Same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland
|Legal status of same-sex unions|
* Not yet in effect, but automatic deadline set by judicial body for same-sex marriage to become legal
However, legislation requiring the UK Government to issue regulations extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland passed the Parliament in July 2019. The regulations will come into effect on 13 January 2020, provided the region's Executive has not reconvened before 21 October 2019.
Prior to this, the Northern Ireland Assembly had voted on the issue five times since 2012, and although it was passed by a slim majority on the fifth attempt, it was consistently vetoed by the Democratic Unionist Party using the petition of concern.
Civil partnerships (Irish: páirtnéireacht shibhialta) have been available to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland since 2005, when the UK Parliament passed the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Irish: An tAcht um Páirtnéireacht Shibhialta 2004). The Act gives same-sex couples most, but not all, of the same rights and responsibilities as civil marriage. Civil partners are entitled to the same property rights as married opposite-sex couples, the same exemption as married couples on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits, and also the ability to get parental responsibility for a partner's children, as well as responsibility for reasonable maintenance of one's partner and their children, tenancy rights, full life insurance recognition, next of kin rights in hospitals, and others. There is a formal process for dissolving partnerships akin to divorce. Civil partnerships can be conducted by religious organisations in England, Wales and Scotland but not in Northern Ireland.
According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), 1,202 civil partnerships were registered between 2005 and 2017. The data is shown in the table below.
Most civil partnerships were conducted in Belfast, the city accounting for about half of all Northern Irish partnerships, followed by Derry and Strabane, and Newry, Mourne and Down. Mid Ulster and Antrim and Newtownabbey saw the fewest partnerships. In 2015, the average age for men entering civil partnerships was 33.8, whereas for women it was 36.8 (34.3 and 32.2 respectively for married opposite-sex partners). There were seven partnership dissolutions in 2015 (five to male couples and two to lesbian couples), compared to 2,360 divorces.
Attempts to legalise same-sex marriage
Northern Ireland Assembly
Legislation to allow for the recognition of same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland has been debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly five times since 2012. On the first four of those occasions, only a minority of assembly members voted in favour of same-sex marriage, though the most recent vote on the issue in November 2015 saw a majority of MLAs vote in favour of same-sex marriage.
On 29 April 2013, the second attempt to introduce same-sex marriage was defeated by the Northern Ireland Assembly 53-42, with the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party voting against and Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Alliance and the Green Party voting in favour.
The third attempt on 29 April 2014 was defeated 51-43, with all nationalist MLAs (Sinn Féin and SDLP), most Alliance MPs and four unionists (two from NI21 and two from UUP) in favour. The remaining unionists (DUP, UUP, UKIP and Traditional Unionist Voice) and two Alliance MLAs voted against.
A fourth attempt on 27 April 2015 also failed, 49-47. Again, Sinn Féin, SDLP and five Alliance members voted in favour, while the DUP and all but four of the UUP members (who were granted a conscience vote) voted against.
On 2 November 2015, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted for a fifth time on the question of legalising same-sex marriage. Of the 105 legislators who voted, 53 were in favour and 52 against, the first time a majority of the Assembly had ever voted in favour of same-sex marriage. However, the DUP again tabled a petition of concern signed by 32 members, preventing the motion from having any legal effect.
Sinn Féin said that legislation regarding same-sex marriage would be a priority for the party in the Assembly elected in May 2016. On 23 June 2016, Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir announced he had requested that officials in the Executive begin drafting legislation to allow same-sex marriage, stating that MLAs would much rather vote on the issue than "be forced to legislate [following] an adverse judgment" in the courts. In October 2016, First Minister Arlene Foster reaffirmed the DUP's opposition to same-sex marriage, saying the party would continue to issue a petition of concern blocking same-sex marriage in the Assembly over the next five years. The DUP won fewer than 30 seats at the March 2017 elections, meaning it lost the right to individually block a bill using a petition of concern. The Assembly has failed to reconvene after the election, with same-sex marriage and other issues being key sources of disagreement between the major parties.
