Could Northern Ireland be headed to the polls to vote on same-sex marriage?
That’s the question of the moment after three influential political leaders in the semi-independent country called for a referendum on marriage equality.
David McNarry, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party; David Campbell, a Ulster Unionist MP from South Belfast; and Michael McGimpsey, the former minister of health, social services and public safety for Northern Ireland issued a statement this week in which they called for the issue to be put up to a public vote.
Known as “Breaking The Deadlock,” the document was unveiled at Belfast’s Stormont Hotel on Thursday, which is adjacent to the Northern Irish legislature.
The proposal addresses three subjects which have divided lawmakers in recent years.
Although same-sex couples are permitted to adopt and enter into civil unions, the state is the only municipality in Western Europe that prevents LGBTQ couples from marrying. North Ireland’s Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear a legal challenge to its prohibition on same-sex marriage in February.
The second concerns Northern Ireland’s draconian laws on abortion. The termination of a pregnancy is prohibited in nearly all circumstances, which was unsuccessfully challenged at the same court in 2017 as a violation of human rights.
Lastly the legislature has long debated the passage of a law protecting the use of Gaelic in public life.
“It would appear that there are three main issues of disagreement: The demand for a stand-alone Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland, the demand for the legal admissibility of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and the demand for the relaxation of the abortion law in Northern Ireland,” Campbell said on Thursday, as reported by the Belfast Telegraph.
“One possible solution to break the deadlock would be to consult the Northern Ireland electorate on these issues.”
On the issue of same-sex marriage, proponents of a national referendum proposed asking its estimated population of 1.6 million the following question: “Should couples of the same gender be permitted a civil marriage in Northern Ireland?”
The authors of the document claim they have no agenda in putting it forward as a suggestion to the legislature.
“None of us have electoral ambitions and we represent no parties in making this proposal,” the politicians told members of the media. “We offer it as a possible solution in good faith and hope it is accepted as such.”
Northern Ireland’s government has taken a hands-off position on the issue.
Secretary of State Karen Bradley told reporters this week that while she’s personally in favor of legalizing marriage equality, federal authorities do not want to “impose” LGBTQ rights on the public.
“I am a supporter of same-sex marriage,” says Bradley, who was appointed to the position by Prime Minister Theresa May in January. “I voted for it, but that is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, and that’s a decision that needs to be taken by the people elected by the people of Northern Ireland.
“I am not here to impose any of those things,” she continued. “I am here to help facilitate a government of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Despite this trepidation from government leaders, polls have consistently found that the people of Northern Ireland support full legal recognition for all couples. More than two-thirds of respondents (68 percent) in a 2015 Ipsos poll advocated that the country legalize same-sex marriage.
May called for Northern Ireland to pass marriage equality in a 2017 op-ed for Pink News, writing that all citizens of the U.K. should “enjoy the fullest freedoms and protections.”
The U.K. first allowed LGBTQ couples to marry five years ago with the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 in Parliament. Although Northern Ireland is one of three jurisdictions under its purview, the country has its own court system and is subject to its own laws.