“W e’re going to fight tooth and nail with them. I’m done putting on the kid gloves, I’m done pretending this is OK. What are we meant to do, wait another 20 years?” Shane Sweeney has just exchanged vows with his fiance of two years, Eoin McCabe. It could be the happiest day of his life, but instead he can’t conceal his anger.
Their “marriage” has taken place in a Belfast cabaret club, officiated by a drag queen and witnessed by a room of activists and allies. The mock ceremony is part cathartic art performance, part protest. Shane and Eoin pepper their vows with jokes and laugh along with the audience, but standing in front of family and friends in suits and corsages, the emotional impact of having to fake their own wedding hits home. As they are pronounced husband and husband, one of the grooms wipes tears from his face.
Many in the congregation cheer and clap, but others simply cry in silence.
Despite being part of the UK, Northern Ireland outlaws marriage for same-sex couples, and same-sex marriages carried out elsewhere are not recognised here.
Marriage is a devolved issue, so only the Northern Irish government can decide whether to alter its legal definition. Same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales in 2014, with Scotland following suit a year later.
Over the border in the Republic, Irish people voted for legalisation in a high profile referendum in 2015 , and, this year, Leo Varadkar became the country’s first openly gay prime minister.
An Ipsos Mori poll last year found 70% support for marriage equality among Northern Ireland’s citizens. But the unique circumstances of the country’s post-conflict parliament in Stormont means its largest party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), continue to obstruct its legislative path. That’s the same DUP currently providing Theresa May’s working majority in the British parliament, granting them unprecedented influence on Downing Street .
The fact that in 2017 you can’t marry someone you love is a shameful indictment of our inability to embrace the future
Mairtin O’Muilleoir MLA
Stormont uses a parliamentary system designed, ironically, to prevent discrimination against minority and marginalised groups. Parties can effectively veto or obstruct individual pieces of legislation.
The DUP has made use of this power five times to block same-sex marriage from being legalised, despite equality having majority support in the chamber since 2015.
The legal differences between civil partnership – which is legal for same-sex couples – and marriage are minimal in Northern Ireland .
Civil partnerships cannot include religious elements in the ceremony, while the grounds for a dissolution cannot include adultery, unlike a marriage.
Some bureaucratic documents list separate tick boxes for marriage or civil partnership, effectively forcing individuals to disclose their sexuality.
What’s at stake, couples say, is more than specific legal rights. They want their public representatives to recognise that gay couples are deserving of equal dignity and acceptance. “My love isn’t second-class and neither should the legal recognition of it be,” says Shane.
“You can’t call your partner your husband, it’s your civil partner. If you’re religious you can’t have any of that element to the ceremony. It’s the ‘here, this will do you, now be quiet’ nature of civil partnerships that sticks with me,” he adds.
Northern Ireland power-sharing talks have stalled, says Brokenshire Read more
Shane and Eoin have been together for five years. Like many LGBT couples here, they are running out of patience and options.
Wedding invitations wait unsent, dresses hang in the back of wardrobes. Shane explains that they feel like second-class citizens, denied by Stormont and ignored by Westminster.
“We get asked a lot when are we setting a date. My response is always the same: whenever it’s legal,” he says. “I do get frustrated at times. I would’ve loved our grandparents to be there but they are quite elderly now, and I don’t know if they will be around, which is quite upsetting.”
“This is my country, my home, so why do I have to be separated? I live here, I pay my taxes, I’m governed by Westminster, so why do I not have the rights of someone in England, Scotland, Wales. Am I different?”
Eoin agrees. “We had a really good time tonight, but ultimately we’ve had to stand up there and try to prove to people that we have worth, that we’re the same as you. No straight people have to do that and that’s the frustrating part.
The DUP’s stance is unwavering. The party (which did not respond to requests for interview) has become notorious for homophobic pronouncements by its politicians. In 1978, its founding father, Ian Paisley, led the “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign against the decriminalisation of homosexuality (decriminalisation came into effect in 1982, 15 years after England and Wales). More recently, its politicians have stated that same-sex relationships are worse than paedophilia ; have called homosexuality “ repulsive ”, “ unnatural ” and “harmful to society”; and suggested that God sent Hurricane Katrina as a punishment for LGBT rights . The party has opposed same-sex couples being able to adopt and objects to men who have sex with men being allowed to donate blood.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Thousands marched in Belfast in July in favour of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul McErlane
Sinn Féin, the second largest party, has adopted a strongly pro-equality position, with some of its members drawing parallels between the experiences of LGBT people in heteronormative society and Irish republicans in Northern Ireland. The party’s president, Gerry Adams , celebrated the outcome of the republic’s 2015 referendum by taking selfies with a drag queen in Dublin before a sea of rainbow flags and kissing couples.
Now marriage equality has become a proxy battleground between republicans and loyalists.
When the mandatory power-sharing agreement between the two parties collapsed in January, Sinn Féin made the issue one of its red lines in negotiations.
Unless a path to legalisation is agreed, its representatives will refuse to return to government.
During a break in those negotiations, a party MLA, Mairtin O’Muilleoir, tells me that LGBT rights is “one of the great civil rights issues” of the era.
