UK government: It’s ‘not the time’ for equal marriage in Northern Ireland

A UK government minister has insisted it’s “not the time” to discuss an equal marriage settlement in Northern Ireland – after calls to intervene.

Gay Labour MP Ged Killen, who is married to a Northern Irish man, challenged the government on the issue in Parliament today.

The ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party has previously employed peace process powers to veto equal marriage bills in Northern Ireland – making it the only part of the UK that still bans same-sex couples from marrying.

Making the outlook even more bleak for LGBT people, the region has also been without a functioning government since January, due to the collapse of power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Mr Killen, the Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, challenged the UK government over the remaining inequality today – which means that couples who are legally married in other parts of the UK are treated as ‘civil partners’ in Northern Ireland.

UK government: It’s ‘not the time’ for equal marriage in Northern Ireland

The MP explained that he and his partner plan to one day retire to Northern Ireland. However, if one of them dies, under Northern Irish law their death certificate would pretend that their marriage simply never existed.

Mr Killen pressed the government to legislate to ensure “that same sex marriages issued in England, Wales and Scotland are recognised as marriages in Northern Ireland”.

He said: “If my husband and I stick to our plans to one day retire to his hometown in Northern Ireland, upon my death my better half would lose a husband in every sense of the word.

“The registry confirms no reference to the marriage would be included on any certificate issued. My husband would be recorded simply as a surviving civil partner. Years of marriage wiped out by the stroke of a pen.”

Referencing the DUP’s position on Brexit, he said: “Does the minister agree with me that if the DUP are so keen on no regulatory divergence from the UK, this is a good place to start?”

But Northern Ireland minister Chloe Smith insisted it was “not the time” to bring up the issue or try and reach a settlement.

UK government: It’s ‘not the time’ for equal marriage in Northern Ireland

She said: “I do very much sympathise on this issue and I share the frustration that is encapsulated in the letter I’ve just heard him read out.

“However, this is not the time to be unpicking the devolution settlement on this issue. This is, rightly, for a future executive to return to look at. We hope the executive can be brought back up to do this, and look at many other very important issues.”

She added: “My own position on this issue is clear. I voted in support of equal marriage in England and Wales and like the Prime Minister I hope that this can be extended to Northern Ireland in the future.

“I believe that marriage should be a common right across the UK, however, the fundamental position remains that same-sex marriage is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland.”

Explainer: Why doesn’t Northern Ireland have equal marriage yet?

There are few signs that a fresh power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland is forthcoming, so if the issue is left to a “future executive”, it will likely not be on the table for several years.

Mr Killen said: “The Government, despite its stated commitment to advancing LGBT rights in Northern Ireland, refused to take steps to provide for the recognition of UK same sex marriages.

“This is a disappointing response showing that while the Government talks the talk of advancing LGBT rights in Northern Ireland it will not walk the walk.

“The recognition of our marriages is a hard fought and hard won right for the LGBT community and for the Government to stand aside while the public recordings of the marriages of UK same sex couples are effectively stuck off should they choose settle in Northern Ireland is simply not good enough.”

LGBT activists in the region have previously called for the UK government to directly intervene to secure equal marriage due to the collapse of power-sharing.

UK government: It’s ‘not the time’ for equal marriage in Northern Ireland

Director of The Rainbow Project John O’Doherty said: “Of course, we would prefer that the Northern Ireland Assembly were in a position to grant these rights; the Assembly is not currently functioning.

“It is, therefore, the responsibility of Theresa May’s government to make the necessary amendments to the marriage legislation to make it applicable in Northern Ireland.

“The eyes of LGBT people around the world will now be on Theresa May. She says that she has changed her mind on LGBT equality over her years in Parliament. Now is her chance to prove it.”

Clare Moore of Love Equality concurred: “During this period of political instability it is now imperative that the Westminster government takes immediate action to ensure that the rights of LGBT people in United Kingdom are available for all UK citizens.”

UK Prime Minister Theresa May previously expressed her personal support for same-sex marriage, in an exclusive column for PinkNews.

Writing for PinkNews, Mrs May affirmed: “I want all British citizens to enjoy the fullest freedoms and protections. That includes equal marriage – because marriage should be for everyone, regardless of their sexuality.

“And while that is a matter for the devolved government of Northern Ireland, I will continue to make my position clear – that LGBT+ people in Northern Ireland should have the same rights as people across the rest of the UK.”

However, it is unlikely that Mrs May would go as far as to impose reforms via direct rule.

Any such decision would likely imperil her confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, which is crucial to keeping the Conservative government afloat in Westminster.

However, there were hints this month that the UK Labour Party may support proposals to break the impasse.

According to The Times, Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith is in favour putting equal marriage and abortion rights to a referendum if power-sharing is not restored.

Polling suggests that there is overwhelming support for same-sex marriage in the region, and when a referendum was held in the Republican of Ireland in 2015, 62% backed the change.

A referendum could be a way to allow equal marriage in Northern Ireland to go ahead with popular support, despite the lack of power-sharing.