Northern Ireland’s same-sex marriage campaign gets a boost from south of the border

A rally in Belfast marked the start of the official campaign. PA/Liam McBurney

The campaign to bring same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland moved up a gear after the Republic of Ireland voted to make it legal in a May referendum. The official campaign was launched on June 13 with a rally in Belfast City centre where the public was encouraged to join the fight for equal civil marriage.

The campaigners should look to what happened south of the border for inspiration on how to bring change to their own laws.

The success of the Irish referendum has been a confidence booster for the Northern Ireland campaign but it is not where the story begins. Since Denmark introduced equal civil unions in 1989, 20 countries – plus 38 states in the US – have legalised or are in the process of legalising an equal right to marry.

A strong campaign in the rest of the UK culminated in the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in England and Wales in 2013 and the Marriage and the Civil Partnership Act for Scotland in 2014.

The goal is to bring the same rights to Northern Ireland, allowing same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies and allow religious organisations to marry them if they want to. Those religious organisations who do not want to marry same-sex couples would be protected from legal action over their decision.

A proposal to introduce equal civil marriage to the Northern Ireland statute books was first mooted in October 2012. Of the 95 Northern Ireland Assembly members who voted, 47.37% were in favour. But that was not enough to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK.

The vote has since become an annual event. In 2013, support dropped slightly to 44.21% of 95 voters in 2013, but it rose to 48.96% of 96 voters in 2015.

While the vote has been teetering on the brink of success like this for several years, a clear cross-community division has emerged between unionists and nationalists. It is unlikely to pass while the DUP and UUP – the two biggest unionist parties in Stormont – continue to take an anti-equal civil marriage stance and those willing to cross the party line continue to be few and far between.

A glimmer of hope came at the beginning of June 2015 when Belfast City Council voted in favour of legalising equal civil marriage with a clear majority of 63.3%.

Since pro-equal civil marriage parties make up 60% of the council, the result was perhaps predictable, but it sent a message that there is support for change outside the groups who campaigned on the June 13 rally.

Lessons from the referendum

The organisers of the rally have their work cut out for them in keeping the momentum going and building on the rally’s success. The next steps will be crucial. Lucky for them they have a proven blueprint to draw from in the shape of the Irish referendum’s Yes campaign.

A Donegal shop joins the campaign ahead of the Irish referendum. EPA/Paul McErlane

There are a number of lessons campaigners in Northern Ireland can learn from the Irish referendum. The tactics involved getting political parties, individual politicians, businesses and members of the public in favour of equal civil marriage to shout that support loud and clear.

The “No” campaign tried to derail “Yes” support by bringing children into the debate. They argued that children need a mother and father – not “surrogacy”. Campaigners in Northern Ireland should keep this in mind with a set response to highlight that of course children should be protected and the accuracy of these statements considered accordingly, but that these are separate issues to equal civil marriage and should be debated separately.

And if No campaigners argue that marriage is not needed in Northern Ireland, since it already allows civil partnerships, the answer is equality. By opening up civil marriage to the LGBT community it is a public statement that their relationships are equally valued.

In the days leading up to the referendum in Dublin you could not walk ten paces without seeing a placard, shop window, wall, t-shirt or badge emblazoned with Yes to Equality. Questions were posed and answered in all available public forums – from blogs, to newspaper articles, to radio and television programmes.

The issue was humanised by uploads to social media of the most unlikely characters voicing their support and door-to-door canvassing by people who would directly benefit from a Yes vote. Most important, the Yes campaign stuck to message ––this is an issue of equality; nothing more, nothing less.