Marriage Equality

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 27th April 2015.

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Debate resumed on motion:

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.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. It has been a worthwhile debate. Some Members referred to the fact that we have been here before, and I am sure we will be here again until the issue is dealt with, as it is being dealt with elsewhere on this island and on the island opposite.

Justin McAleese gave an interview to a newspaper recently. He referred to the MP for North Antrim, the effect that comments made by the MP had on his personal life and the struggle he had, not to come to terms with his sexuality but with the fact that much of society was opposed to his sexuality, to him as a person and to what he was. An interesting quote from Justin was:

"Language matters, words matter, marriage matters".

That is something that many Members opposite in the DUP need to reflect on. Language and words have a deeply damaging effect on people, on members of the LGBT community.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

I will not give way, sorry.

The response from Mr Paisley, which is in the 'The Irish Times' today, is that he thinks Mr McAleese and others should "get over" themselves. That was the response that the MP for North Antrim made. He said:

"all of this stuff where people are self absorbed about their own gender and how everything is about them ... Get over it. Get over yourself."

That is not a mature response for an MP, an MLA, an MEP or any elected representative on this island.

Churches, of course, have different views on marriage equality. Political parties have different views on it as well. Danny Kinahan made an important point when he said that marriage was not just a religious institution. We have civil marriage and we have marriage in many of our Churches. The language used by the DUP as a party and by many of its leading members is despicable, dangerous and wrong. This is a party that talks about itself as a party of the economy, but this is embarrassing on an international stage, where we are trying to secure jobs and foreign direct investment. A lot of these comments put people and companies off. There will be different views on marriage equality, but the language, more than anything, that is used by the Democratic Unionist Party makes some of these stories go round the world faster.

Marriage has not been the same institution for thousands of years. It has changed many times and taken many forms. What we are talking about for the LGBT community is civil marriage, not marriage in a church. Civil marriage was introduced in the 1800s; it does not go back centuries. Civil marriage has been subject to many changes in recent times. It is not something that goes back thousands of years. Marriage has changed over time and needs to continue to change for the better.

This highlights the need for church and state to be separate. We have to accommodate everyone who lives in our society, and we have to accommodate people of all backgrounds. Some Churches do not advocate divorce. Government offers people the choice of divorce, but they do not have to avail themselves of it. Some Churches oppose contraception, and the state allows people the freedom to make up their own mind on that. Some Churches oppose marriage for same-sex couples, and government should ensure that same-sex couples have the ability to decide for themselves. No one who does not believe in same-sex marriage — no one who does not believe in marriage, for that matter — has to enter into one if they do not want to.

Of course, sometimes this debate sets church and religion against the rest of society, but, as we know, there are many strands in Christianity, as well as in Judaism and other religions, that have no issue with marriage between people of the same gender. I know many people in the North — members of the Presbyterian Church and of the Catholic Church — who have no problem with equal marriage.

The resignation of the Health Minister is hugely significant. This is the first time that a politician has been forced to resign in the North because of the strength of public opinion against homophobic remarks. That is a big change for us as a society in the North of this island. I believe that the public recognise that it is simply wrong to speak about gay people in that way.

Nelson McCausland spoke about the need to protect traditional marriage and about the wider impact on society, but he did not give any evidence to back any of that up. Marriage equality has been introduced in a number of countries, and the sky has not fallen in. It has been brought in in Scotland. Has society been irreversibly damaged in Scotland? No, it has not. Most people now look on Scotland as somewhere that, thanks to a lot of political debate over the past couple of years, has become a better society. I believe that this society will follow in its footsteps.

The Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone said that she was sympathetic to victims of homophobic attacks, but she failed to make the link between those attacks and the prejudice that leads to them in the first place. I come back to what I said at the start: Members of the House need to be especially conscious of their comments. I recognise that there are those on the unionist Benches who approach the issue with the sensitivity required, but there are many who do not and fail to recognise the impact of their comments.

Danny Kennedy said that we had tabled the motion for electoral purposes: that is nonsense.

This is not about getting more votes. We may get more votes in certain areas because we have a line on equal marriage, but I know people who previously voted for us but who will not vote for this party because of the equal marriage issue. The reason why we brought the motion to the Floor is that it is the right thing to do.

Caitríona Ruane rightly referred to the fact that the issue could affect Member's children and grandchildren, and it could have consequences in our families that Members may not yet be aware of. I am sure that, given the comments made in the past number of days, children of gay members of our community will go, and have gone, to their parents, knowing that they are gay, and asked what Jim Wells was talking about. It is wrong that people have been put in that position.

Of course, many gay people and their children also face the brunt of homophobia and the roll-out from those comments in our schoolyards. Danny Kinahan referred to his experience in the British Army, and we will all know that, growing up, there was rampant homophobia in schoolyards and playgrounds. When my generation was growing up, that, given the number of comments made, was certainly the case. Children did not know what they were saying, but it was rampant throughout our playgrounds. I am sure that that still goes on to a very high degree — I know that it does. That has a big impact on depression, anxiety and suicide, so it needs to be a priority for the Executive — for Education, Health and all the relevant Departments.

In the closing seconds of my contribution, I would like to pay tribute to everyone in the LGBT community who has campaigned, and will continue to campaign, on the issue until they succeed. I have no doubt that the momentum is firmly with them. Every Sinn Féin MLA will vote for same-sex marriage today, and I urge other progressive parties to ensure that a full complement of their Members do the same.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I remind Members that the vote on the motion will be on a cross-community basis.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 47; Noes 49

AYES

NATIONALIST:

Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Ramsey, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan

UNIONIST:

Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Ms Sugden

OTHER:

Mr Agnew, Mr Dickson, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lyttle

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Fearon, Ms Ruane

NOES

UNIONIST:

Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan, Mr G Robinson

<TR><TD>Total Votes
96Total Ayes47[49.0%]
Nationalist Votes37Nationalist Ayes37[100.0%]
Unionist Votes53Unionist Ayes4[7.5%]
Other Votes6Other Ayes6[100.0%]
<BR/>The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mrs Cochrane, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise a matter of security. In this debate, which has lasted an hour and a half, nine Members spoke from the Benches of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and Alliance. On all sides, there was mention and criticism of my colleague the honourable Member for South Down Jim Wells. That Member has been subjected to the most severe online intimidation and harassment since the events of the past four days. Not a single Member mentioned or condemned that harassment and vile abuse that he has received not just for himself but for his family, and some of it used his seriously ill wife's name as well. I hope that you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is a shame and disgrace on every Member who spoke but did not refer to it, let alone condemn it.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Further to that point of order, I was here for the entire debate. I heard every single Member who spoke sympathise with Mr Jim Wells. Just in case there is any ambiguity about this: every single person who spoke here sympathised with Mr Wells. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House when I condemn any abuse towards anyone, including Mr Wells.

[Interruption.]

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

Order. I listened very carefully to what Mr Campbell said, and he isolated and mentioned the fact that there was no reference made to the abuse. Whilst that was outwith the Assembly, I have no reason to doubt that Mr Wells and his family were subjected to it, and I think it reprehensible if it were the case. However, I do not think that the fact that that was not mentioned is a point of order on the debate that we had. It is a sin of omission from your perspective, Mr Campbell, but of course on all sides of the Chamber, there was equal opportunity for people to raise that particular aspect, so it is a matter of the record of the debate, and, on that basis, I do not accept your point of order.

Adjourned at 4.00 pm.