The Northern Ireland Finance Minister has asked officials to write a draft bill to legalise gay marriage.
Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said that he wanted the region’s Assembly to produce legislation on this issue soon.
The Northern Ireland Assembly deals with issues such as education, the economy and infrastructure but defers to Westminster on matters like defence and international relations. Its 108 members are referred to as MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly).
Mr Ó Muilleoir admitted there was still “a little way to go” before such a bill would have enough support from MLAs to pass but still felt that gay marriage could be legalised during the current assembly term. Given the choice, MLAs would much rather vote on the issue than “be forced to legislate [following] an adverse judgment” in the courts he claimed.
As gay marriage legalisation covers matters that fall outside his remit, Mr Ó Muilleoir urged his staff to “do the groundwork now” and initiate conversations with other relevant departments. The goal is for the government to be “able to move swiftly towards introduction” if the proposed bill is adopted.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which does not allow same sex marriage. Many prominent people and organisations have called for this to change including human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Amnesty International.
Late last year, the Assembly voted in favour of a gay marriage bill but it still did not pass. The proposed legislation was blocked by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who issued a ‘petition of concern’. This is a mechanism which allows nationalist or unionist parties to veto legislation if they believe it will not be supported by their respective religious communities. Gay rights group the Rainbow Project claimed the DUP had “abused” this power and the group’s director John O’Doherty said the party was “ignoring the will of the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland”.