Tories block bid to bring equal marriage to Northern Ireland

A Conservative MP has shot down a cross-party push to bring equal marriage to Northern Ireland.

Labour’s Conor McGinn had brought a bill to the UK Parliament seeking to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland following the collapse of the devolved Northern Irish government.

Polling shows that an overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland support equal marriage, and campaigners fear that unless action is taken in Westminster it could be many years before the impasse is solved following the failure of power-sharing in the region.

However, despite support from MPs across the major parties, McGinn’s bill was today denied a second reading in the House of Commons, following an objection from a backbench Conservative MP who moved to block the bill coming to the floor.

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

Private members’ bills rarely become actual legislation, but the decision to prevent progress on the bill led to anger from LGBT rights campaigners.

The next opportunity to promote the bill in the Commons will be in October.

McGinn said: “Hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland who support the right of same-sex couples to marry will be outraged that one English Tory MP has been able to prevent the progress of my Equal Marriage Bill in the House of Commons today.

“While it is welcome that the Government did not formally object to the 2nd Reading of the Bill, they need to clarify how they intend to ensure that the right to equal marriage in Northern Ireland – which has the support of the Assembly, Parliament and the public – becomes law.

“The Government can’t continue to talk out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. It can and should legislate to extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland.”

He added: “I know today’s events will disappoint and frustrate the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, who continue to be denied the basic and fundamental right to marry the person they love.

“But I assure them that I will keep fighting for them and working with the Love Equality campaign to get this done.

“My Bill is due to come back to Parliament by the end of October. This is not going away, and we are not giving up.”

John O’Doherty of the Love Equality campaign for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, said: “Of course, it is disappointing that this Bill has been blocked from further progress today, but we want to thank Conor McGinn and all the MPs from all the parties who have supported this legislation.

“Despite huge support among the public and among Northern Ireland Assembly members, with Stormont in long-term suspension, we now look to Westminster to make marriage equality a reality for couples here.

“To demonstrate that support, once again we will take to the streets of Belfast to demand marriage equality for all our citizens. Love Equality will hold a rally at Belfast City Hall on Saturday June 2 and we invite people to join us in numbers.

“Responsibility for legislation now sits primarily with Theresa May, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and the new Equalities Minister, Penny Mordaunt, and we will seek urgent meetings with them to discuss next steps.”

A separate private members’ bill penned by Tory peer Lord Hayward is currently in progress in the House of Lords.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently walked back previous suggestions that the government would allow a free vote to be held on the issue.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley has suggested the Government will allow a free vote on the bill as a “matter of conscience”, but May told Parliament the issue should wait to be dealt with by a future Northern Ireland Assembly.

She said: “I hope the Hon. Gentleman will recognise the record that this government has in relation to LGBT rights, because this is an issue we have taken up and we have championed.

“I think the Hon. Gentleman will find that it is previous legislation, under the last Labour government, that ensured this was a devolved matter. We hope that there will be a Northern Ireland Executive in place soon that will be able to address these issues.”

Theresa May(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Campaigners had called on new equalities minister Penny Mordaunt to push for progress on the issue.

Patrick Corrigan of Northern Ireland’s Love Equality campaign said: “We are asking the new Minister for Women and Equalities to take responsibility for changing the law so that same-sex couples in Northern Ireland can enjoy the same rights as couples in her own constituency.

“Our preference has always been for the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass marriage equality legislation, in line with the overwhelming support which exists among the public here.

“However, without functioning devolution for 16 months, we now look to Westminster to legislate.

“The Private Members’ Bills introduced in Parliament in March demonstrated cross-party and cross-parliamentary support for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.

“We now call on the UK Government to introduce its own legislation to ensure equality can become law for Northern Ireland couples.”

The issue is complex on the Conservatives given their reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party for votes.

Northern Ireland is one of the last remaining regions in Western Europe without marriage equality.

In an interview with PinkNews in Westminster in March, the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, gave her backing to the Westminster bills – even though, as republicans, Sinn Féin do not typically recognise the authority of the UK Parliament over Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (R) and Northern Leader Michelle O’Neill join gay rights campaigners in a march through Belfast on July 1, 2017 to protest against the ban on same-sex marriage. (PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty)

O’Neill told PinkNews: “We have no government in the North at the moment, we haven’t had for 14 months, and one of the issues that’s right at the heart of the political impasse is the fact that we weren’t able to secure marriage equality in the Assembly despite quite a number of attempts.

“I was very clear throughout the [recent power-sharing] negotiations that if I wasn’t able to secure it as a deal with the DUP, we would go an alternative route.”

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) bill’s Second Reading will now take place on October 26.