The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other contributors will have five minutes. As a valid petition of concern was presented on Friday 24 April in relation to the motion, the vote will be on a cross-community basis.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
I beg to move
That this Assembly welcomes the marriage equality referendum in the South of Ireland; notes that a growing number of Parliaments across the world have embraced, and legislated for, marriage equality; respects the rights of the religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage within their beliefs; and calls on the Executive to legislate for marriage equality for same-sex couples so that all citizens will have the same legal entitlement to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Agus molann Sinn Féin an ceart um chomhionannas sóisialta, gnéis agus cultúrtha. I welcome the referendum for marriage equality in the South of Ireland. I will be voting yes — tá — on 22 May. I was part of the Sinn Féin team at the constitutional convention, and I was very proud that all our representatives voted in favour of marriage equality. If we vote yes, and I hope we do, we will be a step closer to cherishing all the children of the nation equally.
Sinn Féin wants to see this island part of a progressive world where all citizens can be married, regardless of their sexual orientation. We want to join the nations that have supported marriage equality: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, England, Scotland, Wales and Uruguay. This is the fourth time that Sinn Féin has brought this motion forward, and I have no doubt that there will be some among you who will be critical of that. We make no apology for that, because until all our citizens have equality we will continue to bring motions in relation to equality. Sin é; it is as simple as that.
I sympathise with Jim Wells in relation to his wife Grace, and I am genuinely sorry that they are going through such difficult and traumatic times; I mean that very sincerely. However, no matter how much pressure someone is under, there is no excuse for the comments that were made. What made the comments even worse was that they were made by the Health Minister, who has taken a pledge of office and who is responsible for safeguarding children. Jim Wells violated that pledge of office, and I believe —
No, I will not give way.
I believe that he made the right decision. The only part of the decision that I think is wrong is that he should have resigned from now and not from 11 May. Peter Robinson, the leader of the DUP, now has a decision to make. The public needs to be reassured that the new Health Minister will fulfil her or his duties in the Department, whether it is in relation to adoption, blood donation or child protection. We cannot continue to have policy made based on personal religious belief and then pretending that there is research to back it up. We have seen that with the last two Health Ministers. It is insulting to the community at large, particularly to the LBG community. Indeed, his comments were very insulting to lone parents.
I note that all of the parties have criticised his comments, and I welcome that, but now the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Parties like the SDLP and Alliance say that their policy is to support marriage equality, and their members say they support their party policy. But then, some of them do not turn up for debates, and we hear the most ridiculous excuses. So, I genuinely hope that there is a full SDLP team and a full Alliance team here today.
Ulster Unionist Party Members have a free vote — sitting on the fence as usual. I believe that the leader of the UUP has questions to answer. He is not here, unfortunately. He sits on the Committee with responsibility for equality, but he has questions to answer. His party has election pacts with a party that does not support equality. Then, he is on the radio making nonsensical arguments that the marriage equality debate is not about equality and that that is why he supports equality for LGBT people but not in relation to marriage. It is nonsensical. He should be here and he should clarify his position.
This is an equality issue. I can marry my husband. I can show the world that I have married him and that I love him, but my gay and lesbian friends who have been in relationships for longer than I have — I have been in it for only 22 or 23 years — cannot do the same, and that is not fair. It is not legally right and it is not fair.
Jim Wells is not alone in the DUP to have made such homophobic comments. The list is long — Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley junior, Iris Robinson, Edwin Poots. We had Paul Givan trying to bring in a Bill, but, thankfully, Sinn Féin, with the Greens and Basil McCrea, are blocking that discriminatory private Member's Bill dressed up as a so-called conscience Bill.
To the DUP, I say that I hope that none of your children; grandchildren; nieces; nephews; brothers; sisters; aunties; uncles; cousins; neighbours; friends, or constituents are gay. The reason that I hope they are not is because they will be living in fear and getting very dangerous messages. They will be living in a culture of silence and rejection. There is a good chance that your policies and utterances are hurting them, and hurting them so deeply that they fear coming out. As Justin McAleese so eloquently put it in his article, when he heard Ian Paisley junior's remarks, it stopped him coming out for another while and left him suffering in silence. It is wrong, and things need to change in this part of the world. You are condemning them to silence and fear.
What are the arguments that we are going to hear today? That it threatens family values — yeah, yeah, yeah. We have heard it before. I will tell you when we heard it. We heard it when it was used to justify laundries, when women were hidden away to protect family values while they were pregnant and had their children. Children were sent to far-flung parts of the globe to protect family values. We do not want to protect those types of family values. We will hear that the institution of marriage is threatened. Where did we hear that before? It was in apartheid South Africa, to justify why black and white could not marry — because it would threaten the institution of marriage.
The other argument we will hear today is about religious belief. In case there is any ambiguity about it, the motion supports freedom of religion by allowing religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage according to their beliefs. However, as legislators, we are not here to legislate according to our personal beliefs; we are here to legislate on the basis of equality, and that is what we will do. We will join the rest of the world in equality for all of our citizens.
My concluding message is to the LGB community. Sinn Féin believes that you have rights. We will support those rights.
