Yesterday, Wednesday 15th November, Australia voted overwhelmingly that they wish to allow same-sex marriage, in their marriage equality plebiscite. Meanwhile, Theresa May’s UK government is propped up by the DUP in Northern Ireland, a party that has consistently blocked the north’s LGBT community equal marriage rights.
In Australia, 12.7 million votes were cast and 61.6% voted YES. As the Equality Campaign says, the result is historic, and they are now on their way to joining one billion people around the world who have as their right the permission to marry a same-sex partner.
Alex Greenwich of the Equality Campaign proudly was justifiably proud of the result:
“..ours will be the last generation in which LGBTI relationships [in Australia] are not equal under the law. For the young person growing up in a small town, for the couple who have been together 40 years, and the person who’s been longing to propose: you belong here, your love is celebrated and honoured here, and never again will you be made to feel otherwise by our country’s laws. […] today in Australia, fairness and equality triumphed, and we can all be proud”.
“Parliament still has to pass Australia’s unequivocal mandate for equality into law. And you can be sure we’ll hold them to that – we expect a timely vote on a fair and simple bill, this year. But for now we celebrate YES.
So much happiness can be felt from the Australian LGBT community and their supporters, that it’s natural to want to celebrate with them and congratulate them for a hard-fought and hard-won campaign, which was conducted in a very civilised manner, as they refused to stoop to underhand or dirty tactics, even under severe provocation from the NO side.
However, it’s also time to remember the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, for whom Australia’s victory must be bitter-sweet.
Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK or Ireland where there is still a ban on same-sex marriage, has seen majority support in the Northern Ireland Assembly and from the general public. A majority of MLAs in the Assembly voted to support marriage equality in November 2015. However, the DUP blocked the measure, using a Petition of Concern, a mechanism originally intended to protect rights of NI minorities.
Gavin Boyd, of Northern Ireland’s Rainbow Project, has said that the LGBT community there are feeling left out.
“England, Scotland, Wales, the Republic, we are entirely surrounded by countries and regions that allow same-sex marriage. Of course people who are LGBT in Northern Ireland feel left out, it is frustrating”.
Patrick Corrigan, of the Love Equality campaign for civil marriage equality in Northern Ireland, congratulated Australia, but said he wants Northern Ireland to be next:
“Australia is just the latest country to say Yes to marriage equality. We are delighted for all those couples who will be able to marry as soon as politicians follow through with legislation. We send our congratulations to campaigners in Australia, who have pursued an energetic and relentlessly positive campaign.
“Now, we want Northern Ireland to be next. As we move from devolved government to direct rule, we call on the Westminster government to introduce legislation as soon as possible to reflect the will of the people and of the Assembly, where there are clear majorities in favour of marriage equality.”
Amidst the joy in Australia, Tiernan Brady, Director of Australians for Equality, which runs the Equality Campaign Australia, also felt for the Northern Ireland LGBT community. He is a Fermanagh native, and commented:
“Today is a joyful day. It is a day when the Australian people have said to their LGBTI family members, friends and neighbours that we are all one, and our laws must reflect that. But amidst the joy, I still feel a pang of sadness when I think of where I was born and raised in Fermanagh – and how LGBTI people there are still denied their equality. Just like Australia, the people of Northern Ireland share the same commitment to fairness and equality and that is reflected in every poll taken on the issue. Just like Australia, it has been the world of politics that is blocking the clear will of the people to treat LGBTI people equally. It is time our laws at home caught up with the values of our people. Everyone on our islands should have the right to the same aspirations and dignity as the rest of their family members and communities. I hope the joy of Australia will inspire and give hope to those who continue to work to make equality a reality.”
Perhaps with direct rule from Westminster, the Northern Ireland LGBT community would have its wish, and no longer be isolated and left out. Under direct rule, it would be hard to justify withholding equal marriage rights from Northern Ireland, in the absence of an Executive, where the 10-month stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP has been partly blamed on an impasse on rights issues, including marriage equality and the Irish language.
However, in speaking about rights and equality, it should also be mentioned that £50m, part of the £1.2bn package which Theresa May agreed with the DUP in exchange for their support for the Tory government, is due to be released to Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill has accused May of acting in her own self-interest, and against an equality agenda, as the DUP holds the balance of power at Westminster.
“Theresa May and her party have acquiesced in their own self-interest to the DUP, blocking the equality agenda and denying rights which are the norm in all other parts of our islands”, she stated.
This is a contradictory situation where the head of a government, which may end up ruling Northern Ireland directly again, is supported by, and in an agreement with, a party which is blocking equality for the LGBT community there.
The inequality for Northern Ireland’s LGBT community has been brought into sharp focus by Australia’s result.