This afternoon, in the function room of the Loughshore Hotel in Northern Ireland, a newlywed couple smiled bashfully for the crowds and cameras. Dressed in floor-length gowns, Sharni Edwards and Robyn Peoples proudly held up their hands to reveal their rings and kissed beneath an awning of white silk. While most couples are used to being subject of attention on their wedding day, Sharni and Robyn, as the first legally married same-sex couple in Northern Ireland, received more than most.
Today is a rare moment of happiness in a fight for LGBT+ rights in Northern Ireland that has been long and hard. Despite being part of the UK in most other regards, when it comes to the rights of the LGBT+ community, Northern Ireland is on its own. While homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, the ban remained here; at the time, Northern Ireland’s conservative Christian population deeply opposed the law.
Ten years later, in 1977, Ian Paisley, then leader of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), launched a campaign called ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’. At a time when violent rhetoric and even more violent attacks on LGBT+ people were commonplace, few felt comfortable to come out; they either moved abroad to start new lives in more tolerant parts of the world, or stayed in the closet.
Despite appeals from the LGBT+ community, the UK government refused to intervene in Northern Ireland’s laws on homosexuality – until, in 1982, a gay man successfully took a legal challenge which forced the UK to finally legalise homosexuality in the region. While this improved safety for the community in the short term, homophobic and transphobic attitudes remained rife in Northern Irish society. The first gay pride parade was held in Belfast in 1991 but saw protesters line the streets.
Marriage for same-sex couples was legalised in England, Scotland and Wales in 2014 but was not extended to Northern Ireland, as local politicians argued it was contrary to peoples’ religious beliefs. Again, the UK government ignored pleas from the LGBT+ community and refused to intervene; arguing it was a matter devolved to the Stormont parliament and not something which Westminster could act on.
However, in recent years, social attitudes have changed immensely. In post-conflict Northern Ireland, the influence of the Protestant and Catholic churches, entrenched by the Troubles, finally waned. The Republic’s May 2015 legalisation of same-sex marriage had considerable cultural impact in Northern Ireland; increasingly, it began to feel like the region was falling behind on an issue increasingly considered a human right.
Finally, in November 2015, a majority of politicians at Stormont voted to legalise equal marriage. However, outrage ensued when it was blocked by the DUP which, while no longer led by Paisley, remained vehemently opposed to what it called “the redefinition of marriage”.
Debate rumbled on but was largely confined to discussions within Northern Ireland and the difference in LGBT+ rights appeared to be little known in other parts of the UK. However, that suddenly changed in 2017 when a snap election saw the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority and enter a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP. For the first time, a party little known outside of Northern Ireland was thrust into the national spotlight. Many people expressed their horror and disbelief that the party held such homophobic views, and were continuing to block equal marriage in Northern Ireland. While the UK government once again insisted it was for Stormont to decide, public opinion seemed to have turned against the DUP’s stance for good.
This was compounded during Brexit debates, when the DUP’s main argument about the negotiations was that Northern Ireland had to be subject to the same treatment as the rest of the UK in EU withdrawal – or else would feel less British. This was clearly incompatible with their stance on subjecting Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ to different laws. The DUP were never able to convincingly explain this paradox within their thinking.
Furthermore, the collapse of Northern Ireland’s government in 2017 presented another opportunity for progress towards equal marriage. While it initially collapsed following a public finances scandal, a three-year deadlock ensued in which both the DUP and Sinn Fein could not agree to go back into government. This put pressure on Westminster to act, as MPs could no longer argue that Stormont was in a position to decide, when it had not sat for several years.
The matter came to a head in July 2019, when MPs finally voted to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Crucially, they inserted a clause stating that if politicians returned to Stormont by 21st October, they could block the law. Yet if the government had not returned by one minute past midnight on 22nd October, the first marriages would be possible by February 2020.
The DUP was furious. On 21st October, party leader Arlene Foster led a delegation of her party colleagues who trooped into Stormont’s chamber in protest, describing it as a “shameful day” for Northern Ireland. However, their protest was merely symbolic.
As the clock struck midnight that night, celebrations erupted across Northern Ireland – from drag queens replete with confetti cannons to private embraces between couples who’d been engaged for years. After such a long wait, many were fearful that their hopes could still be dashed, and refused to be overly optimistic.
Yet the moment many feared would never come is finally here: Northern Ireland’s first gay marriage. Today is a day of joy not just for Sharni and Robyn, but for generations of LGBT+ people who have fought tirelessly for the simple right to marry the person they love.