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Belfast Pride 2019
Photography Eilish McCormick

How I fought on the frontlines for marriage equality in Northern Ireland

As couples can now legally register to marry, one Belfast-based campaigner reflects on the turbulent journey for LGBTQ+ rights

We are finally here (well, almost) – from today, same-sex couples can apply to marry in Northern Ireland. I’ve said it before, but this still doesn’t feel real – I think it’s because today has arrived with so little fanfare and without the fireworks and celebrations that I expected. Today is not like the day in May 2015, when the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly voted to amend the constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry. 

The campaign was long and arduous. At times, it seemed to be a never-ending uphill climb against societal apathy, political gridlock, activist fatigue, and institutional homophobia. There were moments when I genuinely didn’t think that it would ever happen – with the DUP wielding a one-party veto over legislation and having blocked every attempt to introduce marriage equality, it was often difficult to motivate myself and other LGBTQ+ activists around the idea that we would win in the end. 

There is much more work to do – let’s not forget that under the current legislation, same-sex couples in a civil partnership cannot convert this arrangement into a marriage and will have to wait until the government brings us into line with the rest of the UK (where have we heard that before?). Battles at Stormont (the Northern Irish assembly) and within political parties were often fraught with inter-party divisions over the morality of same-sex marriage, what it would mean for religious organisations, adoption, and employers. It was messy and nebulous.

I was heavily involved in the discussions within the Northern Irish Alliance Party to move the policy position to one where marriage equality was explicitly supported, even at a time when our own MLAs were voting against proposals in the Assembly. Similar discussions were happening within other parties like the SDLP, Green Party, and the Ulster Unionists with varying degrees of success, but even that was only the opening salvos of what would be an extended, drawn out campaign that would make it all the way to the House of Commons before the law would eventually change. We saw that sparked with Labour MP Conor McGinn’s amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which said that the government had to legislate for same-sex marriage, and in July 2019, same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland went to the vote in the House of Commons. It was passed by a landslide margin of 383 votes to 73. 

Prior to getting where we are now, there were times when the idea of a referendum was suggested by both supporters and opponents alike, in an effort to both prove that Northern Ireland was in support of marriage equality and to rally religious organisations behind a campaign to stop any change from happening. Those notions, suggested by people with the best of intentions, scared me I have to admit. The referendum campaign in Ireland was necessary because of the quirks of their constitutional arrangement, but any referendum on the issue in Northern Ireland would be costly for the LGBT sector, would expose young LGBTQ+ people to homophobic propaganda and would give credence to the idea that human rights are not inalienable, they are granted at the whim of a public vote. Fortunately those ideas went nowhere, but then again neither did the marriage equality campaign. We endured rampant homophobia and Christian pressure groups courting politicians in significant roles.

“Today, in January 2020, we see miracles happen on an otherwise ordinary day”

The focus in April 2016 turned to coalescing the LGBTQ+ sector around a viable, visible brand and presence in the form of Love Equality – a coalition of civic society organisations and LGBTQ+ groups banding together to win hearts and minds, change the conversation around marriage equality, and push forward with legislation in the local Assembly. It was an organisation that I had the honour of working for as Campaigns and Communications Officer, organising volunteers, public events, engagement with the women’s sector, students movement, trade unions and taking the campaign outside of Belfast to Derry, Newry, Cookstown, Armagh, Dungannon, and every corner we could reach. While we made headway, in 2017, the DUP and Sinn Fein-led executive collapsed and the Marriage Equality Bill that had been drawn up between Love Equality and four of the Assembly parties was dead in the water. What soon followed was an Assembly election, a political vacuum with no functioning government for three years, and a defeat in the Northern Ireland High Court on the issue of marriage equality in September 2017. Morale was low, but we knew that we had to keep pressing on as people were depending on us.

We took to the streets, we wrote to our MPs, we pressured the UK government to intervene, but all fell on relatively deaf ears as we were constantly told by an uninterested Secretary of State that it was a devolved matter – despite the fact that the Assembly had effectively been mothballed as of January 2017. Armagh-born McGinn first tried and failed to take our fight to the House of Commons in 2018 with his Private Members Bill, and it took to the crusade in July of 2019 to see our hopes come to fruition. Today, in January 2020, we see miracles happen on an otherwise ordinary day – a little bit more of a progressive Northern Ireland. We’ll see the first couples able to actually walk down the aisle from February. 

As of October 21, when the amendment’s deadline passed, we were finally equal, and finally free. After nine years of campaigning, lobbying, arguing, crying, marching, voting, waving flags, and holding onto threadbare hope we made it! And today, I have even more hope for a brighter future.