A backbench push wouldn't only give long-overdue rights to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland—it could actually help the DUP and Theresa May. Allow me to explain...by Adam McGibbon / February 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Following last week’s collapse of the talks to restore the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, a return to ‘Direct Rule’ looms. Owen Smith, Labour shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, has urged Theresa May to ‘take forward equal marriage’ for the one part of the UK where LGBT people are denied this civil right. On Wednesday, Labour’s Conor McGinn—who is from Northern Ireland—said that he would be prepared to introduce a Private Members Bill if the government did not act.
McGinn had better get drafting, because the truth is Theresa May will not act. She is beholden to the Democratic Unionist Party for her government’s survival and is clearly afraid at upsetting them. Even if she wasn’t, she is happy—like many British politicians—to ignore the grave injustices being perpetrated across the Irish Sea.
LGBT people in the North have waited too long for their rights. We are now in the situation where everyone else in these isles has the right to have their love recognised. Across the Irish Sea or over the border, same-sex marriage is legal. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where it is not. If this was happening in Wales or Scotland, the government would have intervened long ago.
Yet the same shaky parliamentary arithmetic that leaves May beholden to the conservative DUP also provides an opportunity that has eluded campaigners for decades—and provides a way for backbench members to step up and create change.
A victory for reproductive rights
Last year, Labour’s Stella Creasy led a major advance for Northern Ireland’s women, on behalf of the brave, tenacious activists in the North who have fought for decades for the right to choose. An alliance of opposition MPs and rebel Tories forced the government’s hand into providing access to free abortions in Britain for Northern Irish women. With the Tories leading a minority government, it only took a few rebels to get it passed.
Similar tactics could be used again to address another heinous injustice: the denial of the basic human right to marry. True, the thousands of brave, unrelenting LGBT activists in the North who have fought for decades would probably have preferred it if their own politicians could have recognised their rights.
A law would also, surely, come too late for others who never had their love recognised. And it would come far too late for some: Northern Ireland has a tragically high LGBT suicide rate, and it is academically recognised that politicians with anti-LGBT attitudes—in this case the biggest party in the country—plays a role in that.
Yet, imperfect as the solution would be, it is also necessary. The official equal marriage campaign in Northern Ireland, Love Equality, has already called for a backbench push, so it’s time to do it.
A favour to the DUP?
Perversely, this might even do the DUP, and the effort to restore a devolved government in Stormont, a favour by removing one of the major impasses blocking the restoration of the institutions.
The DUP lack the courage to make difficult decisions that they might have to sell to their base—a base that they have rallied by appealing to division and bigotry. They have blocked equal marriage in the Assembly for so long now, building up rabid homophobia as a hallmark of their politics. This makes it difficult to compromise on.
Backbench MPs pushing through a bill to legalise equal marriage would allow the DUP to huff and puff and blame Westminster—and allow the Prime Minister to throw up her hands and simply blame her backbenchers.
It may also induce the DUP to realise that if Westminster is willing to legislate for equal marriage—and MPs will use the precarious arithmetic to defy the government—MPs could also legislate to unblock further impasses. This could give the DUP a strong incentive to make an agreement before something they don’t have control over if foisted on them.
If MPs get a taste for it, perhaps they could unblock another impasse by, say, passing a carbon copy of the Welsh Language Act 1993, replacing every mention in the bill of the word “Welsh” with “Irish.”
Time for a new politics in Stormont
Because the fact is, the time to remove the obstructions to a new government in Stormont has long passed. A victory on equal marriage would be welcome, but it wouldn’t solve the underlying problems that Northern Ireland faces. It would leave untouched our wider problems of segregation, poverty, inequality and environmental degradation—underlineing the need for a wholly new politics in Stormont.
Backbenchers, especially opposition backbenchers, rarely get to do something heroic.
Now, it’s time for any Conservative MP who believes in the same rights for all UK citizens to step up and join the opposition MPs to make this happen. The stars are aligned. Do it.