Campaigners for same-sex civil marriage in Northern Ireland have hailed a first Stormont vote in favour of a law change as a “significant milestone”, even though the proposal fell due to a Democratic Unionist blocking mechanism.
In a tight vote, 53 MLAs voted for a law change and 52 voted against, with one abstention.
However, the “petition of concern” tabled by the DUP at the outset of the debate in Parliament Buildings, Belfast meant the proposal could only have succeeded if a sufficient number of both unionist and nationalist MLAs backed it.
Given the DUP is the largest unionist party, that was not going to happen. And, even if the motion had been carried, the Stormont Executive could only ever legislate in the current mandate with DUP support.
Nevertheless, supporters of gay marriage have characterised the first overall majority vote, in what was the fifth debate on the issue, as a “symbolic victory”.
John O’Doherty, director of the LGBT lobby group the Rainbow Project, said it was a momentous day. “We now know a majority of Assembly members support equal marriage, a majority of the public support equal marriage, what we now need is public leadership from this House to ensure equal marriage becomes a reality and we can move this debate and issue forward,” he said.
“We are absolutely elated. We cannot overstate the impact this vote will have on our community across Northern Ireland.”
Before the vote, Jayne Robinson and Laura McKee issued invites to their own proposed wedding to MLAs who voted yes. “It’s fantastic – it just sends out a really good message that the tide is actually turning,” Ms McKee said after the debate.
“It sends out a message that this debate isn’t going to go away and the people really do need to move with the times on it.”
Ms Robinson added: “It’s really positive that our politicians have said yes, we are equal – and that’s definitely a positive step in the right direction.”
The Stormont vote came a week after same-sex marriage was signed into law in the Republic.
The petition of concern is a mechanism incorporated into Assembly structures during the peace process to ensure the rights of both unionist and nationalists were protected.
However, both main parties at Stormont – the DUP and Sinn Fein – have accused each other of misusing the blocking tactic.
DUP chief whip Peter Weir defended his party’s latest use of the petition.
“Whilst this is the first time that a majority of MLAs have voted in favour of same sex marriage, many people are notably quick to dismiss the other four occasions that a majority rejected this same proposal,” he said.
“If it requires a process of attrition to alter a result it does not demonstrate a great deal of force behind the argument of those who have brought forward the proposal on each occasion … It now remains to be seen whether those who have brought forward the motion on five separate occasions will again see the debate repeated in another six months.”
A number of same-sex couples are currently seeking to overturn the Assembly’s ban on same sex civil marriage in the courts. In the (northern) summer, about 20,000 people marched in Belfast city centre demanding a law change.