Shifting sands: NI's political landscape on marriage equality is changing

6 Aug 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Aug 2015

Last week Scope highlighted the view that marriage equality in Northern Ireland is "inevitable" - are changes in the past week a sign of this inevitability in action?

The clichéd truism that a week is a long time in politics does not always apply to Northern Ireland.

It is summer, the Assembly sits in recess – and, by many accounts, on a precipice – but recent days have seen serious developments in social policy.

Scope published a piece last week about how marriage equality is now inevitable in NI, with the only question concerning how long it will take.

And it appears we are seeing this inevitability in action.

The Alliance Party has declared its support for same-sex unions, where previously it had allowed MLAs a free vote, with Lagan Valley member Trevor Lunn saying he has changed his mind on the issue.

He was one of three party Assembly members not to support marriage equality, alongside Judith Cochrane – who will not stand at the next elections – and Kieran McCarthy, who says he is “on a journey” on the matter.

These changes alone would appear to shift the balance in the Assembly which, in its most recent vote on the issue, stood at 47 for and 49 against.

However, the last vote was subject to a DUP petition of concern which made the result moot.

These changes in tone, or total volte faces, represent nothing more than politicians adjusting to the wishes of the electorate – of whom, according to an Ipsos MORI survey in Northern Ireland last month, 68% are in favour of marriage equality, 27% are against, and 5% undecided.

Former Alliance deputy leader Seamus Close has said that, were he still involved with the party, he would now be forced to quit – but the Ipsos MORI findings show conclusive support for equality amongst party supporters – with 79% in favour and 21% against.

Shifting Stormont

Alliance is not the only party whose stance is shifting towards equality, and the changes did not start last week.

Ahead of the Westminster elections, UUP challenger for South Antrim Danny Kinahan spoke in detail about being “ashamed” that he previously would have been anti-gay without every giving the matter much thought, and that now his stance has turned around completely.

After unseating sitting DUP MP William McCrea, a renowned conservative, he said speaking about his backing for marriage equality had won him votes.

For the UUP, it doesn’t stop there. The party nominated Adrian Cochrane-Watson to the Assembly to replace Mr Kinahan.

The long-time Antrim councillor had previously said his religious views meant homosexual couples could not stay in his B&B – which is also his family home – in the town.

However, shortly after being brought into Stormont he said this matter was “in the past” and was keen to stress his respect for the gay community.

Sinn Fein have long been explicit in backing marriage equality while, despite some wobbles, the SDLP’s position is also one of support.

However, it is the remaining – and largest – Executive party that finds itself in perhaps the most interesting position.

The other Executive parties and, so it would appear, the general public are now falling heavily in favour of marriage equality, so the DUP will find exerting its own policy wishes all the more difficult.

And, while we are in a position to make our own decision on this matter, the fact that the rest of the UK and also the RoI are committed to marriage equality at the very least puts NI – or, rather, those here opposed to change - in an awkward position.

DUP balance

Traditionally the DUP has taken strength from an adversarial position on issues. It allows them to draw clean lines of difference between them and others, carving a clear identity, and to talk tough.

But a closer look shows their position here to be more complicated. Although, according to Ipsos MORI, they are the only party whose supporters are overall against marriage equality the polling indicates this support is not overwhelming.

It might surprise many people – including some of their own politicians – to find out that only 49% of DUP voters are against same-sex marriage, while 45% support change.

At last week’s Amnesty International event, it was discussed how several DUP MLAs are happy to privately express their support for gay marriage, but feel they cannot do so publicly – pointing to the fact that, whenever this matter comes before the Assembly, they receive many more letters of opposition to change than they do for support.

Altogether it looks like the DUP is taking a hardline stance in a bid to please its core of socially conservative voters – and also the fundamental faction amongst its elected representatives.

This core does not look like a dominant part of its overall support, but all those others who favour marriage equality and support the DUP do so despite the party’s long opposition to liberty and equality for the gay community.

So, if the balance of the Assembly stays as it is and the marriage-equality question is asked for a fifth time, expect the DUP to table another petition of concern – killing it dead – and voting against the motion en masse.

As time goes on, however, the political – i.e. ballot box – cost of this policy may well increase, and the legislative battle may become unsustainable. Certainly expect less use of words like “abomination” and “repulsive”.

Currently there are at least two cases preparing for court, challenging NI’s opposition to marriage equality.

The best result for the DUP may be that our current laws are deemed illegitimate and we transit to marriage equality on a legislative basis.

This would allow the party to wash their hands of any blame, provide some voluble criticism of the courts, and move on from the matter without losing a vote and without having to maintain a position that – despite having high currency with some of their voters – is increasingly unpopular.

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