Amid the fanfare that much of the United Kingdom would now enjoy full same-sex marriage rights following the success of Conservative UK prime minister David Cameron in enacting a successful vote earlier this week in Parliament, some LGBT activists are still waiting at the altar of public policy for their respective day of celebration.
Under the odd devolved system within the United Kingdom of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, it’s up to the separate Northern Ireland Assembly to effect its own laws on marriage. Even within Great Britain, the Scottish parliament, likewise, has the sole power to enact legislation related to marriage rights.
So while nearly 90% of the residents of the country will now be able to enter into same-sex marriages, Scottish and the Northern Irish will have to wait a little longer — and in the case of Northern Ireland, it seems like the wait will be lengthy. Scotland, with 5.3 million people (8.4% of the total UK population), and which will vote on independence in a referendum in September 2014, is already taking steps toward passing legislation, though Northern Ireland, with 1.8 million people (2.9% of the UK population), has already considered and rejected same-sex marriage.
The reason for the disparity within the United Kingdom goes back to former Labour prime minister Tony Blair.
Under the broad devolution process that his ‘New Labour’ government initiated upon taking power in 1997, much of the power to regulate life in Scotland was devolved from Westminster to the new parliament that met for the first time in 1999 at Holyrood. Although a parallel Welsh Assembly exists in Cardiff for Welsh affairs, the Welsh parliament lacks the same breadth of powers that the Scottish parliament enjoys, which is why the Welsh now have same-sex marriage rights. (Take heart, Daffyd!)
Northern Ireland has a similar arrangement, with its own devolved Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, though its powers were suspended from 2002 to 2007 when the Northern Ireland peace process fell apart, however briefly.
The disparate courses of English, Scottish and Northern Irish marriage rights are a case study in how devolution works in the United Kingdom today.
Scotland: Holyrood poised to pass an even stronger marriage equality bill in 2014
Scotland’s local government, led by Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party, introduced a same-sex marriage bill late in June that is set to provide an even more liberal regime of marriage rights. While the marriage bill passed earlier this week in London actually bans the Anglican Church of England from offering same-sex marriage ceremonies, the Scottish bill won’t have the same prohibitions on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which is seen as somewhat more relaxed about gay marriage. Like the English legislation, however, the Scottish bill offer protections to ministers on religious grounds who do not choose to officiate same-sex marriages.
Although there’s opposition to the bill within the governing SNP as well as the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Liberal Democratic Party, the Conservative Party has very little influence outside England and Scotland, generally speaking, is even more socially progressive than England, which means that the legislation is widely expect to pass in the Scottish Parliament early next year, with the first same-sex marriages in Scotland to take place in 2015.
Northern Ireland: gay marriage as a football between Protestant and Catholic communities
Earlier this year, the Northern Ireland Assembly considered a same-sex marriage bill, but it was defeated in April by a vote of 53 to 42 — a similar motion was defeated in October 2012 by a similar margin. Since 2005, LGBT individuals have been able to enter into civil partnerships (with most, though not all, of the rights of marriage enjoyed by opposite-sex partners) throughout the entire United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
When Scotland passes its gay marriage bill next year, however, it will leave Northern Ireland as the only part of the United Kingdom without marriage equality.
Not surprisingly, given that Northern Ireland was partitioned out of the Republic of Ireland in 1921 largely on religious lines, and Protestant-Catholic violence has plagued Northern Ireland for much of the decades since, Northern Ireland is the most religious part of the United Kingdom. A 2007 poll showed that while only 14% of the English and 18% of Scots were weekly churchgoers, fully 45% of the Northern Irish attended church weekly.
Unlike Scotland, where the mainstream UK political parties, such as the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats, aim to compete with the Scottish Nationalists (with varying degrees of success), Northern Irish politics are entirely different, based instead on the largely Protestant ‘unionist’ community and the largely Catholic ‘nationalist’ community. Around 41% of Northern Ireland is Roman Catholic, while around 41.5% of Northern Ireland is Protestant (mostly the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Church of Ireland).
That helps explain why the opposition to gay marriage in Northern Ireland remains so strong, and it doesn’t help that the issue falls along the same lines as the entrenched unionist and nationalist divisions. Given that it’s unlikely either community will come to dominate Northern Irish politics and the Assembly anytime soon, it means that proponents of same-sex marriage will have to convince at least some unionists to join forces with largely supportive nationalist parties to pass a marriage bill — and that may prove a difficult task for a five-way power-sharing government in Belfast that has enough difficulties even without gay marriage.
The dominant unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was founded in the 1970s by Presbyterian reverend Ian Paisley, and its current leader Peter Robinson has served as Northern Ireland’s first minister since 2008 through the current power-sharing government among all five of Northern Ireland’s major parties. The DUP, a staunchly Protestant party, overpowered the more established Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although both unionist parties are center-right, and both traditionally support the Conservatives at Westminster, the DUP has long been the more right-wing party, the more skeptical of the peace process and the most anti-gay party in Northern Ireland. Though the UUP also opposes same-sex marriage, its supporters, while still conservative, lack the same religiosity as the DUP and its supporters.
Both Paisley and Robinson are known for their particular opposition to homosexuality. Robinson has stated that he believes homosexuality violates Christian theology. Robinson’s wife, Iris Robinson, has been accused in particular of anti-gay bias. In the aftermath of a brutal anti-gay physical assault in June 2008, Iris Robinson claimed that homosexuality is an ‘abomination,’ and that LGBT individuals should seek treatment, and she was investigated under Northern Ireland’s hate crime laws.
Northern Ireland has a particularly troubled past with LGBT rights, where homosexual sex remained a criminal activity until a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights in 1981 forced the UK government to decriminalize homosexuality in Northern Ireland, despite the fierce opposition of Paisley and other unionist leaders.
Sinn Féin, at one time the notorious political wing of the Irish Republic Army, which was willing to use violence to carry out its desire for a united, Catholic Ireland, is now the second-largest force in the Northern Ireland Assembly following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the violent campaign between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists that had plagued Northern Ireland for decades. Sinn Féin, a firmly leftist party, But unlike the other Northern Irish parties, while Sinn Féin competes for Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in Westminster (and in 2010, it won five), it refuses to sit in the Parliament on principle and its members refuse to swear an oath of loyalty to the queen. Sinn Féin supports same-sex marriage, and it has been one of the most vocal advocates of bringing same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.
In recent years, Sinn Féin has supplanted the previously dominant republican group, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a mainstream social democratic party that has routinely supported Labour in the past. Unlike Sinn Féin, the SDLP has taken a more incremental approach to Irish reunification under its former longtime leader John Hume, participating in Westminster and advocating ever further devolution. Like Sinn Féin, the SDLP largely support marriage equality, and all of the Sinn Féin and SDLP deputies in the Assembly voted for the April 2013 marriage bill, though the issue is not without controversy among some of the SDLP’s more conservative supporters.
A fifth party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, is a non-sectarian liberal party that adheres neither to unionism or nationalism.
With legislative lines drawn in a way that seems to preclude action anytime soon, Amnesty International and local activists are set to file a court challenge to require Northern Ireland to bring its laws in accordance with the rest of the United Kingdom.