Petitions of Concern, the first of which was introduced after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, must have at least 30 signatures in order to pass through, a measure which seeks to ensure that contentious legislation can only be introduced by way of cross-community support. The misuse of this has, in turn, made any strides towards progress fruitless.
Northern Ireland, NI, The North of Ireland- whichever name you choose to attribute to it, we can all agree that conflict never drifts far from its shores. Infamous scenes have bounded around the globe, from Bloody Sunday to the struggle towards the Good Friday Agreement. The troubles were fraught with unimaginable violence and division at home, whilst overseas, it attracted so much attention that major political players such a Bill Clinton have even seen fit to intervene.
For many, the country now exists in a much different state. The late Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen, and Ian Paisley expressed regret in the autumn of his life. In many ways Northern Ireland is unrecognisable. However, many remnants of the past still remain; new murals continue to be painted, the peace walls still exist and the parade commission and the Haass-talks failed to generate much traction. Today, political unrest is still eerily close to erupting and the fall of Stormont seems increasingly plausible.
There are many aspects of this current state of flux which are particularly troubling. The most prominent issues of late include the heating scandal, the alleged misappropriation of £1.7 million of government funding to a well-known paramilitary commander, Dee Stitt, and the recent issue of re-elections which has roused the flame of tribal politics once again, strongly rekindling the totemic disunity with which Northern Ireland is now synonymous.
The blatant lack of concern in Stormont affairs from the current Westminster government and many of its predecessors, is certainly unnerving. McGuiness once remarked that he and Peter Robinson had met with Barack Obama more often than with David Cameron whilst he was in office. The current echoes of the direct rule ghost looms near; whispers of it again rearing its head, rattling through both sides of the divide and so do murmurs of Irish Unity. The result is that there is yet to be any clear path concocted for the future. With such contention permanently simmering, it is easy to see why the Stormont Assembly has difficulty getting things done, but I believe, like many, that this lack of action is unacceptable, particularly when its ineffectiveness, along with its misuse of tribal politics, is allowed to taint issues relating to equality.
For many, there is embarrassment at the lack of religious-political tolerance with regards to equality in Northern Ireland. The same must be said for the unrepentant alienation of rights, namely the refusal to accept and be inclusive of, same-sex marriage in our society. What is even more startling, is the degree that the processes designed to protect equality have been used to deny just that. Amnesty international have persuasively campaigned for this cause, but due to the inappropriate use of the petition of concern, their efforts along with that of many others has simply been blocked. The misuse of Petitions of Concern has, in turn, made any strides towards progress fruitless. It is time for the political stagnation to refrain from leeching into issues which cross the political divide. The purpose of the petition of concern is to prevent such inequality, not to enable it.
Unfortunately, many recent incidents have highlighted the homophobic mandate that although not running freely, continues to fester, thwarting the progress that the LGBT community deserves. While religious freedom should be respected it does not justify discrimination. The Ashers scandal brought to light the very fractious line that exists between religious-embedded-politics and equality. It exemplifies that the two cannot be mutually exclusive but in the case of Northern Ireland, the involvement is much too intrusive. The court’s decision puts forward a more progressive outlook, rooted in the prevention of the alienation of those who choose to celebrate their sexuality, and reflecting the popular opinion held by most of the public.
Whilst it isn’t realistic to seek complete acceptance nor to force churches to perform religious marital ceremonies, it is, however, imperative that legally, homosexual relationships are regarded as equal to that of heterosexuals. This means that marriage shouldn’t be a privilege withheld for some, it should be available to all. How can it be, that the first region of the UK to hold civil partnership ceremonies is also the only one which does not recognise marriage equality? What is even more startling is that measures designed to ensure equality are being used to deny just that. The petition of concern invoked to stop legislation supporting this matter was nothing short of an abuse of powers, flying in the face of the successful assembly vote in favour of the change in the law.
When examined under a broader looking glass, this issue of gay couple’s equality far outreaches that of marriage equality alone. Dolce and Gabbana’s notorious comments regarding gay adoption and IVF seem to illustrate a larger problem with the imposition of antiquated boundaries on gender roles and the pursuit of nuclear family units which goes beyond Northern Ireland. However, it seems that in Northern Ireland, the problem is even more prolific, and frankly, prehistoric. With MLA’s boasting notions that gay people can be cured, as well as wholly despicable comments from Iris Robinson in which she equated homosexuality to the evils of paedophilia branding them as “comparable”, it is obvious that there are years of social progress to be made by some and frankly decades needed by others.
Building a more comprehensive illustration of the situation, so that we can improve the current legislation, demands knowledge of how far social opinion has progressed, in comparison to political progress, or lack thereof. It is almost unfathomable that up until 2013 there was a ban on gay couples adopting. This was damaging in many ways, as it prescribed to an outdated depiction of a family, as well as supporting the differential treatment of gay couples.
As for the future, the current shift in Stormont majority, following the recent election, does bring hope for the progression of this issue. While many things for Northern Ireland are unclear, there is now at least a reasonable hope that this issue will soon be resolved and that other issues, which have no business being bandied around under the guise of party-political agendas, be treated with the respect that they deserve.
Featured image: ‘Love Wins’ by Irish artists Joe Caslin