This evening Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson delivered the Amnesty International Lecture in Belfast as part of the city’s Pride Festival.
Addressing people from across Northern Ireland’s political and faith communities about Scotland’s journey
before and after the passing of equal marriage legislation, Ms Davidson leader outlined how equal marriage changed her own life, and those of others across the country.
She praised Holyrood for its mature debate on the matter, and urged those in favour of equal marriage to persuade opponents rather than shout them down, adding that many who are take an opposite stance have sincerely held views. Ms Davidson also discussed her own Christian faith, and her belief that the role of churches in the ongoing debate will be of significance.
The full text of the lecture can be read below:
‘The debate on Equal marriage is not easy. It was never going to be. Where areas of love meet the law, where belief, commitment and faith collide with legislation, the waters will always be difficult to navigate. But I believe in marriage. I believe that marriage is a good thing. I saw the evidence of that every day growing up in a house full of love. And while my own family had all of the stresses and strains common to all, there was never any doubt or question or fear in my mind that our togetherness was insecure.
‘And the bedrock of that stability and security was my parents’ marriage. And that stability helped me and my sister to flourish and have confidence that we be whoever we wanted to be. More than 40 years married and my parents still love each other and I look at what they have and I want that too and I want it to be recognised in the same way. And that recognition matters.’
That’s a couple of paragraphs from the start of a speech I made in Holyrood at the first reading of the Equal Marriage bill nearly three years ago. I like to imagine that I have a flair for the dramatic . It was the first time Id really spoken out loud about why equal marriage was important. Why the apartheid message of same but different; why the facsimile of civil partnership wouldn’t do. How we as a country needed to wipe away the last legal barrier that said gay people were lesser than their peers.
I’ll be honest; I was absolutely bricking it. In Scotland we’d had much of the same debate as I’ve seen in other countries. The same fears to overcome, the same religious elements to opposition. Issues within my own party between those who were supportive and those who opposed. I had an inbox that was groaning under the weight of emails for one side or the other, running from polite requests for my position to screams of betrayal and eternal damnation. Made worse after one of the opposition campaigning organisations – without either my knowledge or consent – sent thousands of flyers through letterboxes in Glasgow with a picture of my face on them and the details of my constituency office telling people opposed to make their position known to me. My constituency assistant was shouted at and threatened.
Add in to that a family situation which had taken some time to get to the stage of acceptance and support were at now, a personal position where my long term partner who I’d discussed marriage and children with and put off a civil partnership until we could get the real thing with had dumped me a year before so I was alone and lonely and thinking that as head of the Tories in Scotland I’d stay that way forever, ‘cos y’know, you cant go on match.com unless you want it to hit the papers.
Take in all of that and it was a pretty hard speech to make. If you look it up on YouTube, you can actually see me physically shaking at the start of it.
But its a speech I wanted to make. Its one I felt I needed to. Because the points I wanted to discuss were important ones. And they boiled down to this Yes, equal marriage is important for those couples who want to be able to have their commitment realised in this way right now. But passing this legislation is every bit as important and more – for those young gay people who will walk into the school playground tomorrow, knowing that the parliament of their country has stood up for them and said that they are no different from their classmates and they deserve the same rights as everybody else.
And that’s why this legislation matters because right now, we tell our young people you’re good enough to serve in our armed forces; you are good enough to care in our hospitals; you are good enough to teach in our schools. But you are not good enough to marry the person you love and who loves you in return. That relationship, your relationship, is something different; it is something less; your commitment is denied. And its that idea of difference; of alien; of other that is at the root of all bullying including homophobic bullying. It is at the root of all the fear and shame and despair our LGBT young people are made to feel. It is damaging to them; it is damaging to our communities and it is damaging to the type of country we want to be.
Don’t get me wrong. Change has happened. Im 37. When I was born, homosexuality was still a crime in Scotland. People could be prosecuted and punished for being in a loving same-sex relationship. Now, those same couples can now be recognised in marriage. But, just because things are easier, it doesn’t make them easy.
Right now in Northern Ireland more than 90% of young LGBT people say they face homophobic language in their school. According to the Rainbow project, in Northern Ireland, 65% of young gay men say theyve been subjected to abuse. Nearly two-fifths become homeless at some point. 17% of those bullied received death threats. Over 1 in 3 attempted suicide.
