Gay Marriage in Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland Assembly Votes to Legalise Same Sex Marriage” proclaimed the headline in The Guardian. Few headlines have promised so much more than the subsequent story delivers. For in spite of the one-vote majority in favour of a change in the law in Northern Ireland in the Assembly on Monday, the DUP’s invocation of a “petition of concern” (POC) on the issue meant that it was able to veto the introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. As Gerry Lynch put it, ‘it still felt like a punch in the plexus to finally secure a democratic majority through years of hard work only for it to be vetoed undemocratically’. With rich irony the Northern Ireland Act provisions designed to protect minority groups against predatory applications of majority power have been turned into a means of stymieing reform aimed at delivering marriage equality.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. With the spectre of the Northern Ireland Parliament’s permanent Unionist majority dominating the drafting of the arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, POCs were intended to maintain consociationalism within Stormont by requiring a super-majority and cross-community support where Northern Ireland’s Unionist or Nationalist parties considered that a measure threatened the interests of their community. The ability of POCs to block any legislative change has instead seen them increasingly applied as a strong-arm tactic to prevent changes to the law with the aim of preserving the status quo or extracting concessions in return for a POC being lifted. DUP measures, indeed, appear to be block signed by party MLAs with the issue to which they are to be applied being added to the form at a later stage. Public confidence in the Stormont Assembly’s ability to address the needs of society in Northern Ireland has plummeted.

Whilst the DUP’s stance on gay marriage might be out of step with opinion polling across Northern Ireland, it remains popular with its own core supporters and so the political incentive to wield a POC (ahead of next year’s Assembly elections) remains strong. But if the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland remain so dysfunctional, will the courts intervene to permit gay marriage? Legal challenges to the limitations are already underway in the Northern Ireland High Court. The UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, whilst describing opposition to gay marriage as being on the “wrong side of history” (whilst maintaining his own vote against change), has told his party conference that he expects the new law to be forced upon law makers through the courts.

Forcing law reform through judicial decision could unblock this particular impasse. The need to react to an adverse court decision might help the Unionist parties to soothe the evangelical elements amongst their support base, being “saleable” as a long-resisted reform that was forced upon the parties. All the better if the judgment is not issued until after the Assembly elections. And for people who want to get married, a win is a win, and they are not likely to sniff at the courts forcing the pace of change.

So should the courts intervene? Under section 6 of the Northern Ireland Act the legislation of the Northern Ireland Assembly is not valid law if it is outside the legislative competence of the Assembly (a concept which includes making a law which breaches ECHR rights). But as the Northern Ireland Assembly has not made a law banning Gay Marriage, just failed to enact one allowing it, the general provisions of the Human Rights Act (and its incorporation of the ECHR into UK Law) will apply.

Whilst the ECHR includes a right to marry (Article 12) the Strasbourg Court has to date refused to rule that it is discriminatory for states not to apply this right to homosexual couples. In July, in its latest judgment on the issue, Oliari v Italy, the Court maintained that as only 11 of the 47 states signatory to the Convention had to date accepted same-sex marriage, there was no European consensus in favour of reading such a right into the terms of the ECHR. Many Unionist politicians picked up on this point in Monday’s debate:

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that same-sex marriage is not a human right, so this is not a rights issue. (Gordon Lyons, DUP)

There is no human right recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights or the European Court of Human Rights to same-sex marriage. It therefore cannot be and is not a rights issue, nor is it an issue of equality. Rather, there is a worked-up, phoney demand for rights where none does or should exist. There is no equality issue here. (Jim Allister, TUV)

These same politicians will eagerly and angrily decry any effort by the Northern Ireland courts to change the law on human rights grounds. But Article 12 is not the only applicable ECHR right. The Court has established that the relationship of a cohabitating same-sex couple living in a stable partnership falls within Article 8 ECHR’s protection of “family life” (Schalk and Kopf v Austria), this might provide a basis for arguing that, as same-sex marriages concluded in other parts of the UK are treated as Civil Partnerships within the Northern Ireland jurisdiction, the awkward legal transformation of a marriage into a civil partnership as soon as someone steps off a ferry or plane amounts to discrimination.