We will take on discrimination and homophobia using all the tools at our disposal, but the biggest message that I want to send to drown out the negative, hateful bile that is coming out of some people is: we love our gay aunties and uncles; we love our lesbian children and gay grandchildren. We applaud your courage and bravery and the bravery of organisations that work with you. Together, we will build a society that includes and embraces.
I urge politicians to be very careful when they are speaking. A gay couple knows only too well how scary it is, in the dark of night, when a brick might come through the window. It takes courage to come out, because hate crime is on the rise. Those politicians who incite hatred, do not wring your hands, cite your conscience or say that you are against violence, if your words — your words — are the words ringing in the ears of the person who throws the brick through the window. Shame on you. Shame on you.
Today, what we need is this House to support the motion.
I am speaking on behalf of the DUP. My party will oppose the motion for a number of reasons. First of all, the proposer of the motion mentioned that it is the fourth occasion on which it has been brought to the House this mandate. The make-up of the House has altered very little during that period. Clearly, this is an attempt at an electoral stunt. This is not a serious debate. Indeed, that was indicated by the previous Member who spoke when she made the offensive remarks effectively comparing those who oppose same-sex marriage or a redefinition of marriage to those who took a particular view in apartheid South Africa. I find that deeply offensive.
I think that the game was given away by the proposer of the motion when she referred to the SDLP, Alliance Party and Ulster Unionist Party. Clearly, this is an attempt to try to exploit differences in those parties for pure electoral gain. It is disappointing that there will not be a serious debate on that basis.
At the outset, I want to say that the position with regard to the definition of marriage in the Republic of Ireland — although it is only obliquely referred to in the motion — is a matter entirely for them. I take no position at all on the referendum. It is not my place to try to interfere in the internal affairs of another sovereign country. However, I hope that such a referendum never takes place in this jurisdiction.
It is not about a rights agenda. When civil partnerships were brought in, that conferred a range of rights. That was meant to sort out the rights issues. It dealt with that. The motion is clearly an attack on the symbolism and institution of marriage and is an attempt to redefine marriage. My party believes, as do I from my personal beliefs and convictions, that marriage is between one man and one woman. Once you redefine that, you lose the essence of marriage itself. I have no doubt that some proponents of this will say that that definition is not inclusive. I freely accept that it is not an inclusive definition because marriage, by its nature, is not inclusive: it makes a range of boundaries and restrictions. There are restrictions on the age at which people can be married and the nature of the blood relationship between those who would potentially get married. Similarly, it is restricted to two people; one man and one woman. Marriage, by its nature, then, has a special place in society.
Perhaps the most serious thing is the impact that it would have on Churches and faith organisations. There was an attempt to sugar the pill in relation to that. We have supposedly, in the motion, the provision to try to protect those Churches. I ask what level of worth that has and whether we are faced today with a motion that is really the endgame. If we see a situation in which the definition of marriage is redefined in this nature and various Churches resist that, as they would, how long will it be before pressure comes on them and there is some of court challenge or indeed pressure is put on them with regard to the funding that would go to them? For those who see that as fanciful, we have seen recently in the Ashers case that there are to be no exemptions or exceptions for the exercise of conscience.
No, I want to get through this.
Similarly, if we are looking at the endgame, we should remember that when the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, brought in civil partnerships, we were told that this was meant to clear up all the issues: civil partnerships were the complete solution, and marriage itself was not being tampered with. Yet we see, 10 years down the line, an attempt to redefine secular marriage. How much assurance can we have that, further down the line, there will not be an attempt at redefining the religious sacrament of marriage?
I have to say that, if you are a supporter of pure equality in marriage, this motion does not cut it for you because, essentially, it says that you can have marriage on certain grounds but there will be exclusions. As anyone who has campaigned for equality on any issue will tell you, it will, therefore, be simply a staging post. If the motion is passed and the Executive take action, the very same supporters of the motion will come back to take further action to remove any exemption for the Churches. There is no doubt about that. At best, today's motion represents — there has been an attempt to disguise this — a temporary reprieve for the Churches and those of faith.
For all those reasons, I urge the House to reject the motion.
We are having this debate at a time of great concern for the many in our community who have not been treated as full and valued members of it by people in positions of authority. In the last few days, members of our community have been demeaned and their value and worth attacked. I am glad to see that we are now at a stage at which people own up to their mistakes, take it on the chin and resign. We do not have much of a culture of that here yet. I think that Mr Wells has done the right thing by resigning, and I wish him all the best in dealing with his personal difficulties.
As an Assembly, and as people in positions of power and responsibility, we need to be seen to embrace all members of our community — all members. The motion and the idea of equal marriage are about ensuring that people in our community can access the full services of the state and be seen as and respected as full citizens in our society. There is no reason whatsoever why the North of Ireland should be the only place in these islands that does not have marriage available to same-sex couples. That is the position that we will be in very shortly, because I believe strongly that people in the South will vote yes in the marriage equality referendum, and I hope that they do. We will be the only place on these islands that does not have that same equality for members of our community.
