Last week, Karen Bradley was asked a written question on legislation for equal marriage in Northern Ireland. The questioner – Conor McGinn, Labour MP for St Helens North, but orginally a native of Co. Armagh having grown up in Bessbrook. The answer – a vote could happen in Westminster, with Tory MPs being given a free vote on the matter.
This short question and answer of less than a hundred words certainly sparked a great deal of interest. LGBTQ+ campaigners got excited – the possibility of same sex marriage, only a week after hopes seemed lost in the latest crash of talks. But what are the possibilities of such legislation being passed from Westminster?
The story developed further on Friday 23rd with news that McGinn would be introducing a private members’ bill on the topic in the form of a ten minute rule bill. This was in the absence of any indicator that the Tory party would introduce such legislation, involving forcing something on the people of Northern Ireland – after all, Karen Bradley keeps saying devolution is best for NI. What’s more, DUP influence in Number 10, makes such a scenario even more unlikely. Therefore, we wait for the 28th March for Conor McGinn’s opportunity to try and make a big influence from his sedimentary Merseyside constituency.
A Private Member’s Bill (PMB) is where an MP or Lord, from outside of the Government, introduces a bill with the hope of changing the law on a certain issue. Since the 1997 Labour government entered power, only around 5% of PMBs ever become part of law as the passage through to Royal Assent is a minefield of limited debating time and ballots.
McGinn’s choice of a ten minute rule bill will involve a ten minute speech, which another member may oppose. There is then a series of votes and often insufficient time for debate, creating a graveyard for many ten minute rule bills with less than 1% of those introduced ever becoming law since 1997.
So, the statistics on PMBs in the past aren’t exactly favourable. Even if a same sex marriage PMB managed to negotiate the stony pathway to a vote in the Commons, what would be its prospects in relation to the current Parliamentary arithmetic? As Karen Bradley said, her party’s policy is to give free votes on matters of conscience such as same sex marriage. One memorable free vote in the past was on same sex marriage in England and Wales in 2013 – a oft-cited success of David Cameron with the bill being passed with a 225 majority.
However, such a vote on forcing same sex marriage on NI could look very different. Yes, there was a majority who supported same sex marriage for England and Wales in the Commons but would this cohort wilfully subject same sex marriage on Northern Ireland – a country with very different cultural values? A country where there is still considerable support for the DUP, a party vehemently against gay marriage?
What’s more, imagine the pressure that the DUP would force on the Tories. We all saw the pressure the DUP exerted at the EU summit before Christmas, when the Tories were talking about Northern Ireland and regulatory alignment. When blocking same sex marriage has been a key policy marker on the DUP’s books, it’s difficult to imagine them sitting by the wayside while the Tories pass such a contentious bill to the DUP and its voters.
However, there is certainly precedent of British MPs intervening on other similarly contentious issues. Only last June, after Theresa May’s disastrous election, Labour MP Stella Creasy proposed an amendment to fund abortions for Northern Irish women. Rather than face a humiliating Tory revolt, ministers folded to allow said funding to be provided. Does this previous case show how the DUP may not actually have that much influence behind the doors of Downing Street?
We know how the DUP would react to any forcing of same sex marriage on Northern Ireland, but what about Sinn Fein – a party who are highly against a Westminster powerhouse. While the party would surely welcome same sex marriage in Northern Ireland, such influence from Westminster may be difficult to counter. Such a bill would be a clear signal of the devolution project collapsing, with direct rule slowing creeping in.
For Sinn Fein, direct rule from Westminster is a disaster. Ministers controlling Northern Ireland while the DUP snag on the backs of the government. Their clear abstentionist policy would mean they would have hardly any influence on Northern Ireland without members in either Stormont or Westminster – the only Sinn Fein members in any office for Northern Ireland would be their 103 lowly councillors and a solitary MEP in the form of Martina Anderson, whose days are understandably numbered with Brexit on the horizon.
Sinn Fein's influence is nowhere to be seen in Northern Ireland. Yes, there is a slight possibly of Sinn Fein’s urge for equal marriage to become enacted but only under the hopeful actions of a backbencher in an institution they despise.
Peter is a 20 year-old English student at Queen's University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. He has aspirations of becoming a journalist upon graduation in 2019.