United Kingdom Parliament
Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stated in February 2018 that same-sex marriage could be legislated for in Northern Ireland by the UK Parliament, and that the Conservative Government would likely allow a conscience vote for its MPs if such legislation was introduced. Labour MP Conor McGinn said he would introduce a private member's bill extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland by the end of March 2018.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 28 March 2018, and passed its first reading. The bill's second reading in the Commons was blocked by Conservative MP Christopher Chope on 11 May 2018, and again on 26 October, and was re-scheduled for debate on 23 November 2018, before being again rescheduled to 25 January 2019. An identical bill was introduced to the House of Lords on 27 March by Baron Hayward, and passed its first reading that day, though without government support. In March 2019, Hayward withdrew an amendment to an unrelated government bill, which if accepted would have extended same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. Baroness Williams of Trafford rejected the amendment and said Her Majesty's Government wanted the Northern Ireland Assembly to legalise same-sex marriage. Hayward said he and other Lords "made a tactical withdrawal today, but we will be back, this time to win."
On 1 November 2018, royal assent was granted to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, which contains sections describing Northern Ireland's same-sex marriage and abortion bans as human rights violations. The law does not legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, but directs the British Government to "issue guidance" to civil servants in Northern Ireland "in relation to the incompatibility of human rights with [the region's laws on the two issues]". The law passed 207-117 in the House of Commons.
Legalisation by Westminster (2019)
In July 2019, McGinn announced his intention to attach an amendment to an upcoming Northern Ireland administrative bill, which would legalise same-sex marriage three months after passage of the bill if the Northern Ireland Assembly remained suspended. Under the terms of the originally-drafted amendment, the region's executive could approve or repeal the measure upon resumption. The amendment passed in the House of Commons with 383 votes in favour and 73 votes against. McGinn's amendment, which was further amended by Lord Hayward during passage in the House of Lords on 17 July, was approved without a formal vote. It requires the Secretary of State to issue regulations extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland if the Executive has not reconvened by 21 October 2019. If this occurs, then the regulations come into effect on 13 January 2020. Lord Hayward's amendment was approved in the House of Commons with 328 votes in favour and 65 votes against on 18 July. The bill passed its final stages in the Parliament and received royal assent on 24 July 2019, becoming the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
Two legal challenges to Northern Ireland's same-sex marriage ban were heard in the High Court in November and December 2015. Two couples, Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kanem, brought the case claiming that Northern Ireland's prohibition on same-sex marriage breached their human rights. The case was heard simultaneously with a case brought in January 2015 in which two men who wed in England sought to have their marriage recognised in Northern Ireland. A ruling was handed down in August 2017; Judge O'Hara of the High Court found against the couples and determined that there were no grounds under case law from the European Court of Human Rights that the couples' rights were violated by Northern Ireland's refusal to recognise their union as a marriage and that same-sex marriage was a matter of social policy for the Parliament to decide rather than the judiciary.
One of the couples involved in the litigation (who were granted anonymity) said they would appeal the ruling. The appeal was heard by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal on 16 March 2018; a ruling had been expected some time in 2019.
A September 2014 Lucid Talk Belfast Telegraph poll showed that 40.1% of the population supported same-sex marriage, while 39.4% opposed and 20.5% either had or stated no opinion. Of those that gave an opinion, 50.5% supported and 49.5% opposed same-sex marriage. A poll in May 2015 found that 68% of the population supported same-sex marriage, with support rising to 75% in Belfast. A "mass rally", organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Amnesty International, and the Rainbow Project took place in Belfast on 13 June 2015, with a 20,000 person turnout. A June 2016 poll gave support for same-sex marriage at 70%, while those opposing it at 22%.
A December 2016 LucidTalk poll of 1,080 found that 65.22% of people surveyed supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. However, a majority of Unionist respondents was opposed to same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, with only 37.04% in favour (with support rising to 71% for Unionists aged between 18 and 24 years of age). By contrast, 92.92% of Nationalist/Republican respondents and 95.75% of Alliance/Green/PBP voters were in favour.