I fully respect people's views on this issue. I understand that people have deeply held religious views. People in our party have deeply held religious views about this issue. The SDLP's policy is clear, however: we support equal marriage. I know that that is our policy because I proposed it at our party conference, and it was passed by a majority. That is how we do things. We are very clear that that is our position, but we also recognise that we have to protect the Churches and religious organisations that do not want to take part in equal marriage. This is about changing civil marriage, not about changing anybody's religious interpretation of what marriage is. Marriage has changed and evolved over the centuries. This is about the access to civil marriage. In the event that the motion passes and we finally get to a position of equality with people in Britain, the Churches will be protected.
I fully respect people's right to oppose equal marriage, but people need to understand that we need to be seen to support members of our community who have been getting all the wrong kinds of messages from this place, whether telling people that their blood is not good enough to save lives or that they cannot adopt children, when children are crying out for loving fathers.
Mr Wells has done the right thing, but I call on the DUP to go further. One of the DUP's MPs has said that gay people harm society. That kind of bigotry is what harms society. That kind of bigotry is what got us into a lot of difficulties over the years in this place. I call on the First Minister to disassociate himself from Ian Paisley's remarks and to ask him to withdraw them, in the same way that Mr Wells did. Hopefully, the DUP will move to a much more tolerant place in society. If it does not, I do not see how any potential British Prime Minister could do a deal with a party that thinks that homosexuals harm society. We need to see a complete change in the attitude of that party, and I hope that, today, it takes the opportunity to begin that process.
I rise saddened that the Chamber is being used by Sinn Féin to play party politics but, as ever, hopeful that somewhere in the words and minds of all those here is a genuine intention to do good. I will not be taking any interventions.
At school and in the army, I believed and, I am ashamed to say, joked, carried by the flow, that gay, lesbian and such matters were wrong and could be laughed at. I had never really sat down and thought about it. In the 1980s, when you were due for promotion from captain to major, you were vetted; every aspect of your life was questioned so that it could be judged whether you were suitable to take on higher levels of responsibility, such as receiving or giving orders, doing your duty and making decisions under pressure that would risk soldier or civilian lives. One of my great friends, an excellent soldier in another regiment, left the army, and it was only much later that I discovered why: he failed vetting because he was gay. That opened my eyes as to how wrong society could be. When serving and knowing the risks of doing so, you recognise the importance of absolute trust in your comrades. When on active service, you do not care about the religion, colour or sexuality of the man beside you, and, when injured, you most certainly never ask who donated the blood that saved your life.
A society that is great, whether British, Irish or Northern Irish, is a society where no one is discriminated against and where everyone is allowed to practice their religious beliefs freely and without fear. I want a society here in Northern Ireland where no one is made to feel like a second-class citizen to any extent, and certainly not due to sexual definition. I want no discrimination whatsoever on account of religious belief or sexual orientation.
I had a gentleman visit one of my constituency offices last week who proceeded to berate a young man working there about my stance on certain issues. It left him very shaken. That is totally unacceptable. Debate, yes; discuss, certainly; but bully, never. I want a society where no one feels that their religious belief is necessarily superior to others. I so want to see more Christian forgiveness, tolerance and understanding.
I am proud of the Ulster Unionist Party for making this a free vote, in which everyone can vote in accordance with their religious beliefs, values and conscience. That is how this debate should be for everyone. I suspect that some in the Chamber are not voting as they would really wish. That, on a matter of conscience or religion, is wrong — very, very wrong.
Serving in the forces or working in a job in trying and testing conditions can create great pressure.
Even under pressure, you must always be able to debate or argue, accept each other's differences and, afterwards, sit down together and carry on amicably. That is being professional. That is how it should be in the Chamber. For those who cannot do that, that will always be their limitation.
I support the motion because it combines marriage equality and the respect for the rights of the religious institutions to define and practise marriage within their beliefs. Marriage is not just a Christian institution but one that crosses all religions and is also secular. Using a definition such as civic union can make that institution seem second class or second rate to some, especially when legislating for their protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and the benefits of marriage. It is that strong perception of a second-class citizen that needs to be changed, which is why I support the motion.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion, not least because it allows me to clarify and respond to the DUP Westminster candidate in East Belfast, who has quite underhandedly attempted to claim that my colleagues and I have been pressurised on the issue. Given that he has close knowledge of how intimidation, threat and attack, inflamed by the DUP, has not pressurised me or my colleagues one iota, I find it strange that he purports to believe that party process would have achieved otherwise. The only pressure that I put on myself on the issue is my own belief and standards to live up to my vocation. I will speak on behalf of the Alliance Party in supporting the motion.
The Alliance Party is committed to delivering a shared society for everyone based on religious and civil liberty and equality for all, regardless of age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, and to standing against discrimination or stigmatisation of any kind. The Alliance Party believes that state-provided services should be available to all citizens. Civil marriage is a state-provided service. It is differentiated from religious marriage in the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 and required by that law to be secular in nature: that is, to have no religious or spiritual basis. The Alliance Party, therefore, supports the extension of state-provided civil marriage to same-sex couples, provided robust legislative protection can uphold the religious freedom of faith groups to define and practise religious marriage as they determine.
Yes, I agree. That point is well made. We recognise, of course, that there is a wide range of sincerely and strongly held views on the issue. There are people who oppose the proposal because they believe that it contravenes their faith. There are people who oppose it because they believe that equality is afforded to same-sex couples via civil partnerships. There are, however, many people who support it because they believe that it is the duty of the state to treat all citizens equally.
