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Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland)

Volume 638: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2018

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the marriage of same sex couples in Northern Ireland; to make provision in the law of Northern Ireland for the conversion of civil partnerships to marriages and for the review of civil partnership; to make provision for the legal recognition of the marriage of armed forces personnel overseas and of other marriages solemnised outside Northern Ireland; and for connected purposes.

I speak in the House today with great pride in the people and cause on whose behalf I bring in this Bill, but also with reluctance and—strange as it might sound—some disappointment. I say that for two reasons. First, this measure is long overdue. Northern Ireland is the anomaly in these islands when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. My constituents in St Helens and people in London, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh can all get married to the person they love, but same-sex couples are denied that basic right in Northern Ireland. That is a wrong that must finally be corrected.

Secondly, this measure should be enacted in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Let me say clearly that that is my strong preference. I know that Members across the House desperately want to see the power-sharing institutions restored at Stormont. However, the Assembly being in cold storage should not mean that Northern Ireland remains a cold house for LGBT rights. The de facto suspension of the devolved legislature does not mean that equality for same-sex couples can be suspended indefinitely, because rights delayed are rights denied.

It is for those reasons that I, Members right across the House and the Love Equality campaign demand that this House, this Parliament and this Government act. My contention is that we can derive a legitimate mandate to do so on this issue, because the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives in Stormont have spoken in favour of same-sex marriage. In November 2015, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of a Bill proposing to introduce same-sex marriage, and every poll of the public in Northern Ireland has shown broad support, with 60% to 70% consistently in favour. Alongside that, the majority of the parties support same-sex marriage. The Alliance party, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Green party and senior figures in the Ulster Unionist party all favour the introduction of equal marriage. They contend that change is needed and that, in the absence of an Assembly, Westminster must act.

This is not about people being nationalist or Unionist; it is not even about people being gay or married. It is about people being equal. The Love Equality campaign represents a broad cross-section of the community in Northern Ireland, including Amnesty International, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland, the Rainbow Project, Cara-Friend and Here NI.

In bringing in the Bill, I and other Members seek not to usurp the democratic institutions or civic society of Northern Ireland but to support them. There are, of course, those who oppose equal marriage and do not wish to see it extended to Northern Ireland. It is their right to hold those opinions, but it is not the right of anyone—any MP or any political party—in holding such opinions to deny, block or denigrate the rights of others.

I am a practising Catholic, although my parish priest would undoubtedly say that I probably need to practise a little bit more. I am not a theologian and this is not a church, but I have been asked whether or not, given the position of the Church hierarchy, the Bill conflicts with my personal faith. Let me say this as gently and appropriately as possible. The God I know is one of love, compassion and understanding. In showing that to others, in standing up for the marginalised and those who are denied their rights, I believe I am living the message of the Gospel in this holy week. I want to be clear that the position of the Churches in Northern Ireland will be unaffected by the Bill. They will not be compelled to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or to recognise same-sex marriages in the structures of their respective Churches.

Attitudes have changed in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland. In the rural Armagh village of Camlough, sage advice and solace is to be found in the local hostelries of Doyle’s, Quinn’s and Trainors. There people will find the finest wines, ales and minds. For me, they have always been a good barometer of what the elusive man on the street thinks about the issues of the day. On a recent and, these days, rare visit, I chanced to encounter one of these wise men—a gruff, agricultural, straightforward south Armagh man. He said to me, “Young McGinn, I see you are helping out the gays. Sure, I’m all for this gay marriage. They’re entitled to be as miserable as the rest of us.” Another asked, “You see this equal marriage—will they be able to get equal divorce, too?” The point is that when they are making jokes about it, it is clearly accepted and part of the fabric of everyday life. The people understand this; it is the law that remains stuck in the past. LGBT people are the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of our friends and neighbours. This matter is fundamentally about people and their rights.

