose the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate and thank and acknowledge everyone for participating in what was, for the most part, a fairly temperate debate. It is an honour for me to be able to speak in favour of extending the right of civil marriage to those who are LGB and T.
Today, we have the DUP saying that this is not an equality issue. I get it that the notion of equality might go over your heads, because I think that we have over 20 unionist men in the Chamber discussing an equality issue. It is absolute nonsense to say that this is not an equality issue. Equality is an all-or-nothing concept. You cannot be a little bit equal to someone else. That is not how it works, so civil partnerships are not enough. Equality is not a concept that we should be striving for either; it is an absolute necessity.
Of course, in the overall fight for LGBT equality, we should recognise that the issue of marriage is just one of the many battles that need to be fought. In the past few months, we have seen the disgraceful squandering of public money in the pursuit of a personal agenda against unmarried and same-sex couples by our very own Minister of Health who, ironically, is trying to limit how many people can perform the simple life-saving act of giving blood. It is nothing short of shameful that people face discrimination every day of their lives because of nothing more than their sexual orientation.
Caitríona Ruane referred to the fact that hate crime is on the rise. We should absolutely condemn that. I think that it was Michael Copeland who said that our voices are going to echo from the Chamber, so we should not perpetuate negative views.
Thankfully, the Minister's appeals on family and adoption rights were rejected. The old narrative that a child needs a man and a women to be raised properly is totally incorrect. Paul Givan referred to that. In reality, all a child needs is a loving home and environment in which to grow up, and it is insulting to single-parent families everywhere to say that a child needs a mother and a father to have a wholesome upbringing. I understand that some people choose to hold sincere religious beliefs and that they are very important to a lot of people, but they should not be foisted on others, and they absolutely should not impact on the law that affects everyone.
It is important to note that there are lingering unaddressed inequalities facing those who have undergone gender reassignment. Someone who is married must have a divorce to undergo gender reassignment or have their civil partnership dissolved before they can have a gender reassignment certificate. That is important because, all too often in these debates on LGBT issues, the transgender community is forgotten.
Mervyn Storey spoke about his fear of a social revolution and the "LGB agenda", as he put it. Maybe you need to wake up a bit, because there is no revolution; that is just the way the world is. Gay people are not looking for any more or any different rights from those that straight people already have. They just want equality under the law.
For the record, in case anyone is in any doubt, this has absolutely nothing to do with polygamy. You cannot marry more than one person under civil law at present. It is a completely spurious argument — [Interruption.]
Order, please. I direct my attention to one particular Member who has frequently shouted across the Chamber. I ask that Member not to do it again. Continue.
The single most important part of the debate today is the message that we are going to send out to young people, particularly young LGBT people, who are struggling. There are people out there who would rather not live than be openly who they are because of the intimidation or discrimination that they would face because they do not conform to the notion of hetero-normativity or they do not stick to distinct gender roles. That is unacceptable. I say to those today who talked about their own outdated views — I am using moderate language so that I do not upset anyone — that I wonder whether you would be able to repeat what you said to the faces of a family who have lost a loved one to suicide because they were gay. It is one thing to do it to a hall full of schoolchildren.
We are dealing with real people with real personal struggles and real relationships. To that end, I will use this opportunity to give as many people as possible a voice inside the Chamber. Yesterday, I started a hashtag on Twitter to facilitate this. Instead of going over what has been said in here, I will air some of what is being said out there. I will go over some of the tweets that I was sent.
The hashtag was #IWantMarriageEqualityBecause. Leona said that every single person is equal and should not be treated differently because of who they love. Hollie Morrison said that she did not think that we should have to vote in the first place; she said that everyone should be able to get married and be happy. Daire Hughes said that civil partnerships are not the same as marriage and LGBT groups deserve equality. Catherine Seeley questioned whether we voted on your marriage. Sinead Henry stated that the church did not invent marriage, and so questioned why it should define who is fit for it. Ellen said that it is 2014 and we are still fighting for LGBT rights; it is time that we realised that gender and sexuality are social constructs. Dwaine Vance said that he wanted to be given the right to marry and consecrate his relationship with his soul mate, as straight couples do. Lauren said that people do not choose who they love and we should choose to respect that. She said that civil partnerships are not enough. Maeve Burns said that love is love and religion should have no place in politics. Dáire Toner said that he should have the same rights and access to marriage and that he should not be treated as a lesser person than a heterosexual. Andrea Nash said that it is the right thing to do; it is a disgrace that, in 2014, discrimination against the LGBT community is still rife. Abigail Foran said that denying marriage to two individuals who love each other is to deny them a fundamental freedom. MaryEllen Campbell said that everyone should be equal under the law and, quite simply, it is the right thing to do. Barra O'Murrai said that he believes that no one can quantify or judge true love. Louise Reilly said that we do not want gay rights; we just want equality: the same laws and rights for all. Jess Magowan said that she and her partner would take their lives and business further afield. She said that it would drive them away, and wondered who else. Aodhan Hamill said that it is not a religious issue; it is an equality issue. He said that no one should be denied that basic civil right. Naomh Gallagher said that it is progress and that we, as a society, need always to strive to be better. She questioned how anyone could be against love. Willie Quinn said that equality cannot be handpicked, the same way that rights should not be. He said that we should let people who love together be together. Johnny McGibbon said that there is no almost equal; there is equality or no equality.
The battle for LGBT rights is the equivalent of the civil rights movement for my generation. There is a global momentum building towards LGBT equality. Stephen Fry was talking about this debate on social media. It is time that the Assembly got its act together, caught up and made its way into the 21st century. That does not just mean endorsing motions or saying that you support something. We cannot stop until we have achieved full legislative equality, extending the same rights, privileges and protections to all. The words "diversity" and "inclusivity" should be our cornerstone as we work to build a truly shared future for everyone. I encourage everyone today to do the right thing and support the motion. Despite the abuse or use of the petition of concern, we can at least have a moral victory if people choose to vote for the motion and not abstain.