I am a Christian. I cherish the freedom of religion that I have in a democracy to practise and communicate my Christian faith and my belief that marriage is the voluntary lifelong union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others under God. I recognise that I do not always live up to that faith and that many people do not agree with my personal belief. That, however, is who I am. I believe, therefore, that the religious freedom of people and groups of faith to define and observe their understanding of religious marriage should be upheld.
I believe in the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, but I believe that the principles of freedom of religion, freedom from religion and equality for all citizens that democracy affords provide the best framework in which to build a safe, fair, shared and prosperous society under government by the people. I also believe that freedom of religion relies on freedom from religion. There is stark and brutal historical and present-day evidence of how a lack of freedom from religion has allowed the perversion of religion to justify terror and totalitarian rule against people of all backgrounds, including Christians. I believe that the application of these principles and a reading of the law on the matter, in particular the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, support the extension of state-provided civil marriage, regardless of sexual orientation and, therefore, to same-sex couples.
As I mentioned, the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 makes a distinction between religious and civil marriage. It is an explicit requirement of civil marriage that it be conducted in a secular manner. The proposal is that civil marriage be extended to all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation; it is not the redefinition of religious marriage.
Whilst I have my own faith and belief about marriage, I find it reasonable that a person of same-sex orientation, which is a legal sexual orientation in Northern Ireland, expects, under the principles of democracy, equal access to state-provided civil marriage. I also believe that, if the faith groups' ability to define and observe religious marriage as they determine is upheld and shown to be a positive experience of marriage, the aspects of that marriage that they hold dear can survive and thrive. My aim has always been to contribute to respectful and accurate dialogue on this issue. I hope that my contribution has reflected that aim and the Alliance Party commitment to equality and to building a shared society for everyone in Northern Ireland.
In my remaining minute, may I extend my sincere thoughts and prayers to Jim Wells and his wife for the health challenges that they are facing? However, on behalf of the Alliance Party, may I also make it clear that the comments by the Health Minister, Jim Wells, in this recent week were completely unacceptable, unsubstantiated and, unfortunately, part of a wider pattern of DUP hostility to equality for all citizens here in Northern Ireland? The DUP leadership needs to make it clear where it stands on these important matters. The Ulster Unionist Party leadership and supporters who will be voting for DUP candidates in the Westminster election need also to reflect on the credibility of their support for that DUP approach to equality.
I support the motion.
Mr Speaker, this is the fourth time that what is sometimes referred to as "same-sex marriage" has been debated here in the Northern Ireland Assembly. All the issues were analysed and debated at length during those previous three debates, and, on each and every occasion, the Assembly voted to retain the traditional definition of marriage.
This is not an equality issue, although some people try to present it in that way. Neither is it a human rights issue, although some people attempt to present it in that way. The European Convention on Human Rights does not recognise what is called "same-sex marriage" as a right, and member states have the right and, indeed, the freedom not to redefine marriage in that way. It is really about the nature, understanding and purpose of marriage. It is an attempt to change the definition of marriage, change the understanding of marriage, abandon the traditional view of marriage and introduce a new one.
I believe that the traditional understanding of marriage, which is also the biblical understanding, is the right one. A marriage is a loving union between a man and a woman, and it is foundational in the sense that so much else in society depends upon it. It is also universal in that it has existed throughout history, across human cultures, across religions and around the world. Marriage is also beneficial to individuals and society, and it is beneficial to wider society in a variety of ways.
In this debate, and in the wider public discourse, we should, to borrow a biblical phrase, speak the truth in love. I speak, I believe, in love, but I also want to speak the truth. Whatever we say on either side of the debate should be spoken in love, and no one on either side should be subjected to harassment or mistreatment. Whenever we uphold the traditional and biblical definition of marriage in our society, we do so out of a genuine belief that traditional marriage is important, that marriage is good and that it is beneficial to society.
The campaign to redefine marriage is an attempt to change one of the fundamental institutions in our society, and to change it for ever. We have been told that there could be protection for Churches that might refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies, but that is only one point, as this is a much wider issue. Consider the impact on Churches in Northern Ireland: Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have reaffirmed their commitment to traditional marriage. Apart from a tiny handful of exceptions, that is the position across not only Christian Churches but other religious faiths as well. Across the religious spectrum, there is a consensus that marriage is the union of a man and woman. Yes, there are promises of protection, but, so often, such assurances seem to evaporate over time. If our society alters the meaning of marriage, that is what will happen.
Consider the impact, too, on those who work in registry offices and that on many other businesses. That issue has been highlighted in recent days. Consider the wider impact on society. This is an attempt to change for ever the legal definition of marriage for all of society: for not just those who believe in the introduction of same-sex marriage but all of us. Of course, some people argue that we are out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom and that what has happened in Great Britain should also happen here. However, there are times when it is right to be different.
