The inevitable equality - why NI will embrace same-sex marriage

29 Jul 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 4 Aug 2015

As many as 20,000 people turned out in Belfast last month to support marriage equality
As many as 20,000 people turned out in Belfast last month to support marriage equality

A key figure in the successful marriage equality campaign in the Republic of Ireland says Northern Ireland will move into line with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Marriage equality is inevitable in Northern Ireland. However it becomes law – through legislation or the courts – time is the sole unknown factor.

That was the message from Amnesty International’s Executive Director in Ireland at an event in Belfast last night.

Colm O’Gorman helped spearhead the successful yes campaign in RoI’s marriage equality referendum earlier this year and referred to an Ipsos MORI poll in Northern Ireland from earlier this month which says local political opposition is way out of step with public opinion.

How the Yes was Won took place at the Clayton Hotel, and was also organised by The Rainbow Project, Belfast Pride and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Mr O’Gorman said: “You have to be careful in terms of tone. When we say it is inevitable it’s based on what we know of public opinion. If 82% of 16- to 34-year-olds support this then that will result in the law being changed in Northern Ireland at some future point.

“Therefore it’s a question of how some political leaders here, particularly those blocking progress in this area, wake up to the fact this is what the public wants.”

The stated figures are part of the Ipsos MORI results, which also found that 68% of people overall support marriage equality, with 27% against and 5% undecided.

Beyond what appears to be a tide of opinion behind changing our laws to match the rest of the UK and the RoI, there were some perhaps surprising outcomes.

The political gap

Among those aged 55+, more people said they supported equal marriage than were against – 47% versus 44% - and it is only when the age range looked at is 65 and over that no comes out on top.

Moreover, there is a healthy amount of support both from people who identify as Protestant (57% yes and 39% no) and Catholic (75% against 19%) while, when broken down by support for each of the five Executive parties, only those who say they are DUP voters were overall against equal marriage – and this was far from overwhelming, with 45% in favour of equality and 49% against.

Mr O’Gorman said: “From an Amnesty International perspective, there should never be a referendum that allows the majority to decide on whether the rights of minorities should be respected.

“If you legislated for human rights on the basis of referendums, you would probably see reasonably widespread decline in the rights of minorities across various jurisdictions.

“We ended up in a position where all the parties in the south supported the referendum, but that was not easy. On issues such as these it seems to always be the case that political leadership and political opinion is way behind public opinion and often it can be a shock to the political system that public opinion is as progressive as it is.”

Positive campaigning

The gathered assortment of activists, political workers and other interested people heard that keeping the lobby for equality as positive as possible will only bring benefits, and help smooth the path to legislation equal with the rest of the UK and RoI.

Mr O’Gorman said negative messages will backfire generally, and also only put people off – with this backfiring for those hoping for a no vote in the south.

Identifying “entrenched prejudice” as the only fundamental reason for opposition to this social reform, he said further than the yes campaigners were able to subvert some of the assumed positioning of their opponents – and making yes the “family values” answer to the marriage equality question.

“We have to give a big shout out to our opposition in this because in truth they helped us enormously. One part of having a calm debate is that you allow your opponent to deliver their arguments calmly and honestly and they have to reveal their rationale.

“We allowed all their arguments to work themselves out and they all fell flat – the best they had was using the word ‘abomination’.

“Eamon Gilmore, the former Tánaiste, said this was the defining civil rights issue of our time [in RoI]. What became true is that this was a defining civil rights issue in the south.

“It appeared to be asking a question which affected a small section of the population but the answer to the question was a much bigger answer which affected the whole population – actually the question was ‘do we think everyone should be treated equally before the law?’

“The yes campaign was a family values campaign, it said marriage matters, and marriage is important. However, the Republic didn’t become a new country after the referendum, instead it reached back to find a way to articulate the values that are important to us as human beings.”

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