Exactly one year ago, MLAs from multiple parties were due to launch an equal marriage Private Member’s Bill.
The MLAs had been meeting for months, usually in Steven Agnew’s office in Parliament Buildings, and included representatives or had support from Sinn Féin, SDLP, UUP, Alliance, Green Party and People Before Profit, working closely with the Love Equality campaign to agree the wording of a draft Bill.
It was set to be the first Private Member’s Bill in the Assembly’s history to be jointly presented by multiple MLAs from multiple parties – very significant in demonstrating the breadth of support for the measure.
Assembly procedures demanded that any Private Member’s Bill must be submitted in the name of a single MLA. It was agreed to draw a name from a hat. Alex Attwood won the private ballot. A date to announce the Bill was decided: February 14 2017, Valentine’s Day.
Just as launch plans were being drawn up in January 2017, the Executive was teetering on the edge. Then it tipped over. The imminent Bill was foiled by the collapse of institutions.
A year on, both the numbers and the momentum for legislation have built.
Within Stormont, approximately 56 of 90 MLAs, drawn from all the main parties except the DUP, now support equal marriage legislation.
The ability of Stormont to pass an Equal Marriage Bill has become a litmus test of any restored devolved institutions and will be one of the benchmarks by which to judge any agreement.
Brian Rowan speculates that a Stormont Talks deal might offer progress on equal marriage in the shape of Private Member’s Bill and a review of the Petition of Concern.
After twelve months of no government, are we effectively back to where we were a year ago, with a Private Member’s Bill alongside the prospect of a review, rather than guaranteed reform, of the Petition of Concern?
Meanwhile, an unreformed Petition of Concern remains, as does the DUP’s apparent willingness to wield it to veto equal marriage despite overwhelming public and Assembly support. As recently as two weeks ago, the party refused to give the Love Equality campaign any commitment to refrain from using the veto, with their 28 MLAs plus two others.
The only other guaranteed way that a Stormont Bill has a chance of passing is if the Petition of Concern is significantly reformed so that it can’t be used – by any party – to block minority rights. This would require a lot more change than the faux reform agreed by the DUP and Sinn Féin in the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement.
There’s some talk of a ‘sunset clause’ being inserted into a Talks deal on equal marriage: if Stormont has failed to pass legislation by a certain date, then responsibility for legislating would be shifted to Westminster. If they get the chance, MPs on both sides of the House would be expected to crowd the “Aye” lobby to bring our law into line with the rest of the UK.
While superficially attractive, in practice this may simply mean that any legislative process during the intervening years, while Stormont retains control of the issue, bears no more resemblance to reality than a sham fight in Scarva on the 13th of July. Everyone goes through the motions for the sake of the watching crowds, but all know the outcome – in this case a DUP-led Petition of Concern and another failure. More delay. More democracy undermined. More dashed hopes.
If a Private Member’s Bill and a proposed review, but not necessarily real reform, of the Petition of Concern is the best that’s on offer with a return to devolved rule – with or without a sunset clause – then equal marriage campaigners will have to decide whether to spend their time engaging with a Stormont legislative process potentially doomed from the start.
Perhaps it would be better to save everyone’s time and just ask Westminster now to do what Stormont cannot or will not?
Patrick Corrigan is NI Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and a co-founder of the Love Equality campaign for civil marriage equality.