For all those reasons, I oppose the motion. I support the retention of the traditional understanding and definition of marriage and the current legal understanding of marriage here in Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is a genuine honour for me today to be able to speak in favour of extending the right of civil marriage to those who are LGBT. I express at the outset my solidarity with my comrades across the Twenty-six Counties who are fighting for a "Yes" vote in the upcoming marriage referendum, although I do not believe that we should be having to vote in the first place, because, quite frankly, it should not be an issue in 2015. We must make sure that the referendum is won, because it is the right thing. This is, first and foremost, about love, and love alone. I cannot begin to imagine the elation of a young LGBT person waking up on the morning after a "Yes" vote. I hope that, some day, we can do that for all the people across this island.
I will briefly comment on the recent controversy around Jim Wells. I will not say much, mostly because I do not want to give more attention to his, in my opinion, disgusting views. The mask slipped, but it is important to remember that he is not the only one wearing one. I take no confidence at all from the DUP statement that there will be any attempt to address the wider party prejudice. I think that that is a real shame. We do not just need a change of Minister but a change of mindset, and we need there to be respect.
Of course, today we will hear the DUP and others talk up the benefit of a civil partnership and how that is more than enough. As I have said before, you cannot be a bit equal to someone: that is not how it works. Civil partnerships are not enough. If we were being really honest here today, I would say that it is not that you think that civil partnerships are enough but that you think that they are already a step too far.
The motion respects the right of religious institutions to define and practise marriage within their beliefs. I understand and respect the fact that some people hold sincere religious beliefs that mean a lot to them, but those beliefs should not impact on a law that affects everyone. Since when does religious freedom mean that you can blatantly discriminate against fellow citizens? The very concept of personal freedom means that, if we do not all have it, none of us does.
Just the other day, I was speaking about the issue with an elderly gentleman from my area who would describe himself as a committed Christian. He said to me, "Megan, the way I see it is that, if you are using the Bible to hate people, you are using it wrong". I thought that that was quite a profound statement for him to make.
The motion is about civil marriage, and it is sad that I already know that there will be all sorts of ridiculous arguments made as a distraction from that throughout the debate. I think that people should be careful with their words, because what happens in here has a direct impact on people's lives out there. This is about dignity and human rights. Gay and lesbian people do not want special treatment. They do not want different rights from those that straight people already have. They just want equality under the law.
Adoption rights are another element of the wider debate. The narrative that a child needs a man and a woman in order to be raised properly is completely false. In reality, all that a child needs is a loving home and environment in which to grow up. My mum is from a single-parent family, and I think that it is insulting to single-parent families everywhere to say that a child needs a mother and a father. In fact, it is insulting to all families to say that.
The sad reality is that, because of the intimidation that they would face, there are people out there who would rather not live than be openly themselves, and that is an indictment of our entire society. We cannot stop until we have achieved full legislative equality that extends the same rights, privileges and protection to all. None of us can judge or quantify true love. Sexuality is not a choice and neither are the people that we love. We should let people who love each other be together in the way that other couples are able to: people such as my friends, some of whom are here today.
Despite another abuse of the petition of concern from the DUP, I encourage all progressively minded people to do the right thing today, and support the motion. Of course, we have to recognise that marriage is just one of the many battles that need to be fought in the overall fight for LGBT equality. We have seen blatant, often DUP-led discrimination against the LGBT community in recent times, whether it is the blood ban, adoption rights or the so-called conscience clause. There is a long battle ahead of us, and the reality is that those who will vote against this today will be on the wrong side of history. In years to come, when I am asked where I was during the fight for equal rights, I will be more than proud to say that I was there.
I oppose the motion brought by Sinn Féin not out of love and respect for the homosexual community in Northern Ireland but for its own cynical party political posturing. Comments from Chris Lytle are, of course, also disgraceful, but some would say that that is more about his party's desperation in East Belfast than the debate in the House today.
The motion is couched in the usual Sinn Féin-speak of equality. The call for equality suggests that there are not equal rights for gay people in relationships, and that is, of course, factually wrong. We have civil partnerships in Northern Ireland, which allow persons of the same sex to acknowledge their commitment to each other in relationships. Civil partners in Northern Ireland enjoy the same rights as couples in a same-sex marriage in England.
We should remember that Sinn Féin's equality agenda is not all that it would seem. It is a twisted logic brought forward to demonise those who disagree with it. Any motion from Sinn Féin on equality has to be put in the context of their party president, Gerry Adams, in Enniskillen a couple of months ago. I apologise to the House for the use of foul language, but, referring to this party, Mr Adams said that equality is being used as a "Trojan Horse" to "break these bastards". When it tried to murder and bomb us into submission, the IRA did not break this community, and it will not succeed in its false equality agenda either. For that is what it is: false.
To the gay community, I say: "I respect you. In many individual cases, you are my friends and I enjoy social fellowship, but don't allow Sinn Féin to suck you into their agenda. Remember it is themselves alone. As apologists for some of the most heinous crimes in Northern Ireland, they have zero credibility to campaign on any issue of equality."
I know that many gay people have been subject to homophobic attacks because they are in a minority. I know what it is like to live as part of a minority community. I know what it is like to be forced from my home because we did not agree with the mainstream view in our neighbourhood. I empathise with those victims of homophobic attacks. Those are wrong on every level, just as my forced exodus from my home at the age of eight was wrong. However, you will not hear Sinn Féin campaigning for me and others like me, because it sponsored such actions.
