Last night, Belfast City Council became the first council in Northern Ireland to support marriage equality. The Council voted in favour of the motion [proposed by Sinn Féin, supported by SDLP councillors and one Alliance councillor1]:
This Council supports the same rights and entitlements to civil marriages for all citizens of Belfast regardless of race, religion or sexuality.
However, as my friend Stephen Glenn so rightly says, that the Council voted in favour “isn’t all the story”. For there were no votes against, not because all councillors were in favour of the motion but, rather, because the Unionist councillors left the chamber and did not vote.
Having watched the debate – not that there was much of a debate – on the Council’s webcast facility this evening, I am however more than a little concerned at the lack of knowledge of one member of the Council, one Unionist councillor, Alderman Christopher Stalford of the DUP.
For Alderman Stalford stood up and stated that
the issue about what constitutes marriage is currently being undertaken at Westminster. It’s not a local government issue, it’s a Westminster issue.
Now Alderman Stalford is correct in that it is not the responsibility of local government, but where he goes wrong is stating that it is the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament in relation to Northern Ireland. It seems that the DUP’s representative for Belfast: Laganbank, and worse a DUP Policy Officer, has not quite got to grips with the concept of devolution.
For although HM Government has been consulting about the issue of same-sex civil marriage, this is only in relation to England and Wales. I have some news for him, marriage law is a devolved issue. If it were not, how could the Marriage Bill have been introduced into the Assembly back in 1999. Of course, due to the suspension of the Assembly, that Bill was brought into force by the passing of an Order in Council… but that’s another story.
It is the Northern Ireland Assembly, ultimately, that is responsible for this issue, it is in the power of the Minister for Finance and Personel to bring legislation to have equal marriage here in Northern Ireland. Of course, some MLA could bring in a Private Member’s Bill to achieve the same end. After the debate in Belfast City Council last night, I’m not holding my breath for it to be the current Finance Minister or any Unionist.
However, any legislation, bringing in equal marriage in England and Wales will have a knock-on effect here in Northern Ireland. What will happen to couples who are married in England and Wales, who come to live in Northern Ireland, will they be recognised as married here or not? These issues will need to be discussed and the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will have to make a decision on the policy in relation to this. Perhaps this is an issue with which those responsible for policy in the DUP and other local parties will have to work out their position pretty quickly.
1Words in square brackets added as an amendment to original article as I didn’t mention who proposed and supported by mistake. No censorship was intended.