These are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters and they are made to feel so much fear and guilt and shame. And we can make things better for them. Equal marriage wont fix everything by itself; it won’t stop the workplace bully; it won’t change the unaccepting parent but it will make a difference. It will make every couple in this country equal in the eyes of the law. It will allow every child to grow up knowing that no matter where they live and no matter who they love there is nothing they cant do. And it will accelerate the coming together and healing that has happened in so many ways across so many communities in the last few years.
Equal marriage is part of being a modern country. It’s not just about looking across the water or gazing south of the border.
This is a movement across the free world. And its one that has inspired joy and celebration; it has led to a lightening of the national mood, to an exhalation of a tension that people hadn’t even realised was there; It is a statement of intent that where you have been excluded you are now embraced.
In New Zealand, it sparked a spontaneous and beautiful chorus of an old Maori love song breaking out in parliament. In Ireland it inspired thousands to board planes and boats to go home to vote. To take to social media and tell the world who they were voting for. Their cousin. Their friend. The country they wanted their home to be. In Iceland, the Prime Minister waiting not a minute more than necessary and marrying her partner the very same day equal marriage became law. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, America, France, Finland, Scotland, England, Wales and more – in each of these countries, not only have we seen public opinion swing firmly behind equal marriage.
We’ve seen the same moment in each country’ s history. A moment of release, of liberation, where life-long couples can finally marry, where people are told that all are equal under the law, where the cause of freedom is advanced and lives made better, where tears of frustration and hurt turn to tears of joy, where years of man-made inequality are stripped away until all that’s left is the love between two people.It is an amazing moment.
And to me it speaks not just of personal identity but of national identity too. Increasingly, equal marriage is simply an accepted part of being a mature democracy. Its become part of the fabric of liberal, western states, that eventually will mean that whether you grew up in Belfast or Broughty Ferry or in Omagh or Orlando you have the same rights. Its every bit as important and normal as every other aspect of individual liberty in a free society.
We dont have to look far around the world to see threats to those values. But I think were also starting to see a more muscular defence of those values from previously surprising quarters. More and more companies are making a point of siting themselves not just where it suits their business but where it suits their staff.
There is, of course, one industry in Northern Ireland that benefits from Northern Ireland’s position on equal marriage. Travel agents.
But for a foot-loose employer who can contribute to a local economy, why would you base yourself some of your employees cant be married? If you’re a global business, deploying people around the world, why would you send them to a place if some of them aren’t equal? It’s also about where you find the smart, young, mobile, educated workforce.
How many people have got on a boat or a plane to go to college or uni or start work away from here because its easier to be your whole self somewhere else? How many of Northern Ireland’s daughters and her sons have chosen to build a life in friendlier climes? Surely the leaders of this land, from whatever community they hail, should wish to send out the message that you are welcome here. This is your home. You are valued. You are safe. You are respected. And you are loved.
But it’s not just the case that equal marriage is a good thing. It also need cause no fear. In countries all round the world, after the passage of equal marriage, after that initial explosion of joy, it very quickly feels normal like equal marriage should always have been there. In most countries, support for equal marriage continued to rise after it became law as people looked on it and saw it was good.
To talk of Scotland again, when we passed equal marriage for some people we changed their whole world. But for those worried that they were losing the world they knew, their fears didn’t materialise. The sky didn’t fall in, the world still turned, the sea remained blue – and Scotland still lost at football. But that doesn’t mean their fears werent sincerely held.
And we owe to those who take an opposing view to engage and explain. To discuss and persuade. You don’t affect change by shouting down your opponents whose votes you need. You affect change by stating your truth quietly and clearly; by challenging prejudice; by being open and welcoming and honest. And by tackling those arguments against, head on.
And in this debate, no matter the country in which it’s been held, the first two arguments are the same. One – that by extending marriage to same-sex unions, the very concept is diluted. And the second challenge is that were the authoritarians. That we are imposing our vision on someone else. That people with deeply-held convictions will be forced to take part in ceremonies which with they disagree. That institutions will be forced to act against their collective conscience. That people will have their faces rubbed in it by a shrill and illiberal gay lobby. These two arguments are worth spending some time on because they go to the heart of what it means to be a modern country, balancing rights and representation. And because respectfully – I don’t think they stand up.
LGBT people arguing for marriage aren’t diminishing it as an institution. It is precisely because we value it that we want it open to all. And extending marriage to same sex couples does nothing to diminish those unions that already exist. A couple celebrating their golden wedding in Scotland feel no less married today than they did 3 years ago before equal marriage was introduced. And a couple walking down the aisle in Broughty Ferry feel no less married than a similar couple in Belfast because Scotland has equal marriage and Northern Ireland doesn’t.