Moreover, the definition of marriage in Northern Ireland law – “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” – rests on a nineteenth century judicial decision, Hyde v Hyde (backed up by secondary legislation – the Matrimonial Causes NI Order 1978). By altering this definition the courts cannot be accused of tossing aside legislation enacted by elected lawmakers, a fact which might embolden any judge concerned about the political backlash resultant from such a decision. They also have a much freer hand in terms of their powers under the Human Rights Act than they would have had if the definition of marriage was contained in primary legislation, if they can be persuaded to move ahead of Strasbourg on the issue of Article 12.

This room for manoeuvre makes the gay marriage cases crucial tests for the role of the courts in Northern Ireland’s system of government. On a range of issues from gay marriage, to the ban on gay blood donations to the strict limitations on abortion, judges in Northern Ireland are increasingly being confronted with cases which highlight the blockages in the Assembly’s law-making process. Some might decide that the time has come to chivvy the Assembly along.





Ashers Bakery Loses "Gay Cake" Discrimination Case

gay_cake_reuters-640x480In the spring of 2014 efforts to enact same-sex marriage legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly suffered another setback. Undeterred, QueerSpace, a support group for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, celebrated its 16th anniversary with an event pushing for reform of the law. Gareth Lee, a volunteer at QueerSpace, ordered a cake for the party bearing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” from Ashers Bakery. When his order was subsequently rejected and his money returned on the basis that the message offended against the religious beliefs of the bakery owners, the McArthur family, these seemingly innocuous facts exploded into the “Gay Cake” case which has gripped public debate in Northern Ireland for the last year. Continue reading

Devolution and the Future of the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998

HRAThe Conservative Party’s concept of a “British Bill of Rights” has long rankled in Northern Ireland. Seemingly in the interests of alliteration such fundamental proposals were titled in a way that carried with it thinly veiled disregard for sensibilities in what is supposedly a constituent part of the UK. Not a UK Bill of Rights, but one for Britain. British rights, not Irish rights. Beyond putting noses out of joint, it also spoke to a lack of consideration of the legal framework put in place by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. As the Coalition Government’s Bill of Rights Commission had warned (p.15):

[R]espondents, in particular in Northern Ireland …  were also concerned that any attempt to introduce a UK Bill of Rights at this time could have adverse constitutional and political consequences for the UK, particularly if it were undertaken to the exclusion of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland

Nonetheless, with last week’s General Election victory the Conservative Party stands on the brink of being able to fulfil its manifesto promise:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.

The latest reports suggest a draft Bill is near ready for release. The appointment of Michael Gove as Minister for Justice suggests that David Cameron is positioning a minister who certainly holds himself out as a public intellectual to lead the debate over this reform. But any thought that Gove’s appointment marks a softening of the Tory position on the Human Rights Act seems wide of the mark. The most prominent appointment in Gove’s ministerial team is Dominic Raab, a vocal opponent of the HRA and a minister intended to assure the right-wing of the Conservative Party that there will be no back sliding on this issue. And indeed, how could there be? If Cameron is to hold the Tory party together in support of his “renegotiation” of the UK’s EU membership, even if this results in insubstantial concessions over the UK’s position, and subsequent referendum, this faction will have to have blood, and quick.

