Labour MP plans to launch Northern Ireland equal marriage bill in UK Parliament

A Labour MP plans to legislate in the UK’s Parliament for equal marriage in Northern Ireland – after the government signalled it may not block the move.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without equal marriage, due to opposition from the hardline Democratic Unionist Party.

The issue has been blocked by the DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly for years – but following the collapse of power-sharing in the region, Northern Irish LGBT activists have called on UK Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene through direct rule.

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

In a major concession this week, the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley signalled the government would not block such a move, saying: “In accordance with the Belfast Agreement, this is a devolved matter which should be addressed in the NI Assembly; but the power of the Westminster Parliament to legislate remains unaffected.

“If this issue were to be raised in Westminster, the Government’s policy is to allow a free vote on matters of conscience such as equal marriage.”

Following the statement, a Labour MP says he plans to submit equal marriage legislation to the UK Parliament.

Conor McGinn, the Northern Ireland-born MP for St. Helens North, told PoliticsHome he is planning to take the step.

He said: “I want to see these sorts of decisions being made by a power-sharing Executive and a fully functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, and restoring those institutions should be all of our focus.

“But it’s clear from the answer given by the Secretary of State that the Government can legislate for equal marriage at Westminster, and I believe circumstances are soon approaching in which it should.

“If the Government will not commit to doing that in a reasonable timeframe, then I am prepared to take forward a Private Members’ Bill or propose amendments to an appropriate Government Bill to extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland.

“The song says ‘you can’t hurry love’ but in this case love – and equality – has waited too long already. It’s beyond time to give same-sex couples in Northern Ireland the same rights enjoyed by people in Britain and the Republic of Ireland.”

The Conservative government currently relies on the votes of DUP MPs to secure a majority, so the party’s anti-gay marriage MPs are likely to be a strong voice in any debate.

Labour’s Lord Alli told PinkNews: “Whilst we all want to see a return of power sharing government and a vote for equal marriage in the Assembly, the Secretary of State is right to recognise the fact that the current discriminatory situation in Northern Ireland is unsustainable.

“I welcome the Goverment’s commitment to allowing a vote on equal marriage in Westminster and would ask that the Secretary of State now set a clear deadline for legislation in either the restored Assembly or UK parliament because lesbians and gays in Northern Ireland have already been waiting for equality for far too long.”

Thousands of people take part in a Belfast march and rally calling for legislation for same-sex marriage (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Patrick Corrigan of the Love Equality campaign for civil marriage equality said: “The outcome of the political talks has been deeply disappointing.

“Even if the parties had reached a deal on the basis of the widely reported draft, marriage equality legislation at Stormont would have been doomed to failure, given the lack of agreement on reforming the Petition of Concern. We have no confidence in the prospects of the proposed review of the Petition of Concern, given the failure of the parties to agree any reform as part of the talks themselves.

“Sadly, equal marriage appears not to have been a sufficient political priority in these talks. On the basis of the leaked deal, Northern Ireland’s LGBT community was looking at the prospect of four more years of second-class citizenship.

“That is not good enough and we demand change.

“We are calling on the UK Government to introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to bring Northern Ireland’s laws on marriage equality into line with the rest of the UK.

“We welcome the positive tone of the Secretary of State’s answer today, that the government would allow a free vote on the issue, but it falls short of what is now required.

“In every other jurisdiction in the UK and Ireland, it has been government legislation which has ensured equality for same-sex couples. The rights of LGBT people in Northern Ireland to be treated equally should not be left to the lottery of the Private Member’s Bill process.

“The Government can fix this problem and be assured of overwhelming support across both Houses of Parliament. It should do so without further delay.”

Belfast Gay Pride

(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Power-sharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, aimed at restoring the region’s devolved executive and assembly, collapsed earlier this month after little progress was made.

Sinn Fein cited equal marriage as one of the key bones of contention in the talks, alongside cultural issues like disagreements over an Irish Language Act.

Meanwhile, a number of DUP hardliners have threatened to walk away from any deal that includes same-sex marriage.

A DUP spokesperson told the Belfast News Letter last week: “The DUP has a mandated policy to defend the current definition of marriage. We stand by that commitment.”

A source inside the party also told the outlet that the party would continue to employ a ‘petition of concern’ to block equal marriage in any resumed Assembly.

A group of Northern Irish teens delivered a petition to Assembly Members last week.