Martin McGuinness repeated his call for a referendum on marriage equality during the Northern Ireland Leaders’ Debate which was broadcast on the BBC last night. An online petition has now received almost 18,000 signatures calling for a referendum to take place.
Noel Thompson chaired the debate between representatives of the five main parties – Naomi Long (Alliance Party), Mark Durkan (SDLP), Mike Nesbitt (UUP), Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein) and Nigel Dodds (DUP)- in front of a live studio audience.
Shannon Downey, a student from Belfast, asked the leaders to explain their past performance, current position and future plans regarding LGBT rights issues in Northern Ireland.
These important moral and human rights issues continue to come to the fore of the political discussion in Northern Ireland ahead of tomorrows Westminster elections.
Both Naomi Long of the Alliance party and Mark Durkan of the SDLP expressed their disappointment that not all members of their respective parties voted in favour of the motion on marriage equality.
Naomi Long went on to say that she is working with her colleagues” to address their concerns around the issue” and also accused other parties of trying to “whip up fear around the issue” by creating the impression that marriage equality would somehow “diminish marriage for others who are already married”. She later sought to quell the worries of those from a religious background by affirming the fact that “civil marriage is not religious, civil marriage excludes religion.”
“Lgbt rights are much wider than that such as the blood ban involving homosexual men being able to donate blood, we have also worked very hard around the issues of homophobic bullying in schools which is something that needs to be addressed but also we have campaigned very directly to say that we believe that the conscience clause that is being proposed by the DUP is something that would diminish gay rights in Northern Ireland. It would make people vulnerable and wouldn’t actually serve the best needs of the community.” – Naomi Long
Chair of the debate, Noel Thompson, accused Mark Durkan and the SDLP of hypocrisy by proclaiming they are a party dedicated to equality when in reality some party members were not even present to vote to implement such important LGBT equality measures.
Mr Durkan defended his party by quoting the SDLP’s track record of voting on LGBT issues.
“The SDLP was the first party to propose the decriminalisation of homosexuality here and also the first party to support the equalisation of the age of consent”
“The SDLP have supported civil partnerships and marriage equality… [we have] also spent time on the bill to build in protection for churches and the pastoral interests of churches”.
The former SDLP leader also had something to say about the DUP’s inappropriate use of a petition of concern in voting on these issues.
“ This is an issue which should be left to elected representatives in the assembly to decide but the DUP is the party that continually employ the veto device, the petition of concern to make sure that if the assembly did decide [the decision] wouldn’t stand. Legislation is needed to move this debate forward.
Ulster Unionist party leader Mike Nesbitt restated his opinion that marriage equality should be left to a decision based on an individual’s personal beliefs and conscience. Mr Nesbitt reasoned that his decision to remove the party whip from veteran politician Lord Maginnis in 2012 following “outrageously homophobic remarks” he made on the Nolan Show (BBC Radio Ulster) was evidence of his “zero tolerance policy on homophobia in Northern Ireland. The UUP member in question, Ken Maginnis, caused controversy for comments he made comparing homosexuality to bestiality.
The UUP leader also sought to clarify his stance on same sex parenting. “It’s not about the sex of the parent, what matters is the depth of engagement by the parent or parents with the child and the level of support that they are given.”
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness called for a referendum on marriage equality for a second time in as many weeks.
“The marriage equality referendum will take place in the south very shortly, it looks very likely that it will be passed overwhelmingly and I think that places a huge responsibility on us, that’s why I suggested last week that it just might be a good idea if people would agree to it, even if people who think they are opposed to it or very trenchantly opposed to it, lets test the referendum, lets put it to the people, I do believe that the overwhelming majority of people within the unionist, loyalist, nationalist and republican community would vote yes on the basis of providing equality on people who have far too long been discriminated against.” – Martin McGuinness
The deputy first minister also noted that he was not responsible for holding up a now long overdue strategy on sexual orientation and berated the other parties for their failure to commit to LGBT equality. “I think it is shameful that 36% of the SDLP in the assembly and 37% of the Alliance party voted against our proposal on equal marriage.”
“As Mark pointed out that the way forward in this is legislation but the UUP and DUP will not support that. I’m making a proposal that can get them off the hook… What gets them off the hook is agreeing to a referendum” he added.
Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP, was met with laughter from the audience with the opening of his response to the audience member’s question about equality.
“As far as the DUP is concerned we believe that everybody should be treated equally by the law and equally subject to the law [audience laughter] because that is one of the founding principles of the DUP. We do not believe in the redefinition of marriage, but that does not make you anti-gay.”
The DUP MP for North Belfast claimed that the anti-marriage equality stance can be seen in all of the parties apart from Sinn Fein. Mr Dodds said that an anti-gay marriage standpoint is not “a view just by the DUP, also half the conservative party, a view taken by members of the UUP, significant numbers of the alliance party and the sdlp who absented themselves rather than vote.”
In response to Martin McGuinness’s calls for a referendum Mr Dodds deflected the proposal by shifting the issue away from equality.
“Martin McGuinness keeps talking about a referendum. If he is happy to have a referendum on that [equal marriage] then let’s have a referendum on the structures at Stormont, do away with mandatory coalition and move to a voluntary coalition system.”
“This matter is devolved to the Northern Ireland assembly, it’s a matter for the assembly and what’s being made very clear from this debate, it isn’t a question of the DUP petition of concern that is stopping this [marriage equality] going through the assembly, there has been a majority each time it has been raised in the assembly, against it, because people have a view of marriage backed up by the ECHR which says it isn’t a matter of equality it’s a matter for states to decide, it isn’t a breach of equality legislation or anything else” – Nigel Dodds