This is the fourth time that this motion has come to the Assembly, and it causes distress every time. It causes distress to those who support the institution of marriage. Many have phoned, emailed or called with me, absolutely distressed at the prospect of redefinition. Frankly, it also causes distress to the LGBT community, as it raises unrealistic expectations every time the motion comes back to the House. Of course, Sinn Féin does not care that it causes widespread distress; in fact, that adds to its day.
Finally, those who support marriage and oppose its redefinition have been labelled "homophobic" by those in the House and outside it. Such an expression is, of course, lazy politics and lazy journalism. Indeed, it is dangerous politics and dangerous journalism. Unlike the party opposite, I have a consistent record on opposing violence against anyone, regardless of their sexuality, their race, or their religious or political opinion. If respect and tolerance are to be the order of the day, it is a two-way street. To be clear, I and my party are willing to play our part, and I hope that there are those in the LGBT community who are willing to display respect and tolerance for those of us who believe in marriage.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome and support the motion.
Our society in the North has undoubtedly been rocked over the weekend as a result of the actions and words of the outgoing Health Minister, Jim Wells; but let me put on record my genuine hope that Jim and his family take the time over the next number of weeks to move on to a better place for him and for the health of his wife.
We now need to hear from the DUP that it has not just heard the huge backlash from local people but has listened as well. The days of vilifying and attacking our LGBT brothers and sisters are over. As communities across the world modernise and look to sweep away any vestiges of archaic discrimination and inequality, we, too, must look to show leadership and legislate for equality on all issues across all parts of society.
When I was graduating from university, the keynote speaker told us to go forth and change society, that oppositional voices would be strong but that the insatiable desire for progress would ultimately win the day. He was 100% right. We will see marriage equality across this island for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. There is no doubt about that. It will not be today, and it will not happen if we sit back and do nothing. It is why we continue to champion the rights of our LGBT community and why we continue to bring this motion to the Floor time and time again. We will do so until we are blue in the face and until it is successful.
Danny Kinahan belittled the motion as party politics but went on to say that he had not really taken the time to think about the issues before. That shows exactly why it is important to bring the motion: it makes people have a think. I also suggest that Danny talks to his party colleague Harold McKee in south Down because Harold certainly needs to take the time to think as well. That is why these motions are very important. It is also why the marriage referendum in the South is very important. It is another welcome stage on the road to equality across this island, and I look forward to being able to campaign with my comrades in the South once the Westminster campaign is over in a couple of weeks.
Nelson McCausland said that he is wedded to the traditional and original concept of marriage, but even a cursory glance at the evolution of the definition of marriage will show that it has changed throughout the ages. I know that Nelson is not the biggest fan of evolution, but surely, if we keep bringing this message back, the progressive voices in the party will come to the fore; people like Pam Cameron, who stood up and realised that Jim Wells was wrong and distanced herself from those comments. We need to see more progressive voices from the DUP to stand up for our brothers and sisters.
I have listened with interest to the Member. Does that mean that, by the same token, he condemns and rejects that which the archbishop of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, wrote to Assembly Members in respect of this debate? He very carefully points out that the motion on same-sex marriage undermines a key foundation of the common good. He says:
"We say this both as a matter of human reason and of religious conviction. We believe that the union of a 'man and a woman' in marriage open to the procreation of children is a gift from God who created us male and female".
I thank the Member for his intervention. I tend not to reply to statements, but it is a welcome development to see the Member sticking up for the rights of the Catholic Church and being so interested in its press releases. The bishop has every right to comment on this. I do not agree with what the bishop said on the matter. We are dealing today specifically with civil marriage. A number of people have touched on that. I am not saying that the bishop was doing this, but various parties in this Chamber tend to resort to weaponising scripture when it comes to these debates. I think that it is a retreat into the world of scripture. I do not think that it does anything to help them. They know that there is no empirical evidence to back up their case so they resort back to text that is thousands of years old, they distort the meaning of it in various ways, and they saturate society with twisted logic that does nothing but hold us back.
Finally, I want to touch on the issue of how this would redefine marriage. It is a complete fallacy. The suffragettes did not redefine voting practices. You only have to look around this Building to see that there are still not enough women in politics. The black Americans did not redefine how we eat out; they only wanted a seat at the table, and our lesbian, gay and bisexual community only want a seat at the table of marriage. They do not want to redefine it; they simply want a piece of the cake.
At the outset, I want to make it plain that I oppose the motion. This is yet another debate — the fourth — on this issue in a very short time. It is very clear to everyone today that the decision of this House will not change, not least as a consequence of the petition of concern tabled. I say to the sponsors of the motion that they are guilty of engaging in a highly cynical political exercise and, undoubtedly, an electoral exercise that will be of absolutely no benefit to any section of our community, least of all the LGBT community, which is being deliberately used by Sinn Féin for perceived political advantage.
I choose to speak not as a Minister or, indeed, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. The House will know that my party believes that issues of this nature are matters of personal conscience. Therefore, although called as an Ulster Unionist, I speak in a personal capacity, and it is a matter of regret that Members from all political parties are not allowed the liberty to speak freely according to their conscience on this issue.
