It’s been almost a week since a private members’ bill for marriage equality was raised on the floor of the Assembly by amongst others, Stephen Agnew for the Green Party together with Catriona Ruane and Bronwyn McGahan of Sinn Fein. Unfortunately, this piece of progressive legislation was not passed on the day, however, I believe that the populace in the North in general is a fairly relaxed and progressive lot in relation to social issues (the young are at least) who would not have as much of a problem or any with this legislation as say their political representatives say they do or they in fact do. Whilst I am not of the LGBT community, like many I have friends and family who are and I believe that they should have the same rights under the law as absolutely everyone else. If I wanted to be somewhat funny about the whole matter, I would go as far as saying that being in a loveless marriage should be a right open to all (the Onion’s opinion takes, as always, a quite hilarious slant) here in the North, regardless of sexual preference.
In many ways, the make up of the vote was largely to be expected, the vast majority of Unionists voted against the bill with notable exceptions (Basil McCrea, Michael Copeland and Danny Kinahan) while Nationalists voted for the Bill together with the vast majority of non-aligned MLAs. However, of the non-aligned parties, specifically the Alliance party, one decided to vote against the bill (Trevor Lunn, Lagan Valley) while 3 abstained from voting altogether (Kieran McCarthy (Strangford), Chris Lyttle and Judith Cochrane (both East Belfast)). This is somewhat at odds with the the line taken by the Party’s ruling council where after a period of internal consultation with members it was decided that the Alliance would support the motion. David Ford, Alliance leader, went on to note that:
‘Alliance has always stood for a progressive and equal society. Alliance will oppose any form of discrimination, whether it is based on age, race, disability, gender or sexual orientation.‘
He goes on further:
‘Alliance is a democratic party, which is why we undertook a consultation process within our associations which lasted for several months. I would like to thank our Deputy Leader, Naomi Long who led this process and spent a considerable amount of time and energy in ensuring that we had the correct policy in place on this issue.‘
I have been stewing over the ramifications of not passing this bill for about a week now after my initial thoughts on the matter and one thing struck me about the fall out from the vote; while voting for and against the bill went largely as predicted, the fact that nearly half of the Alliance’s MLAs either refused to tow the party line or merely abstained from voting and have since gone all shy on their reasons for being absent, this must surely undermine Ford’s claim that ‘Alliance will oppose any form of discrimination, whether it is based on age, race, disability, gender or sexual orientation’?
So it begs the question, what moral standing does the Alliance party now have in wanting to push for an integrated and shared future if one of their members is openly hostile to a minority community here in the North (Trevor Lunn does have form on this issue, as is evidenced here where he and Seamus Close backed a DUP attempt to ban the use of Lisburn City Council premises for civil partnership ceremonies) while three others lack the courage of any conviction to vote for or against the Bill? Are we to make inferences from the silence?
In fairness, I am not saying that all in the Alliance have been tarred with the same brush (Naomi Long and Anna Lo don’t seem able to put a foot wrong at the moment and to be fair, they must be commended for being consistent on these matters), nor do I see this as a matter which will tear the Party asunder, however, it does take the sheen off the party when David Ford stands up and talks about a shared future for all, of bringing down physical and social barriers separating the 2 dominant communities here in the North. If one were incredibly cynical, one would need only point to the Alliance’s voting history with regard to the LGBT community here in the North and then watch as Ford becomes somewhat uncomfortable in giving an explanation (or so I would imagine).
Do members of the Party want a ‘separate but equal’ future for the LGBT community but are clearly unwilling to countenance this for members of the nationalist or unionist communities?
On a final note, the campaign itself must be commended for its professionalism both before and after the vote. First of all, it was well marshaled by those who supported the motion. Second, and as noted by Ian James Parsley, their have been little or no bitter recriminations following defeat. In fact, in relation to the 2 Alliance MLAs for East Belfast, it has led to an online petition where a number of their constituents are demanding that they answer for their collective no show, democracy in action and all that. It has been a motion that many were well aware of before it got to the floor, there was plenty of discussion and debate on its merits, including over at the excellent Fitzjames Horse’s site. The forces of progress are playing a long game which is the only game in town for an issue as totemic as this. I congratulated Stephen Agnew on bringing the issued to the floor and wished him luck in the future with the issue, he replied to me ‘I believe it will [pass] but clearly still work to do‘. Indeed.