An April 2018 poll found support for same-sex marriage among Northern Ireland's population at 76%, with 18% opposed.
A 2019 poll conducted by YouGov revealed that 70% of UK residents agreed that same-sex marriage should be legalised in Northern Ireland (up from 65% in 2018), including 55% of those living in Northern Ireland. The number of Conservative voters who expressed support was 62% (up from 54% in 2018). 81% of Remain voters said they would support same-sex marriage, compared to 60% of Leave voters. In Northern Ireland itself, 72% of women supported same-sex marriage, compared to 40% of men.
The main churches in Northern Ireland define marriage as between one man and one woman. The majority of marriages in Northern Ireland are also conducted by religious denominations e.g. 5,856 out of 8,550 marriage ceremonies in 2014 (68%).
Under the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, an officiant shall not solemnise a religious marriage "except in accordance with a form of ceremony which is recognised by the religious body of which he is a member" and which "includes and is in no way inconsistent with" an appropriate declaration i.e. that they accept each other as husband and wife in the presence of each other, the officiant, and two witnesses. A religious body is defined in legislation as "an organised group of people meeting regularly for common religious worship."
Within the Catholic Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring."
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith which affirms that marriage "is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time."
The Church of Ireland affirms in its canon law that "according to our Lord's teaching that marriage is in its purpose a union permanent and life-long, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side." The General Synod of the Church of Ireland, in 2012, reaffirmed this teaching in a motion on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief. The motion added that the church "recognises for itself and of itself, no other understanding of marriage" and acknowledged that members of the church "have at times hurt and wounded people by words and actions, in relation to human sexuality." The church affirmed a "continuing commitment to love our neighbour, and opposition to all unbiblical and uncharitable actions and attitudes in respect of human sexuality from whatever perspective, including bigotry, hurtful words or actions, and demeaning or damaging language."
The Methodist Church in Ireland states that marriage is "a relationship, intended as permanent, between one man and one woman" in its Practical Expressions of Methodist Belief document. The church opposes "all debased forms of sexuality and sexual practice, whether heterosexual or homosexual" but asks for "understanding and tolerance for those whose sexual orientation is towards those of their own gender" and encourages the wider church "to give a greater lead in the education of society, including Christians, regarding this issue, so that ignorance, prejudice and fear may disappear."
The Congregational Union of Ireland affirms the Savoy Declaration, which is similar to the Westminster Confession of Faith in stating that "marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time."
The Salvation Army – as stated in its Marriage Positional Statement – believes that marriage is "an exclusive and lifelong relationship between one man and one woman which is characterised by mutual submission, respect, self-giving love, faithfulness and openness to each other." It adds that human imperfection and sinfulness "may make it difficult to reach the goal of lifelong faithfulness" and that the Christian ideal of marriage is compromised by breakdown, separation and divorce, cohabitation, forced marriage, same-sex partnerships and polygamy. However, the Salvation Army "does not condemn or abandon people who fall short of the ideal" but rather, in God's name, it seeks to offer support, reconciliation, counsel, grace and forgiveness.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and its definition of marriage.
Quakers in Northern Ireland are come under Ireland Yearly Meeting, rather Britain Yearly Meeting on the British mainland. In 2018, the annual yearly meeting which was held in Limerick passed a minute, supporting same sex marriages and allowing same sex marriages in their meeting houses.   This makes the only mainstream church in Northern Ireland that allows same sex marriages.
Humanists in Northern Ireland have been conducting partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples in Northern Ireland for many years. Northern Ireland Humanists, the part of Humanists UK which operates in Northern Ireland, has welcomed the changes to the law and has said it is looking forward to conducting same-sex marriages from January.
- LGBT rights in Northern Ireland
- Same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom
- Same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland
- Recognition of same-sex unions in Europe
- Recognition of same-sex unions in the British Overseas Territories
- Same-sex union court cases
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The Irish Congress of Trade Unions will join Amnesty International and gay rights group the Rainbow Project to hold a mass rally in support of equal marriage rights on 13 June, while a legal test case has also been lodged with Belfast's courts.Cite uses deprecated parameter
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