In previous debates on this matter, I made clear my opposition to any change in the current legislation in order to allow for same-sex marriage. That remains my position. It is a position based on my religious beliefs and is consistent with the teaching of my Church — the Presbyterian Church — and also the publicly expressed views of other churches, including, as we have heard, the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. Finally, it is a position that I believe is fundamentally consistent with the teaching of holy scripture. What is of importance to me in this debate is not the teaching of any Church but the teaching of scripture itself. It is clear to me and my understanding of scripture that there should be no change in the current situation.
In past debates on this subject, I have highlighted my clear view on the clear differences that exist in the teachings of the Church and the law of the land as both define marriage. The separation of Church and state, therefore, becomes of extreme importance. The state has no right to dictate the terms of religious marriage to the Church. The state has created the mechanisms under which same-sex civil partnerships can be enacted with protections under the law which, in most cases, are equivalent to the responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. In my view, it is neither sensible nor desirable to allow the state to interfere in the religious institution of marriage simply for political convenience.
Redefining marriage would have far-reaching consequences for our entire society. Furthermore, I do not believe that there is widespread public support in Northern Ireland for such a proposal. In holding my view, I do not believe that I should be regarded as homophobic, and, indeed, any suggestion would offend and abhor me. I do not disparage people in the LGBT community, many of whom I count as personal friends, nor is it my role or practice to be judgemental, but for the reasons that I have set out, which are personal and deeply held convictions that I cannot and will not set aside, I remain opposed to this proposal.
Save for Jim Wells's colleagues in the DUP, I am probably one of those who has known him, in the political world, for longest because we were at college in Queen's together 35 years ago. My sense of the man is that, just as he carried his responsibilities as Health Minister heavily, I think that, in the last couple of days, he has probably carried the issue that has arisen heavily. For those reasons, whilst I think that the decision is the right one, I convey to him and his family my personal good wishes.
I will make a number of points about this issue. If there is one thing that we should draw from the last two or three days, the last two or three months or the last two or three years and decades, it is this: if our society is not based on respectful relationships, we end up in a situation of not just disrespect but of division and denial. If this debate is meant to mean anything, in the context of the last number of days and in the context of all our learning over the last number of decades, it shows that, if the issue and all the other issues that crowd in on our society are not based on respectful relationships, we end up ill-serving our community and our society. You can see that across the full range of political and policy issues that we face at the moment and that we will face after the election, not least in the resolution of the parades disputes. The one thing that we have to conclude from all of this is that all these debates have to be informed by an approach that is about respectful relationships. Otherwise, difference is forced to the point of division, and people's rights are forced to the point of denial.
A number of years ago, I read a book that argued that the future of Ireland had to move away from what it referred to as:
“the bloodlines of ethnicity to the lifelines of human rights”.
I do not completely agree with that analysis because I believe that our different backgrounds are part of the richness and diversity of this island, but I agree with the argument that the society that we have to create here and elsewhere has to be based around the "lifelines of human rights". That is the approach that the SDLP takes to this issue. Articles 12 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights have been interpreted judicially in relation to equal marriage, so they should be the template and the standard that we uphold. However, in so doing, I confirm the words of my colleague from Derry Mr Eastwood that recognising equal marriage can be accommodated in a way that also recognises moral tenets and the theological and faith views of many in our community. I say to the DUP that, in making those arguments, this is not a temporary response; it is a permanent guarantee going forward.
I express some regret about the contribution made by the proposer of the motion. We are a party that comes from the tradition of democratic dissent: it is at the heart of what was created through democratic struggle in this part of the island of Ireland after all the years of inequality. Dissent is part of our creed, and we welcome and encourage it, unlike her party. That dissent on issues of freedom of conscience means that our party allows people not to vote in favour of equal marriage. Our party upholds the right of dissent on an issue of conscience.
Finally, to be talked to in this Chamber about the denial of rights of others, when people in our society were denied rights because of the uniform they wore —
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I join with the many contributors who wished Jim Wells and his wife well at this difficult time for them and their wider family. I would, however, go further than many and condemn the vile personal abuse and threats that he and his family have received, particularly on social media, in the last number of days.
The baseball commentator Yogi Berra once famously said:
"It's like déjà vu all over again."
I know how he felt. This is the fourth time this subject has been debated in this Assembly term, and it is déjà vu all over again. Effectively, it is the same motion, tabled by the same people, with the same MLAs speaking, saying the same things, with most probably the same outcome.
I note that the call to action in the motion is directed at the Executive as a whole. However, as the subject falls within the remit of my Department, I agreed to respond. In saying that I believe that this motion will suffer the same fate as the three previous motions, I am not seeking to be curt or dismissive. I am merely recognising the fact that most Members have voted, and will continue to vote, according to their conscience, no matter how much pressure is brought to bear.
There would appear to be a view that claims of inequality, if repeated often enough, will inevitably succeed. When the last motion was debated, on 29 April 2014, there was talk of second-class citizens, marginalisation and discrimination. The reality is, I am happy to say, somewhat different from the rhetoric. Same-sex couples in Northern Ireland are not denied the opportunity to live in a loving, secure, stable and permanent relationship with all the protections and benefits that such a relationship can bring. They can do just that by entering into a civil partnership, and many have.
