The Northern Ireland Assembly voted on Monday in favour of same-sex marriage for the first time, but it will still not be made law.
The final vote revealed 53 MLAs had voted "aye" to the motion to introduce marriage for all – 50.5% of the assembly. Those 53 comprised 41 nationalists, four unionists, and eight others. Fifty-two voted against the motion, 51 of whom were DUP members, and one other. It is the fifth time the assembly has voted on the issue.
Despite the majority supporting marriage rights for same-sex couples, the "petition of concern", previously introduced by the DUP, prevents the outcome of the vote being made law. This petition — a quirk of the Northern Ireland Assembly which functions like a veto — means same-sex marriage can be enacted only when 60% vote in favour overall, along with at least 40% of both nationalists and unionist members.
The vote came after an impassioned debate on both sides. Jim Allister, MLA and leader of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice), described same-sex marriage as a "perverse definition" of marriage which, if granted, would be "pandering to the pretence that there is some right being denied". He added: "It's not a rights issue, or an issue of equality...there's a phoney demand for rights", and spoke of the "fatuous suggestion that same-sex marriage is the same as regular man/woman marriage."
Allister's sentiments were echoed by Arlene Foster, the minister of finance and personnel, who questioned "whether this debate is the best use of the assembly's time". She alleged that the emails she had received in support of the motion "were essentially drafted by Amnesty [International]," and claimed to have received "abuse" from supporters of same-sex marriage because of her opposition to it.
The debate concluded with a protracted plea for equality from Sinn Fein MLA Caitríona Ruane, who said, "We want to join the nations that have supported marriage equality", before listing the more than 20 countries that have introduced it, including the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. In reference to previous comments suggesting that such a motion, heard for the fifth time, was a waste of time, Ruane retorted: "The Suffragettes had to bring many motions forward before people listened to the right of women to vote."
She added: "If a majority of this assembly vote Yes, it would send a powerful message around the globe," before condemning the attempts by the DUP to block it from becoming law: "They are using a petition of concern to discriminate against an entire community."
Ruane attacked the argument from previous speakers who alluded to the detrimental effect same-sex marriage might have on children.
Following the vote, The Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland's principle organisation backing same-sex marriage, said in a statement: "We have won the vote. We have won the hearts and minds. Now we have to fight for the right." Other campaigners for same-sex marriage reacted with frustration and anger at the vote being blocked by the petition of concern.
The vote follows a march on Belfast in June of 20,000 people demanding same-sex marriage – the largest of its kind in Northern Ireland's history.
A legal challenge will now be brought to the Northern Irish courts in order to bypass the political obstacles and introduce same-sex marriage.