Why Northern Ireland is last in U.K. to hold a same-sex wedding

Northern Ireland is the last of the United Kingdom to achieve marriage equality, caught between demands of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. But LGBTQ activists are still fighting for the right to convert civil partnerships to marriage. 

Patrick Corrigan/Amnesty International
Robyn Peoples (left) and Sharni Edwards pose on Feb. 5, 2020, in front of a mural of Lyra McKee, a lesbian journalist whose death spurred calls for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. The couple will have the first same-sex wedding in the country on Feb. 11, 2020.

A lesbian couple is set to hold Northern Ireland's first same-sex wedding next week as the conservative province challenges deep political and religious divisions to catch up with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The couple voiced excitement at making history but said equality remained out of reach so long as same-sex couples could not convert civil partnerships to marriage.

"The feeling is indescribable," said Sharni Edwards, a Pizza Express manager from England. 

"We're very humbled, especially to be the first from our community, knowing how hard thousands and thousands of people fought for this," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

It will be "absolutely amazing, just to be able to share our love," said Robyn Peoples, a nursing home carer from Belfast. 

Ms. Edwards and Ms. Peoples will marry in the coastal town of Carrickfergus on Feb. 11, their sixth anniversary as a couple. 

"We just wanted to go ahead and celebrate our love and not be held back any more," said Ms. Edwards.

"It's kind of fate that this has happened," she said.

The British parliament voted in July to force Northern Ireland, which had been the only part of the U.K. without same-sex marriage since 2013, to amend its laws while the region ran without its devolved government.

The province is governed separately on many issues, a legacy of sectarian conflict.

However, in recent years, LGBTQ rights have been increasingly supported by the nationalist Sinn Fein party, traditionally backed by Catholics. 

Sinn Fein wants Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

But same-sex marriage was opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which wants Northern Ireland to stay in the U.K. and whose support base is largely Protestant.

The DUP had repeatedly blocked gay marriage when it was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, using a veto intended to protect minority rights.

The British government is running a consultation until Feb. 23 on same-sex religious marriages and how couples can convert civil partnerships into marriages in Northern Ireland. 

"Regulations on these issues will follow in due course, after we have analyzed the responses to this consultation," a Northern Ireland Office spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Same-sex couples have been able to get civil partnerships, offering most of the same legal protections as marriage, since 2005. They were extended to straight couples at the end of 2019.

Cara McCann and Amanda McGurk who both work for HERe NI, a charity that supports lesbian and bisexual women, said they were unhappy at having to wait to marry, after sealing their civil partnership last Valentine's Day.

"It's quite ironic. If we would have waited a year, we probably would have been one of the first to get a same-sex marriage," said Ms. McCann, HERe NI's director.

"I'm urging the British government to get this done ASAP so that this inequality doesn't continue."

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland director, said he expected same-sex religious marriages to be available for religious groups that opt in by April and civil partnerships to be convertible to marriage later.

This story was reported by the Reuters Thomson Foundation.

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