When marriage equality was legalised in England and Wales in 2013 celebrations were held across the two countries and many people believed that this would be the first of many dominoes that would lead to more egalitarian societies across Europe and around the world. While the legalisation of same-sex marriage was a significant step forward for the LGBT community in England and Wales; a large majority of the British Isles’ LGBT population was allowed to legally marry in the next two years when Scotland and Ireland both followed suit, but there are some parts of the British Isles that have yet not established full equality in this area.
On Tuesday the States Assembly of Jersey voted overwhelmingly to legalise same-sex marriage, making it the first of the Channel Islands to do so. Of the 41 members of the States Assembly 37 voted in favour of legalising marriage equality which would go into effect in January 2017. Much like in England and Wales religious groups that do not wish to take part in such ceremonies do not have to, thus allowing full civil equality and the performance of religious ceremonies by more liberally minded religious institutions. Chief Minister Ian Gorst said that “it would be unreasonable, and inappropriate, to continue to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to get married”; the welcome addition of Jersey to the list of places that have legalised same-sex marriage will continue spreading the positive messages of tolerance and equality to people in even the smallest areas of the world.
Progress is also beginning to emerge in Guernsey, which, unlike in the UK, had never even legalised civil partnerships. Since civil partnerships were legalised in many other places Guernsey has recognised these partnerships but civil same-sex marriage is on the cusp of legalisation; in July 2015 the responses to a public consultation on a bill to legalise same-sex marriage were published and a vast majority of the 1,600 responses were advocating full marriage equality rather than a civil partnership law. As a consequence of the overwhelming support for equality it is highly likely that the issue may be considered before the next general election in April 2016.
The 85,000 residents of the Isle of Man make up the vast majority of people living in Crown dependencies and much like large parts of socially conservative Eastern Europe, same-sex marriage has been expressly banned as a result of statute. Since the 1990s however the island has become much more socially liberal with many milestones in the fight for LGBT equality coming in the last few years with the equalisation of the age of consent, anti-discrimination employment laws, the recognition of same-sex couples, joint adoption by same-sex couples, legal access to IVF for lesbians, and the right to change legal gender all being passed in the last ten years. As a result of this liberalisation Chief Minister Alan Bell said in June 2015 that he intended to repeal the law that prohibits same-sex marriage on the island.
As well as the three crown dependencies marriage equality is still illegal in Northern Ireland. The unfortunate situation in Northern Ireland is a result of the community and religious divide that exists there. The issue of unionism vs. republicanism is the single lens through which all other issues are seen and this has resulted in the intransigence that is often seen at Stormont. The majority Protestant community in Northern Ireland has long elected unionist politicians to represent them, and these unionists have almost universally been socially conservative. Similarly left-wingers who support republicanism have are more socially liberal and therefore Sinn Féin and the SDLP have both committed themselves to marriage equality.
Because the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is the issue that permeates all others those who support same-sex marriage, but who also are unionists, have remained steadfast in their election for the DUP or the UUP as voting for parties that support same-sex marriage would go against their foundational belief of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom. There is hope for unionists who support equal marriage as the centrist party Alliance, who self-describe as ‘agnostic on the union’, support same-sex marriage, which has enabled many LGBT people and activists who support Northern Ireland’s current position inside the UK to support a party on this issue without compromising this foundational belief.
The other problem is not often stated but it is a consequence of the political divisions in Ulster. Unionist parties are always elected in the majority in Northern Ireland, because if they weren’t a referendum would be held and Ireland would be united; the problem arises that although same-sex marriage has no real hope of passing in Stormont because of the DUP and UUP’s positions, a referendum on the subject is also out of the question as the republican parties in combination with other pro-equality parties like Alliance, NI21 and the Greens don’t have a majority to enable a referendum to take place. In addition, if the pro-marriage equality side does have a majority, this effectively can be vetoed by the unionist parties because of the way the Northern Irish Assembly was established.
One could argue that the DUP could always reverse their position and let the people decide, after all ‘democratic’ is in their name, and this would be a fair argument if the issue was contentious and many people were undecided but, despite the political divide in Northern Ireland, the people are not. A poll published by the Belfast Telegraph in June 2015 found that more people support same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland (68%) than voted ‘Yes’ in the Irish Republic’s referendum in May 2015 (62.1%). As a result of this unity on the issue the DUP are not going to allow a referendum because they know that the result will go against their party’s policy. There is hope however that action shall occur as such strong support among the population cannot be ignored for much longer, especially if the issue transcends the political barriers in Northern Ireland that stretch back over a century.
The British Isles has largely legalised same-sex marriage which is fantastic, but hopefully in the coming few months equality in this area will be achieved in Crown dependencies. The biggest challenge remains in Northern Ireland where socially conservative unionists will not countenance statute to provide equal marriage nor will allow for a referendum on the issue. The only way that same-sex marriage will be legalised in Northern Ireland is if people reach across the unionist/republican divide in order to demand action on the issue; however considering Stormont’s current paralysis I fear that change without a mass movement will remain a dream of activists like myself.