Should the law change to accommodate marriage equality in Northern Ireland?

As the debate continues whether gay couples should be permitted the right, of civil legal marriage in Northern Ireland, this piece responds to the argument. It offers a personal opinion in support of the motion for equality. This will expose the unequal, unjust imbalance, existing under the facade of democracy. It is an unapologetic proposition in support of the motion.

Gay couples in all other parts of the United Kingdom can enjoy the right of equal access to a legal civil marriage. The law changed in England and Wales in March 2014, shortly followed by Scotland in December 2014. The Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Act 2015 amended the Constitution of Ireland, to permit marriage to be contracted by two persons without distinction as to their sex.

The coalition Government of Northern Ireland – an important part of the Good Friday Agreement, ensures the balance of unionists and nationalists in its representation. The coalition is representative of its people, with the division being identified as two halves, albeit that one fraction appears to have a ‘slightly bigger half’.

In the wider context, the shared office of First and Deputy First Minister has worked, in that, it has facilitated peace to an almost successful standard. However, it is becoming abundantly clear that, as Northern Ireland evolves, it would appear it does so, despite the devolvement and the shared power therein.

England voted to pass the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 thus, decriminalising homosexual activity but failed to extend the law, to Northern Ireland. After some lobbying, the English Parliament recommended the extension of the act to Northern Ireland. However, despite Northern Ireland being under the direct rule of Westminster, they would not impose it on Northern Ireland without the support of its representatives. The direct opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ensured that it was not successful at that time.

It wasn’t until the case of Dudgeon v United Kingdom reached the European Courts of Human Rights that there was any change. In a decision of 15-4 it was decided no member state could outright ban homosexual activity, as to do so, would be in contravention of the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR). Moreover, it went on to decide that the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, violated article 8 of the ECHR, by interfering with a person’s right to a private and family life. Eventually, The Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982, No. 1536 (N.I. 19) decriminalised homosexual activity between consenting adults, over the age of 21.

Despite this progression, Northern Ireland still remained unequal to England, where the age of consent was 17 years of age. It wasn’t until 2008 that Northern Ireland finally matched England in the decriminalisation of homosexual activity, by bringing the age of consent in line with England’s to 16 years of age – it should be noted that this was despite the opposition of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A country once identifiable by its division has progressed to become a population, eager not to be defined by its historical indiscretions and tragedies. The Northern Ireland societal views on equality for gay couples is pertinently supportive.

The results of a 2018 Sky Data survey found that 76% of Northern Irish people supported the introduction of same-sex marriage. With only 18% directly opposed to it, it is therefore abundantly clear that the people of Northern Ireland are, by a huge majority, unequivocally in support of the motion. In a survey by Equality NI 68% of the participants said that equality issues were as important as, or more, important to them than previously. With only 1.2% of the population of Northern Ireland identifying as Gay, lesbian or bisexual, it is encouragingly obvious that the heterosexual population consider matters of equality for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people as something that needs to be addressed.

Not surprisingly, the political divide for equal marriage in government representation is divisible by party alignment. The Main unionist party the DUP is against equal marriage and the nationalist equivalent Sinn Fein is in support of the motion. The opposition is strongly rooted in the DUP and fractions of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) along with, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The distinctively more liberal Alliance Party, is mostly in support of equal marriage, as are the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

A petition of concern is a tool that allows a party to veto motions in the assembly. The DUP have used that facility to block equal marriage, despite a majority voting in favour of the motion. The DUP supported by Jim Allister of the TUV and Roy Beggs of the UUP, are widely recognised as the reason, there is a lack of equal marriage in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, the unionist politicians who promote the unionist ideal are the parties who stand in opposition to Northern Ireland becoming equal to the rest of the union. It would seem a fair argument that this disregard for the rules of the union, is a position that can only be concluded to be completely in contradiction of its own position. In any other context, it would be dismissed as a profound inconsistency and unfathomable position to hold.

It promotes a Christian opinion and asserts that any such law permitting equality to gay couples, is an affront to Christian values and subsequently diminishes the rights of Christian people, a right protected by the ECHR. However, a gay couple joining in a legal, civil, union does not have any effect direct, or, indirect consequence on Christian people and the practice of their religion.

The most widely quoted passage is the passage in which, the term ‘sodomy’ and ‘sodomites’ were first identified (Genesis 19). It is argued that this passage is a clear condemnation of gay activity which resulted in God destroying the village with sulphur and fire. This story is not of gay activity between consenting, loving adults. Rather, it is a tale of gang rape and violence, which is clearly and aptly considered an abomination. Despite its bold and provocative teaching, it does not once mention homosexuality or, the activity of the same between consenting adults in love. Therefore was clearly not intended to be a teaching on loving gay relationships.

Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) describes the act of a husband lying with another man as he would with his wife, instead of with his wife as an abomination. It is argued that this is clearly a reference to gay activity being condemned as an abomination. However, it only references married men, it would therefore only extend to bisexual men, gay women and gay men would not be included under it by its own description. Furthermore, it is a clear condemnation of adultery which, it describes as an abomination, many monogamous people either gay or, heterosexual, would say rightly so.

The word abomination is all too frequently deployed, to cause aghast anytime the Christian argument is advanced. The word denotes a seriousness capable of striking fear straight up and down the spine of any God-fearing person, hearing its utterance. The word, of course, is associated with not just the teachings of adultery as described above or, in relation to violence and gang rape, but also in the following; Egyptians eating with Hebrews, having an image of another god in your house, sacrificing your child to the god Molech, having sex with your wife when she is menstruating, taking your wife’s sister as a second wife, and eating pork. Furthermore, wearing mixed-fabric clothing, interbreeding animals of different species, tattoos, mocking the blind by putting obstacles in their way, and trimming your beard.

