Stormont gay marriage debate position 'unacceptable'

NI Equality Commission urges action on same-sex marriage

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Northern Ireland's Equality Commission has said it supports same-sex marriages being introduced and that Stormont needs to take action.

The Democratic Unionist Party has twice tabled petitions of concern to effectively block votes about the subject at the NI Assembly, however they were not needed.

The party has indicated it will veto future bids to introduce legislation.

However, the Equality Commission has for the first time entered the debate.

The commission, which is a public body that works to end discrimination, told the BBC that it supports a change to the law.

"We as a commission support same-sex marriage. It is a fundamental equality matter," Dr Michael Wardlow, the chief commissioner for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, said.

"Leadership needs to be shown - people from the gay and lesbian community are feeling let down by this."

Proposals to alter the law surrounding marriage has caused controversy in many places, but Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where changes are not currently being considered.

In England and Wales the first same-sex marriages are expected to be held next summer, while the Scottish government is in the advance stages of introducing legislation.

Disputes

The Democratic Unionist Party has been involved in several recent disputes with the gay community.

Sinn Féin has accused the party of preventing the publication of Stormont's sexual orientation strategy, which was due to be made public last December.

The DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots also fought legal cases to try to prevent gay and unmarried couples from adopting and to stop gay men from donating blood in any circumstances.

In a recent interview Mr Poots was asked if personal beliefs ever influenced decisions in government.

"I think people should be careful how they frame their words and using words like prejudice," the health minister said.

"Sometimes words like that could be libellous and slanderous."

Equality legislation

Equality legislation does prevent discrimination in Northern Ireland on the grounds of sexual orientation.

However, campaigners say they have dealt with incidents of gay and lesbian couples being thrown off public transport or out of shops and restaurants because they show affection in public.

"These things are happening, despite the fact that we have all these laws," Orlaith Hendron of Here NI, a support group for lesbian and bisexual women, said.

"So it's not enough to have legislation - we need the support of our own government."

Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s.

Ian Paisley, the then leader of the DUP, led the 'Save Ulster From Sodomy' campaign to try to prevent decriminalisation.

There have been some signs of some change within the party. Last year it sent a representative for the first time to a Belfast gay pride event.

However, earlier this month DUP assembly member Thomas Buchanan was reported to have told a group of school children that homosexuality was "an abomination". Mr Buchanan said his words were "taken out of context".

"This has a huge impact," John O'Doherty, the director of the Rainbow Project, said.

"We see the increased risk of suicide and self-harm.

"That is not because our community is predisposed to mental health issues, it is because of the everyday impact of homophobia."

Dealing with issues

The Equality Commission is concerned that after years when Northern Ireland led the way on the issue of rights, it is slipping behind other parts of the UK.

It said that is particularly true when it comes to legislation tackling discrimination on the grounds of disability or sexual orientation.

"There is the opportunity for our executive to show leadership by publishing a sexual orientation strategy," Michael Wardlow said.

"That is the basis on which we can proceed to deal with some of these issues, like the ban on donating blood, same-sex adoption, and same-sex marriage.

"We believe that is a right for our gay and lesbian community. It is something which equality responsibilities demand."

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