After being moved in the Lords by Lord Hayward on Tuesday, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Bill passed its first hurdle in the Commons yesterday. The bill secured first reading without objections after a powerful speech by St Helens North MP Conor McGinn, which concluded:
This Bill is not just an instrument to advance LGBT rights in Northern Ireland; it is a litmus test on the will of this House to uphold equality and fairness. It is high time we acted, and I hope that today will be the first step on what must be a short road to bringing about equal rights for our fellow citizens. It is a matter of fundamental inequality and unfairness and a denial of rights that same-sex couples in other parts of the UK and Ireland are allowed to marry, but that Cara McCann and Amanda McGurk are not. Cara and Amanda have a civil partnership ceremony booked for Valentine’s day next year. My Bill would pave the way for them to be married instead.
LGBT rights in Northern Ireland are in limbo. The Assembly has already voted for equal marriage and public support for it is overwhelming. Will the Prime Minister stop hiding behind the Democratic Unionist party and take this opportunity to put on record her support for the Bill being brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn)?
The Prime Minister:
I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises this Government’s record in relation to LGBT rights. We have taken up and championed the issue. He will find that previous legislation—I think actually under the previous Labour Government—ensured that it would be dealt with as a devolved matter, and we hope that a Northern Ireland Executive will be in place soon and be able to address these issues.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley had previously promised a free vote on the issue in the Commons, but May's non-commital response remains significant. BBC parliamentary correspondent Esther Webber noted that the bill was 'unlikely to become law with no govt support' because 'without govt making time it's likely to run out of time before the end of the session.'
If the Government does decline to make time available, many will point to it's confidence and supply deal with the DUP, which opposes gay marriage. Indeed May's argument that the matter should be left to Stormont is identical to that of the DUP which has dismissed the bill as a 'symbolic gesture.' The current Northern Ireland Assembly might well vote for equal marriage, but the DUP's arrangement with the Government at Westminster weakens the incentive for them to do a deal to get that Assembly up and running. Under the circumstances, May's position effectively hands back to the DUP the veto on equal marriage that they lost in the 2017 assembly election, allowing them to block all paths at Westminster and Stormont.
Up until now, the Conservatives have managed to avoid associating themselves with the DUP's social views, despite their alliance. If the equal marriage bill falls for lack of parliamentary time, that may no longer be sustainable.