“In my lifetime, the two biggest changes in society have been the peace, and what a great gift that is, but also the emergence of this wonderful, vocal LGBT community, which is a boon to our society,” he says.
What people put on a flag pole can be a stronger pull for people here than social issues
“The fact that in 2017 you can’t marry someone you love because you’re gay is an absolutely shameful indictment of our inability to embrace the future.”
Flanked by portraits of famous and infamous figures from the Troubles and peace process, O’Muilleoir says: “Anyone who wants to deny LGBT couples is harking back to a past that is gone. The sooner we get our act together and treat everyone right, the better.
While the rival parties clash, public support for equality transcends traditional unionist/nationalist and Catholic/Protestant divides. Another recent survey found younger, pro-union Protestants feel increasingly alienated from the stance of unionist parties.
For Stephen Donnan, an LGBT activist who has worked for the Love Equality campaign, the issue strikes close to home. “I have members of my family who vote DUP, who want me to be able to get married. But they see issues like the union, legacy issues around parades, the past and the Troubles as being higher on their list of priorities,” he explains.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The Republic of Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015, prompting street celebrations in Dublin. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images
“The majority of people I know who are unionists or loyalists have absolutely no problem with marriage equality or LGBT rights.
They have gay daughters, gay sons, gay uncles – everybody knows a gay person.
But what people put on a flagpole can be a stronger pull for people here than social issues.”
Frustrated by the democratic process, some couples have turned to the courts.
In August, after almost two years of deliberation, a high court judge ruled that it was for Stormont to decide both on legalisation and recognition of same-sex marriages carried out elsewhere. Ciaran Moynagh, one of the lawyers who brought the case, spoke of his client’s shock. “They said: ‘Actually we’re just disgusted, today is the day I really feel lesser in Northern Ireland,’” he tells me from his office, on a street he shares with three Protestant churches and a DUP office.
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“I think a lot of people who were watching with a bit of hope were knocked back.
The optimism within the LGBT community is going downhill fast. I was really quite shocked at the outpouring of emotion, the shock and disappointment from Joe Bloggs in the street.
Many couples had delayed weddings or engagements until the court ruling, he explains. “A lot of people are still resilient … but others are saying: ‘We’re not waiting, it’s a disgrace.’ And they’re going elsewhere. That’s happening a lot more, they’re not willing to put their lives on hold.”
Amid the setbacks, the political deadlock may provide an unexpected path to marriage equality. Under power-sharing rules, if Stormont is left vacant then Northern Ireland will cease to have a devolved government, and instead be ruled directly from Westminster.
The Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, has repeatedly issued deadlines for a deal between the parties, none of which have been met. The negotiation process can’t continue indefinitely, and the likelihood of direct rule is increasing.
Under direct rule, the British government could pass legislation to legalise same-sex marriage in the North. If it did not, it could face a legal challenge over differential treatment. Moynagh explains: “We have to be mindful that the UK including Northern Ireland is one member state before the human rights court in Europe. So I think, if there is direct rule, there is no real justification for [the ban] and a European court wouldn’t look too kindly on it.
Fiona De Londras, a professor of Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham who specialises in human rights law, says: “If the Stormont institutions were no longer operative, then that would be a weak defence for [Westminster to allow] differential treatment across the UK and say Westminster cannot act.”
“Instead, for as long as devolution was suspended, Westminster would govern and could be pressured to introduce marriage equality on the basis that a discrimination argument is no longer complicated by devolution.”
While the Tory government would have the legal power under direct rule, they may not have the will to upset their bedfellows the DUP. “If direct rule came in, it would have to be in for a considerable period of time before the British government would be brave enough,” says Moynagh.
For Shane, any opportunity for a breakthrough is welcome. “In the past, direct rule has helped LGBT rights here a lot.
The Labour government in 2005 introduced civil partnership here through direct rule,” he says.
Eoin fears that the current DUP-Conservative deal will block all progress. “I’m quite confused about why the Conservatives entered this deal, because it was David Cameron who put forward the bill for marriage equality for England and Wales. To be honest, it’s hypocrisy … As a gay man, I have fears about this deal: how much influence is the DUP going to have?”
The deal has at least raised awareness of the marriage equality fight, Eoin adds. In the days following the announcement in June, marches were held in support of LGBT rights outside Downing Street.
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Some members of the LGBT community fear the long-term impact of constant legal challenges and failed Stormont votes.
“There’s a lack of understanding about just how damaging these debates can be. It descends into shouting matches in the media and we need to stay positive,” warns Stephen, the activist. “These kinds of debates are so harmful, I’ve heard it ad nauseam for 10 years or more. It brings me back to when I was a young gay person, knowing I was gay and not wanting to come out because of the backlash.
Hearing people say: ‘Don’t let them get married; I don’t want to take blood from a gay man, I’d rather die.’”
“People need to be more responsible and measured in the language they use on this.
After all, gay people are people, not some unknown entity. We are working in your hospitals, in your schools. We’re raising families, we pay taxes, we go to work.
We are your neighbours.”
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