So, in this context, are the implications of repeal for devolution (particularly in Northern Ireland) a genuine stumbling block or wishful thinking? Will a British Bill of Rights have to alter the Good Friday Agreement? Much will depend on the extent of the Tories’ intentions. Gove’s team could unveil plans which just involved the replacement of the Human Rights Act in England. This would negate any need to negotiate with hostile devolved administrations in Scotland or Wales or tamper with the wiring of the Good Friday Agreement. This would certainly save political capital, allowing the Conservatives to portray themselves as responsive to the will of devolved legislatures and to concentrate on getting the legislation into place as swiftly as possible (as it would constitute the fulfilment of a manifesto pledge the Salisbury Convention would also prevent opponents of the proposals from fighting a delaying action through the House of Lords). Doing so might well not satisfy the Tory Party’s right wing, as the Human Rights Act would continue to operate in three of the UK’s constituent countries, but in terms of addressing the demands of Conservative voters in England (the vast majority of Conservative voters) David Cameron could argue that he had fulfilled his pledge to scrap the Bill.

But a new measure which applies only in England doesn’t make for much of a British Bill of Rights. So assuming a proposal is introduced to Westminster with the intention that it should apply throughout the UK, what might happen next? The first difficulty that the UK Government would encounter is that human rights are a devolved competence. The Welsh Assembly Government, for example, has gone some way towards incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Welsh law, imposing a duty upon Welsh ministers to have due regard to the Convention in their decision-making. This means that the Sewel Convention is triggered, by which the devolved legislatures must consent to Westminster legislation that impacts upon their competences (explained here). Furthermore (as Aileen McHarg explains here) the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales would be able to re-enact the Human Rights Act’s terms, and would likely do so to thumb their noses at Westminster. In any event, the ECHR would still be able to apply directly to cover legislation and decisions by Scottish and Welsh ministers because of the terms of the devolution legislation.

Which brings us to Northern Ireland, which, as ever, is even more complicated. Under the Good Friday Agreement the UK Government agreed to the ‘complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights’. The Human Rights Act itself is immune from alteration by the Assembly (s.7(1)(b) Northern Ireland Act 1998). As Aoife O’Donoghue and Ben Warwick argue in a timely article in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly (see also here), if the Act was repealed then just as with the other devolved legislatures, ‘Northern Ireland could introduce an order that implements the ECHR for Northern Ireland alone’. The problem is that with the main Assembly parties at loggerheads on rights and equality issues (particularly around the Ashers Bakery case) and with the Unionist parties always ambivalent towards human rights, no such legislation would be forthcoming. Repealing the HRA as it applies to Northern Ireland would therefore undermine a key element of the Agreement. Oddly enough the Human Rights Act was merely intended to fulfil the role of placeholder legislation whilst a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights was drafted, but the inability of the Northern Ireland political parties to reach an agreement over such legislation now means that the Human Rights Act will likely soldier on in this corner of the UK at least.

The smart money would therefore appear to be on some form of compromise by which the Human Rights Act is repealed insofar as England is concerned, but remains in place in the remainder of the UK. Martin Howe QC, a key behind-the-scenes figure involved in drafting the Conservatives’ proposals is quoted in yesterday’s Guardian as saying that ‘you could have significantly different standards of human rights across the UK’. The problems with attempting to impose a British Bill of Rights across the UK, although not insurmountable, would turn a relatively straightforward “win” for the Tories into a protracted fight. Any effort by the Conservatives to go further, and withdraw from the European Convention altogether, would likely descend into a pitched constitutional battle between the UK’s legislatures.

Après Charlie: The Progress of the UK's new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill

Charlie Hebdo Attack: Picture Credit - The TelegraphThe Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill currently being hustled through Parliament with unseemly haste was announced in a blaze of rhetoric. Theresa May told a rapt 2014 Conservative Party Conference that she wanted to see “new banning orders for extremist groups”. There was talk of re-establishing the Broadcasting Ban (which did so much in the 1980s and early 1990s to help out jobbing actors who could do a passable Gerry Adams impression – Stephen Rea included). “Foreign Fighters” would be prevented from returning to the United Kingdom. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond even floated the idea of levelling treason charges against those taking part in Islamic State activities overseas, even though various modern terrorism offences of universal jurisdiction exist. Continue reading

