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DUP leader Arlene Foster and party MLAs after leaving the Stormont chamber yesterday.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and party MLAs after leaving the Stormont chamber yesterday.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Explainer: Why can't same-sex couples in Northern Ireland get married until next year?

The first ceremonies could take place on the week of Valentine’s Day 2020.
Oct 22nd 2019, 12:05 AM 20,159 26

THERE WAS A momentous change to same-sex marriage and abortion legislation in Northern Ireland at the stroke of midnight.

Back in July, Members of Parliament in Westminster voted to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in the North if power-sharing wasn’t restored by 21 October. That deadline, as expected, has now been missed.

The Stormont Assembly collapsed in January 2017 following a row between Sinn FéIn and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and negotiations aimed at getting it back up and running have failed to date.

A number of MLAs returned to Stormont yesterday in a largely symbolic move to show their opposition to same-sex marriage and termination of pregnancy.

The sitting, proposed by Northern Ireland peer Baroness O’Loan, received the support of anti-abortion campaign group Both Lives Matter as well as the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice.

Parties, such as Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party, which support changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion law, labelled the sitting a “political stunt”. Ultimately, there were not enough MLAs there to elect a speaker and those present walked out

Demonstrations by both people in favour of and against same-sex marriage, as well as abortion, were held outside Stormont yesterday. 

So, where do things stand now?

Valentine’s week 

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, which became law on 24 July, requires marriage to be extended to same-sex partners by 13 January 2020 and for abortion to be legally accessible by 31 March 2020.

The most recent episode of The Explainer podcast focused on abortion legislation in the North. Here we’re going to explore the situation in relation to same-sex marriage and why couples won’t be able to marry until next year.

The clause in the Bill which calls for same-sex marriages and civil partnerships to be introduced by 13 January next was moved by Conservative peer Lord Robert Hayward.

Earlier this year, Lord Hayward said the amendment “respects the role of Stormont, but also recognises the reality that those devolved institutions are not currently functioning”.

“Same-sex couples in Northern Ireland should not be asked to wait indefinitely for equality with the rest of the UK. It is time for Westminster to put right that wrong,” he said.

Lord Hayward added that the January deadline was chosen to enable the necessary policy changes to be made.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office told TheJournal.ie the first same-sex marriage ceremonies “will take place 28 days after the UK Government puts in place regulations to allow for civil same-sex marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships”.

This needs to happen by 13 January 2020, meaning the first ceremonies could take place on the week of Valentine’s Day 2020.

When asked about the policy changes that need to be implemented to meet this deadline, the spokesperson added: “There will be a number of related issues that will need to be addressed as a consequence of these regulations.

“In particular, we will be consulting on the process for conversions of civil partnerships and on processes for allowing religious marriages early in the new year. We will bring forward regulations to provide for both matters swiftly after the consultation closes.”

In 2014, legislation allowing same-sex marriage came into effect in the UK, bar in Northern Ireland. Couples who marry elsewhere in the UK are currently treated as civil partners in the North.

Same-sex couples in England and Wales married within minutes of legislation passing in March 2014, as did couples in Scotland in December 2014. 

Speaking yesterday, Jane Peaker, who lives in Belfast, told AFP she and her partner are “happy” with the change in legislation but “not so happy that it hasn’t come from our government”. 

28 days’ notice 

Engaged couples in Northern Ireland must give at least 28 days’ notice before their wedding.

The same rule will apply for same-sex couples, meaning the first date they could marry would likely be in mid-February. As such, 14 February, Valentine’s Day, has been mooted as the first possible date that same-sex couples may be able to marry.

Julian Smith, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yesterday told the House of Commons: “At the latest, the first civil same-sex marriages will take place on the week of Valentine’s Day 2020.”

Background 

The Civil Partnership Act came into effect in Northern Ireland in 2005 and about 100 couples have entered into such partnerships every year since then.   

Married couples and civil partners are treated equally in relation to issues such as tax, pensions, property, inheritance and adoption.

However, they differ in a number of ways and activists have argued that anything less than full marriage equality is a breach of rights.

Civil partners cannot have a religious ceremony if they so wish, for example. The rules for dissolving a civil partnership are the same as those for divorce, except that adultery cannot be used as a reason. 

Same-sex marriage proposals blocked 

Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the North voted on proposals to legalise same-sex marriage five times between 2012 and 2015. On four occasions, the proposals were narrowly rejected. On the fifth occasion, in November 2015, proposals were passed by the smallest possible margin – 53 votes to 52.

However, the DUP blocked any change in legislation through a veto known as a Petition of Concern. Such a petition may be brought by 30 or more MLAs, and means a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if it is supported by 60% of members voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist members voting.

The veto was introduced after the Good Friday Agreement in a bid to prevent discrimination of one community over another. However, all the main parties want it removed or reformed, and it is now viewed by some as a barrier to Stormont being restored.

Listen to the latest episode of The Explainer below: 


Source: The Explainer/SoundCloud

Contains reporting from PA and © AFP 2019  

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