My friend and occasional aide-de-camp, James Winston, is a well-known and respected figure here at Westminster. Unlike Downing Street advisers, I am not in the business of outing people, but it will not come as a shock to anyone who knows him when I tell the House that he is gay. What might be more surprising is that when he was a young man in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, homosexuality was still illegal. Despite being decriminalised in Britain in the late 1960s, it was not until the 1980s that it became legal in Northern Ireland. James is a proud Ulsterman and has devoted much of his life to working for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but I know, as his friend, that it cuts him to the quick that he had to leave home as a young man because he was gay and that the prohibition of same-sex marriage means that, to this day, he is not considered equal in the land of his birth.

My friend Peter Magee grew up on the same street as us in Bessbrook. He lives with his husband in New York, but when he gets off the plane in Belfast his marriage is not recognised. I contrast that with another friend, Alan Gemmell, for whom I acted as best man when he got married in Scotland. He was able to marry the man he loved in the place he calls home in front of his friends and family.

Later today, I will join Cara McCann, Amanda McGurk and other campaigners to present petitions in support of equal marriage in Northern Ireland to 10 Downing Street. The more than 42,000 people who have added their names to those petitions all have their own reasons for demanding marriage equality, but I want to highlight the case of Cara and Amanda. They have been in a loving relationship for almost five years and got engaged just over a year and a half ago. Like many couples, it is their dream to build a happy life together as a married couple, based on their shared love and values. But they cannot. Does anyone think that is fair? Does anyone think that is right? Does anyone think that can continue?

Madam Deputy Speaker, and dearly beloved Members gathered here today, if any person knows of any reason why Cara and Amanda cannot be joined together in matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace. This is the opportunity for anyone in this House who objects to equal marriage to do so. Let them stand up here, make their case and bring it to a vote. That is my challenge, because today is not about symbolism. My efforts and those of my friend Lord Hayward in the other place are not gestures. In a short while, we will know the will of the House on this matter. If it supports equal marriage, which I believe it will, the Government will have a moral and political duty and imperative to act.

I was born and raised in Northern Ireland and I now proudly represent the English seat of St Helens North in this House. People where I live—my constituents—and people in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Dublin have the right to marry the person they love, but the very same right is denied to people where I grew up. In 2018, that is not only unjust; it is unacceptable.

This Bill is not just an instrument to advance LGBT rights in Northern Ireland; it is a litmus test on the will of this House to uphold equality and fairness. It is high time we acted, and I hope that today will be the first step on what must be a short road to bringing about equal rights for our fellow citizens. It is a matter of fundamental inequality and unfairness and a denial of rights that same-sex couples in other parts of the UK and Ireland are allowed to marry, but that Cara McCann and Amanda McGurk are not. Cara and Amanda have a civil partnership ceremony booked for Valentine’s day next year. My Bill would pave the way for them to be married instead.

Question put and agreed to.


That Conor McGinn, Wes Streeting, Karin Smyth, Ged Killen, Yvette Cooper, Owen Smith, Layla Moran, Caroline Lucas, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening, Nick Herbert and Ms Angela Eagle present the Bill.

Conor McGinn accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 May, and to be printed (Bill 193).

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think the will of the House is now clear in respect of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). I seek advice on whether you have had any notification from the Government of their intention to come to the House to make a statement on how they intend to proceed to introduce same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

I have not had any such notification, although I would point out that the Bill has only just this minute gone through. Those on the Treasury Bench, however, will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very proud of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for that powerful speech. Earlier today, my constituent Richard Angell arrived in Parliament wearing a rainbow flag to support the campaign, but was asked by House security to remove it. It was confiscated until he left. I am sure the individual officers of the House were just following the rules, but I wonder whether you can clarify whether that was the appropriate course of action. If they were following the rules, can you give us some advice on how the rules might be revised, so that this powerful symbol of equality can be worn throughout our Parliament?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order. I will certainly look into the matter he raises and get back to him.