Marriage loses meaning not when it is offered to all, but when it is denied to some.
And on the second point of authoritarianism and imposition. I am a practising Christian. I care deeply about the role of the church in the public realm. I believe passionately it is a force for good. I don’t think we should drum religious views out of public debates. I might not always agree with every intervention churches make in politics, but I defend their right to do so.
Six weeks ago, I got engaged. I would love it if my church (the Church of Scotland) allowed me to get married in my own church and before the sight of God. But I recognise that decision is not in my gift. It is entirely up to churches themselves to decide for whom they wish to conduct ceremonies to offer sacraments. And rightly so. And equal marriage is no threat to freedom of religion, or the role of churches in society. In Scotland, as in other countries, we made sure that as we passed equal marriage, we also protected the rights of religious groups. That debate in Holyrood was so mature precisely because it recognised those rights.
The campaign in Northern Ireland calls for similar protections. It is specifically equal civil marriage that Amnesty and others have been calling for. So there will be no churches forced to carry out same-sex services. There will be no elders forced to go back on deeply-held beliefs. Equality means just that – it does not mean one group imposing on another.
Now I would love, of course, more congregations and churches to recognise same-sex marriage. But I recognise that it is the subject of theological debate and discussion. That is good and healthy and natural. We’re sitting in a city that took generations of division and found a way to make electoral politics work, however much time and energy it takes. So we can surely find a way to let people hold their deepest social convictions and still open up our oldest social institution to all. The simple truth is, freedom of conscience and the institution of marriage are not undermined by equal marriage.
By handing rights to one group denied them, you are taking no rights away from those who already enjoy the same. Just as we can tackle these arguments against equal marriage, so we have to think about the manner and mechanism of a parliamentary debate. Of course, in Northern Ireland, there is not just overwhelming public support, but also a parliamentary majority. This talk would be quite different – equal marriage would already have passed – were it not for the petition of concern. Never has the phrase we would win on a straight vote felt so ironic. It’s not my place to comment on the parliamentary mechanisms, but I would say two things.
First of all, I’m not an elected representative in Northern Ireland. No-one’s voted for me. I can’t speak on any voters behalf. But I am practicing Christian. I am a protestant. I am a Unionist. I am Scottish and British. I am engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman from county Wexford who was educated by nuns. For me, equal marriage isn’t about one religion or county or community. It is about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else. And speaking as a protestant, a Presbyterian and a Unionist, I think Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage. Not just because its no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society: men, women, Catholic, Protestant, old, young, urban, rural, and we know that in the Assembly, members from across the parties support it. So this isn’t a community issue.
I don’t come here as an MSP to tell MLAs how to do their job in Stormont: that would be an impertinence and discourtesy I wouldnt much thank you for in reverse. But I do think it odd, at best, that the Assembly allows itself to fall further out of sync with cross-community opinion. And as an outside observer, I admire the politicians of Northern Ireland for their ability to seek out the common ground, to reach out across the divide, to both take majority democratic decisions and to protect the rights of minorities – and I find it sad that an issue about recognising a minority and providing equal rights under the law isn’t seen for what it is.
Its perhaps a different sort of courage but courage it is, and we should recognise that. I hope that many more MLAs may find themselves open to such a journey. And I would say this to any who are wavering: add your voice, and it will be counted. Your vote will be tallied, and your name entered in the honour roll. I don’t see why, in years from now, we shouldn’t tell our grandchildren about the part that all parties – every party, from both communities – played in making a better Northern Ireland.
And I believe that time is coming. And soon. With public support and parliamentary majority the waters are building and the dam will burst.
In Scotland, our Equal Marriage bill took several months from first reading to the final vote. The day it passed, I had a Burns supper later that evening I was due to speak at. And I read an extract from a letter Burns wrote to a friend the night before his 30th birthday. It said: ‘I myself can confirm, both from bachelor and wedlock experience, that Love is the Alpha and the Omega of human enjoyment. All the pleasures, all the happiness of my humble Compeers, flow immediately and directly from this delicious source. It is the spark of celestial fire which lights up the wintry hut of Poverty, and makes the cheerless mansion, warm, comfortable and gay.’ And while Burns might be suitable for talking of equal marriage in Scotland, I fear only Heaney will do here in Belfast.
History says, Dont hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme
I truly believe that tidal wave is set to
overflow and that you will, in short order, change history.
Location: The MAC, Belfast
Time: 7:30pm, Tuesday 2 August