Within the space of about 30 seconds on Monday afternoon I ran through the gamut of human emotions. It began with a sense of confusion that flowed swiftly into elation as I read the headline: “Northern Ireland assembly votes to legalise same-sex marriage”. As I read the headline again I felt a hoarse, guttural shout escape from my mouth, pure unadulterated joy rendered into gibberish, something between “ YES” and “THANK FUCK”. My co-worker looked around in horror, evidently terrified at the strange, bestial transition taking place before her eyes, and asked me what was wrong.
And something was wrong. I knew this shouldn’t have happened, I knew that the DUP had already said they wouldn’t let it pass, that so soon after the defeat last Spring not enough had changed to make it happen. It was with this growing sense of unease that I read the byline: “Historic vote will not trigger change in law, however, as Democratic Unionists use parliamentary veto to block motion”. Obviously it hadn’t happened, I thought, as I slumped at my desk, cursing the Grauniad subeditors and their choice of headline. Plus ça change.
After the reality settled in, I was mostly just bored with the whole thing. I was bored of the same old inevitable vote going the same old way. I was bored of the same old apoplectic, impotent rage I feel whenever I read the self-serving justifications given by “our” politicians for voting against it or for abstaining. From the sounds of it, even the DUP are starting to get bored of currying favour with mid-Ulster given that they can’t even be bothered to respond properly to their constituents’ inquiries about their stance on the issue any more, as a friend of mine found when they replied to her query with, literally, see what we said the last time.
But that feeling passed too. Now I’ve got a creeping sense of optimism. It was 53 Ayes to 52 Noes, and one vote isn’t really much cause for celebration. However, looking at the breakdown of the vote, things do seem a bit better. For a start, Alliance seem to be getting their act together and making a good move away from abstaining as many of them did in the last motion, towards actually enforcing their election pledges (despite Kieran McCarthy’s going over to the no camp). I was also particularly refreshed to see Andy Allen on the Aye side, the only MLA from either the UUP or the DUP to do so. It’s certainly interesting that the only member of a major unionist party to vote in favour of same sex marriage is young man, committed to community and charity work, who has only been an MLA for 2 months.
Mostly, though, I think I’m optimistic because it feels like we’ve reached a Critical Juncture. To paraphrase someone much smarter than me, Kieran McEvoy; for every debate, for every issue, every society and group of people, there come along certain critical junctures. How people respond to those critical junctures can come to dictate not just how they will be viewed in posterity but also gives them the chance to affect the course of events to come for the better sooner than may otherwise be the case.
For me, that’s where it feels that we’re at today, when for the first time in Northern Ireland a majority of our political representatives have voted in favour of same sex marriage. The momentum has shifted, indeed has been shifting for a long time, but it’s finally started to shift in Stormont. Anything short of accepting same sex marriage in Northern Ireland is anachronistic, bizarre, and perverse. The Petition of Concern will doubtless rear its ugly head again but each time it does so it becomes less and less viable, less and less acceptable with the electorate.
How our politicians respond to this now, and whether or not they start give effect to the reality that the majority of people in Northern Ireland support gay marriage, will define our politicians and our politics for decades to come. If we can keep the pressure up, if we can keep marching, keep writing to our MLAs, keep asking questions, and keep pushing, we can maybe help the politicians see what’s so clear to the rest of us.