If you choose to focus on negative concepts, such as marginalisation and discrimination, you will inevitably lower self-esteem and create unnecessary divisions. Different approaches are not lesser or discriminatory, and it is wrong to imply that a civil partnership is an inferior status. Our marriage law recognises the unique relationship between a man and a woman, just as our law on civil partnerships recognises the unique relationship between two people of the same sex.
Those who criticise civil partnerships are quick to suggest that other jurisdictions have a greater respect for diversity because they have introduced same-sex marriage. However, such suggestions should not be taken at face value as same-sex marriage in some jurisdictions has not resulted in certain restrictions being lifted for same-sex couples. Such restrictions are not, of course, highlighted because they undermine the arguments that some prefer to present.
Critics are also quick to suggest that Northern Ireland must introduce same-sex marriage because the other constituent jurisdictions of the United Kingdom have done so. However, the position in the UK is by no means unique, and other jurisdictions, such as the United States, New Zealand and the Netherlands, have territories that have not introduced same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Northern Ireland is not alone in the world in not having legislated for same-sex marriage. There are close to 200 countries in the world; only 17 allow same-sex marriage. A further 30, of which we are one, have civil partnerships with similar protections. Notable countries that have not approved same-sex marriage include Australia, Germany and Italy, and it is the same in one third of the states in the US. The list of countries that have not introduced same-sex marriage is much longer than the list that have.
Some states now provide for same-sex marriage following a democratic vote or judicial ruling, and I respect the position in those states. Next month, the Republic of Ireland will decide whether it wants to amend its constitution to allow for same-sex marriage. Again, I will respect the outcome in that jurisdiction. However, comparisons with other jurisdictions are, ultimately, of limited value. This Assembly does not, and should not, simply align itself with other legislatures. It has a duty to question, challenge, probe and produce laws that take account of the needs and interests of all our citizens. A major reason why we have devolution is so that we can have different laws from other parts of the United Kingdom to suit the views of the people of Northern Ireland and our circumstances.
The argument for the motion and a redefinition of marriage is, again, grounded in equality. This, however, is not an equality issue. 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 — not different, not more, but the same — benefits as a same-sex civil partnership. Equality, therefore, is not the issue.
Article 16 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as upheld by the UN Human Rights Committee, defends a 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 to be not a matter of equality but a matter for individual state law. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission highlighted that the international treaties protect the right to marry but has conceded:
"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 motion uses the language of religious tolerance, and it suggests that suitable protections can be afforded to people of faith. However, the proposed protections relate only to the clergy and religious organisations. There is no offer to protect the religious beliefs of others, such as teachers or registrars.
There is a tendency to portray opposition to same-sex marriage as evidence of an underlying animus toward the lesbian and gay community, and that is wholly unjust. As I have said in the House, opposition to same-sex marriage is not grounded on opposition to any particular type of relationship but on support for the traditional, long-standing, centuries-old definition of marriage and a genuine belief that our current legislative framework achieves a fair balance between the competing interests.
In all the correspondence that I received in advance of this debate from those opposing a redefinition of marriage, which far outweighed any correspondence in favour, none of the language used by good people from across this country has been nasty, bitter or aimed personally at members of the gay and lesbian community. However, those people are often painted and portrayed as bigots by those who, ironically, want to redefine marriage on the basis of tolerance. I have said this before in the House, but it is worth repeating: I was always taught that tolerance was when you disagreed with people but respected their right to have a different position to you. Today, unfortunately, it seems that, for some, when you fail to fall in line with their thinking, you are the intolerant one.
Opposing a redefinition of marriage is not bigotry, narrow-mindedness or even intolerance. It is a view held by many — quite possibly, the majority — in Northern Ireland. Those people are members of the Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church and no church at all. They are Members on all sides and in all corners of the House. As we debate the issue in this place and outside, whether for or against, the true meaning of tolerance should be at the forefront of our minds and reflected in the language that we use. I oppose the motion.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can the House have an explanation as to why it appears that the 90 minutes allocated for this debate will not be utilised? Why, in the calling of Members, if my mathematics is correct, were twice as many people called to speak in favour of the motion as to oppose it?
There are two points. The Minister was called when there were barely the 15 minutes left that he was entitled to to respond to the debate. In the debate, there were contributions from people speaking against the motion and from those speaking for the motion. To that extent, it was a balanced discussion.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, under Standing Order 17. I understand that this is a cross-community debate and that the vote will be taken on that basis. I respectfully draw your attention to the fact that only one unionist spoke in favour of the motion and quite a few spoke against it. I would have preferred to have had the opportunity to add to the balance of the debate.
I have considerable sympathy for the position. Indeed, there are a few Members who had their name down for the debate whom I would love to have had the time to bring in, because I think that they would have added to the value of the debate. However, I have to work with the Business Committee's decision. It allocated 90 minutes and allowed 15 minutes for a response from the Minister. It allowed 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech, and every other Member called to speak was given a five-minute slot, which included interventions. Some Members did not use the entire five minutes, and some abused the privilege and spoke for longer than the five minutes, despite my efforts to move them along because I was anxious to include those who had taken the time to put their names on the list. I have to apologise that that was not possible in the debate.
The debate stood suspended.