There are no caveats in these passages that permit the relaxation of their teachings to suit contemporaneous changes in society. Interesting that they can now be ignored, but the stories incorrectly interpreted and used to condemn gay relations, are rigid and unbendable.

In discussing these verses it is important to understand the cultural and societal attitudes of the time. The Leviticus verses are found in the Old Testament and the others in the New Testament. In Graeco Roman society it was conventional that men would have a male partner in addition to his wife. Rich men, in particular, would have been known to have a male servant or partner, with whom he would enjoy relations. The masculine partner was the active one and the feminine being the passive was considered shameful. The use of the word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 means “soft” or “effeminate” and it is illustrative of the Graeco-Roman aversion for men assuming a “female” role. In the Bible, it describes ostentatious clothing, and outside of the Bible, it was a name to describe cult prostitutes. Whilst good fashion is often attributed to the gay community, it cannot be a good argument that they are all well-dressed prostitutes.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10 list a wide collection of people who will not “inherit the Kingdom” without a conversion in their ways. This is a rhetorical point in which Paul refers to a list of vices to explain his point. There are English translations to the list (varying somewhat) which include “homosexuality” on the list. However, the translation cannot be directly converted and a number of English words are used including, adulterer, immoral persons, and prostitutes.

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns men who cheat on their partner with one of the same sex. It is his proclamation that this is a consequence of idolatry and he progresses it as part of his argument for God, in that his God is the only true one. It is a demonstration of the argument for ‘follow us’ and denounce all others, indicative of the times and it could be said, which remains today. It does not, however, offer an argument to gay relationships per se, but rather adulterers who seek relations with other males outside of their marriage or partnership, be that with prostitutes or, otherwise.

Contextually in comparison to the entirety of the biblical teachings, these references are minute in their presence. If it was such an abomination then certainly there would be many more, direct, unquestionable teachings from Jesus himself.

Christians regularly tell us that the bible opposes sexuality and the gratification of intercourse instead, citing it as a reproductive exercise exclusively. In rejecting the enjoyment of sex being a gift from God they of course, entirely neglect the ‘Song of Songs’ which, is often referred to as the Song of Solomon. It is written in the style of a Mesopotamian poem and rather than condemn, it speaks very positively indeed, of the sexual desires of both females and males. Again, another inconsistent argument that can adopt a chameleon-like skin, to advance its point according to the persuasion upon which it finds itself perched upon.

If in our quest for equality we seek to silence those in opposition, then we by virtue of that act, defeat our own argument.

It is right that people should be able to hold their morals and opinions despite their conflict with others. It is right that people should be free to practice their religion without fear of persecution or insult, for doing so. It is right that people should be able to express their religious views freely and widely, just as it is right for others to oppose them.

As I write this article I have glanced up to my bookshelf atop of which stands a statuette of Lady Justice. Lady Justice is gripping a set of scales suspended from one hand, upon which she measures the strengths of a case’s support and opposition. These symbolise that justice, fairly takes into account both sides of the story, from the accuser and the accused, or from two parties that make opposing claims.

She is wearing a blindfold, the blindfold represents impartiality. She also holds a sword. The sword conveys the idea that justice can be swift and final. The sword is double-edged, meaning that reason can be used for, or against anyone as it is impartial and objective. Finally and perhaps, more importantly, she stands on a snake. The obvious symbolism is that the snake is a general symbol of evil, justice triumphs over injustice, corruption, bias, and intimidation.

When we seek our justice we must do so with these ideals in mind, equality meaning equal. There is not an alternative to the meaning of equal to provide more for one side, than the other.

In conclusion, it is quite clear that the democracy of the people of Northern Ireland continues to be compromised whilst a ban on the equal access of gay couples to civil marriage remains. I remind those in opposition that the bible and the Christian vows taken in the sacrament of marriage refer to one man and one woman, joined together by God, which no man should put asunder. It does not provide for divorce or adultery and if taken literally, would render every remarried couple whose first partner has not died, a sinner and dare I say, an abomination. An argument I have never heard advanced by Christian opposition.

Civil Marriage is not a sacrament and in fact, its very creation was to facilitate legal unions outside of any religion. Therefore any religious counter argument should instantly be dismissed, as it is as appropriate as advancing an argument on the shape of apples when discussing the constitutional rights of a European citizen.

Finally, I submit that religious and political persuasion can and does, change throughout most people’s lives. Sexuality is not a choice, it is as much a part of our being, as breathing for ourselves.

To marry the one we love, outside of the church, is an act of love, confirmed by law and is a basic human right. I, therefore, support the motion of marriage equality in the Northern Ireland debate.

Anthony Miller is a media commentator and law graduate from Northern Ireland. He is best known for being (along with colleagues) the first civil partnership planner and expert in the UK. He, with Richard Jones, has worked in television & radio and written for many publications throughout the UK. He is a frequent commentator on BBC1 and BBC Radio Ulster, ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’. He currently attends the University of Law in England, where he is studying to become a Barrister. 

Anthony Miller

Anthony Miller

Anthony Miller is a media commentator and law graduate from Northern Ireland. He is best known for being (along with colleagues) the first civil partnership planner and expert in the UK. He with Richard Jones has worked in Television and Radio and written for many publications throughout the UK. He is a frequent commentator on BBC1 and BBC Radio Ulster, ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’. He currently attends the University of Law in England, where he is studying to become a Barrister.

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