Sinn Féin, Constitutional Politics and the Rule of Law

Gerry Adams (Picture Credit: The Guardian)Six months ago, Malachi O’Doherty claimed that with his arrest over the murder of Jean McConville, Gerry Adams’ political career was as good as over; “Adams’s southern political ambitions are now dead, whatever happens next”. Just a month later, following European and Local elections that saw Sinn Féin maintain their position in Northern Ireland and surge in the Republic of Ireland, the talk turned, in Colm Keena’s words, to whether Sinn Féin “will hold the position of Dublin Lord Mayor in Easter 2016”. Maíria Cahill’s claims of her rape at the hands of a Provisional IRA member and her subsequent treatment at the hands of the republican movement have in recent weeks returned the spotlight to Sinn Féin. And that is before we even mention the “On-The-Runs” crisis which threatened to collapse the Northern Ireland in the spring. And yet, Sinn Féin seems to have been able to shake off each successive crisis  and continues to see its popularity surge according to recent polls. Continue reading

Presumption of Guilt: Islamic State and UK Criminal Law

Islamic State Fighters (Picture Credit: The Guardian)Today the UK terrorism threat level has once again been raised to severe, as a result of ‘developments in Syria and Iraq where terrorist groups are planning attacks against the west’. Within hours of the increased threat being announced, David Cameron was on hand (in Downing Street, not in Cornwall) to  ominously declare a “greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before”.    Continue reading

Rule of Law v National Security: The Big Fight Live

Hanging Boxing GlovesIn his understated way, Lord Justice Gross announced the latest round of the prize-fight that has defined so much of the debate on the role of the legal system in a liberal democracy since the 9/11 attacks (at [4]): “From time to time, tensions between the principle of open justice and the needs of national security will be inevitable.” This morning’s decision in Guardian Media v AB CD once again saw national security, long-running champion interest in the UK legal systems, take to the ring being heralded (at [4]) as “a national interest of the first importance”. Continue reading

What the Dogs in the Street Know: On the Runs and Hanging Peter Hain Out to Dry

Peter Hain“In Northern Ireland”, Peter Hain opined in his autobiography Outside In (pictured left), there is “always a crisis around the corner” (p.323). There is more of a feel of truth than truism to the statement, especially as the on-the-runs scandal dominated recent headlines (before being eclipsed by developments in the Crimea). I’d be surprised if a good few Irish viewers watching the BBC 2 drama miniseries 37 Days, on the slide towards the First World War, haven’t felt there is something queasily apposite in the scenes where the UK Cabinet’s attention is wrenched away from the “muddy by-ways of Fermanagh and Tyrone” and towards a developing European Crisis. Continue reading

Pushing Their Luck? UK Counter-Terrorism Powers and David Miranda

David Miranda (Picture Credit: The Guardian)Stop and Search certainly was the hot human rights news story of last summer within the UK. Schedule 7 powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 allow for extended powers to stop and search, and even detain for up to nine hours individuals in the context of ports and airports, for the purpose of assessing whether they are linked to terrorism. That police powers should be extensive in this context might be thought relatively uncontroversial. After all, the potential to trap hostages in such a confined space was attractive to terrorist groups long before the 9/11 attacks displayed the potential of using civilian airliners as weapons. Continue reading

Tom Watson’s Triumph? UK Communications Interception, Drone Strikes and the European Convention on Human Rights

Tom Watson MP (Picture Credit: The Telegraph)Last week Tom Watson MP (pictured left), chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones (APPG), launched a new front in the work of the Group (founded back in 2012). As a parliamentarian with an uncanny ability to spot human rights issues likely to make the headlines and which will hold extended media attention, the subject of drones (both in terms of the UK’s operation of them and its cooperation with the US) was always likely to grab Watson’s attention. But the reason Watson is so high-profile in his myriad pursuits, from trying to bounce Tony Blair into resigning, to vanquishing Rupert Murdock to needling the Government on its drone policy, is his grasp of the role of a backbench MP. Continue reading