Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson will tonight enter into the debate over same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
In a lecture at an Amnesty International event held as part of the Belfast Pride Festival, Ms Davidson will stress that – just as Scotland has “become a better place” because of same-sex marriage – there are opportunities for Northern Ireland if it extends marriage to same-sex couples. Expect to speak in part about her own experiences as a Presbyterian unionist in a relationship with an Irish Catholic, Jen Wilson, she will say: “As a practicing Christian, a protestant and a unionist who is engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman, for me, equal marriage isn’t about one religion, country or community. It is about people in Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else. Scotland is a better place today because of equal marriage and I want to take that positive message from our experiences here to Belfast and beyond.”
She will also praise Holyrood for its mature debate on the matter, and urge those in favour of equal marriage to persuade opponents rather than shout them down.
Northern Ireland remains the only place in the UK not to allow same-sex couples to marry. While Stormont narrowly voted to approve same-sex marriage legislation last year, the governing Democratic Unionist Party used a procedure known as a “petition of concern” to require a “cross community majority”. As only four Unionists had voted to support the proposal it was unable to pass.
Same-sex couples have been able to marry in Scotland since December 2014, and in the Republic of Ireland since last year following a referendum on the issue.
This week Ms Davidson took the opportunity to visit a new mural in Belfast’s cathedral quarter, entitled Love Wins, which depicts a lesbian couple who were married in the USA – and also visited an LGBT support centre in the city. While her “positive” contribution will inevitably be seen as interference by those who are anxious to defend the status quo in Northern Ireland, there are many who have welcomed her speech.
Traditionalists are affronted by proposals to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. Colin Hart, Campaign Director of the Coalition for Marriage (C4M) said: “C4M and our 40,000 members in Northern Ireland do not believe [in] ripping up the centuries old definition of marriage, the lifelong union between a man and woman. Rewriting the current law dilutes our understanding of marriage and opens the door to future redefinitions.”
Referring to the Ashers bakery case, Mr Hart added: “Those arguing for [change] must address the way a small minority of people exploit this debate to attack those with traditional views. Earlier this year in Northern Ireland we saw the terrible situation, where a baker and his family were dragged through the courts by a taxpayer funded quango, for declining to decorate a cake carrying a slogan advocating a changing the law. In England we have seen other cases where those who back traditional marriage have faced being sacked, demoted or having their wages cut. Changing the law in Northern Ireland will lead to many more similar cases.”
However, some MLAs are planning to introduce new legislation that they hope will pass, with Sinn Fein finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir believing parliamentarians are more likely to choose to introduce legislation than “be forced to legislate on the basis of an adverse judgment” in court.
Legislation alone, as in Scotland, in unlikely in itself to change deep-rooted social prejudices and religious attitudes immediately but would inevitably play a significant role in creating a more inclusive society, helping to show LGBTI people in a positive light and challenging negative perceptions.
Ms Davidson will deliver her speech, entitled “From Scotland with Love” this evening at 7.30pm, which will be followed by a question and answer session.