Written By: Henry McDonald 9/9/15
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Ivan Lewis, will demand public vote to overturn ban on same-sex unions
Labour will back demands for a Northern Ireland-wide referendum on gay marriage on Wednesday, when Ivan Lewis, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, will say he wants a public vote to overturn the ban on same-sex marriages.
“Ideally, there would be sufficient support in the Northern Ireland assembly to introduce legislation for same-sex marriage,” Lewis told the Guardian before his speech to LBGT people in Belfast. “This is currently not the case as as in the Republic of Ireland I would propose a referendum be held which allows the people to decide.”
Lewis said the plebiscite should be modelled on the globally unique gay marriage referendum across the border in the republic in May 2015. Ireland became the first country in the world to endorse LGBT marriages in a nationwide referendum. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where LGBT couples cannot marry in law.
The shadow secretary of state said the concerns of religious and faith-based groups would have to be taken into consideration in any legislation to introduce the referendum.
“Naturally, legislation triggered by a yes vote would include provisions as in the Westminster legislation which ensure faith groups are not required to undertake any activity which they deem as contrary to their beliefs,” he said.
If the Conservative government is forced to suspend the devolved governing institutions in Northern Ireland after the failure of all-party talks, which started this week, the Lewis suggested this might also create an opportunity for gay marriage equality.
“Today I also want to make clear that in the unfortunate and undesirable event of the current political crisis in Northern Ireland leading to suspension of the political institutions, my party believes the government should give serious consideration to introduce legislation at Westminster to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland,” he will say. “The same could apply if the government decides to legislate for welfare reform at Westminster.”
Lewis described Northern Ireland as a “cold home” for many LGBT people and called for a committee of assembly members at Stormont to be established that tackled homophobia in the region.
The Labour MP has cited the experience of a gay friend from Northern Ireland, now living in England, who had suffered homophobic attacks as a young man as one reason why he is calling for the referendum.
Lewis describes how the friend, now in his 30s, recalls being a 21-year-old victim of “thugs” who attacked him as he left a bar in Donegall Street, central Belfast.
Lewis’s friend, who was admitted to hospital, recalled he was later “sitting my final exams at Queen’s University two weeks later in a room of 300 people with two black eyes, a broken nose and bruising across my entire body”.
Referring to his friend’s testimony, Lewis said neither the UK nor Northern Ireland were theocracies. “I respect the right of politicians to cite their faith as reason for their opposition to same-sex marriage. I do not condemn or attack them as ‘bigots’ or ‘homophobes’. My difference with them is that in a democracy they are wrong to impose their religious beliefs on the legislative framework, which governs the rights of their fellow citizens,” Lewis said.
The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, was the first local politician to call for a regional referendum on gay marriage this year, after the republic voted in favour by a two-thirds majority.
In April, a Sinn Féin motion on marriage equality was defeated, with 47 Northern Ireland assembly members voting in support, but 49 unionists voting against. Even if there had been a small majority in favour, the Democratic Unionist party would have exercised a special veto drawn up under devolution. The so-called petition of concern allows any party to veto legislation if it can argue the law would not have sufficient cross-community or Protestant-Catholic support.
The powerful Evangelical Christian lobby within the DUP ensures that Northern Ireland’s largest political party will continue to try to block moves to legislate in favour of same-sex marriage.
Source: The Guardian