Northern Ireland and Australia in ‘race to the bottom’ on same-sex marriage

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Northern Ireland and Australia seem to be in a race to the bottom on same-sex marriage. Will either country actually pass equality?

Australia has made no significant progress on the issue, despite neighbouring New Zealand passing equality laws back in 2013. Similarly, Northern Ireland remains the odd one out – England, Scotland and Wales all began weddings last year, while the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour in May this year.

This week exemplified that Australia appears to be politically deadlocked on the issue, with the governing coalition moving to ban its MPs from voting in favour of same-sex marriage.

With Tony Abbott unwilling to allow his MPs to vote for equality, there is unlikely to be any progress without serious political changes.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten suggests the problem is tied to the PM, saying: “The choice in this country is clear – you either have Tony Abbott or you have marriage equality, you can’t have both.”

If he is correct, equality will not come to Australia until after the next election in 2017, at the earliest.

mooted plebiscite (referendum) on the issue would almost definitely pass – but Mr Abbott will not risk holding one until after the election.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party continues to block equality – filing ‘petitions of concern’ to block the issue from passing in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Despite public opinion strongly in favour of equal marriage, the overtly homophobic DUP refuses to engage on the issue.

Shutting down an attempt to end the ban on same-sex marriage earlier this year, DUP Assembly member Peter Weir claimed: “This is not a serious debate. Clearly this motion is an attack on the symbolism of marriage and the institution of marriage and an attempt to redefine marriage.

“My party believes, and I believe also, that marriage is between one man and one woman and once you redefine that you lose the essence of marriage itself.”

The DUP has also rebuffed calls to even allow a referendum, despite the landmark referendum result in the Republic of Ireland earlier this year.

Given the lack of chance for internal political progress in the ruling DUP – the party was led by ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ founder Ian Paisley and many politicians still hold homophobic views – it falls on external forces.

A number of court challenges are underway that could bring same-sex marriage to the country, but the European Court of Human Rights is yet to deliver a verdict anywhere in Europe specifically in favour of enforcing same-sex marriage.

A human rights challenge is also not necessarily the speediest solution – many won’t want to wait the 17 years it took to secure gender recognition laws in the Republic.

External pressure could also be a factor in NI – UK Labour leadership hopeful Jeremy Corbyn has said he would attempt to override the devolved marriage laws, in favour of an agreement for UK-wide equal marriage.

He said: “I would want, and I hope this can be agreed, an extension of the equalities legislation that we received in the UK Parliament to all parts of the UK. That is my position, I feel very very strongly about that.”

Though there is cause for hope in both Australia and Northern Ireland, equality is not likely to come to either any time soon – leaving both lagging behind their neighbours.

Progress is likely to come sooner in Australia – where a public vote could bring marriages before the end of the decade. In Northern Ireland, the path to the first marriages is still unclear – and potentially very long.