The departing leader of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist Party has finally backed equal marriage for the first time, two weeks after quitting his job.
The ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) previously used a procedure known as a ‘petition of concern’ to block same-sex marriage – but after this month’s elections, no longer has enough assembly seats to do so.
Conservative unionists may still be able to continue to block equality if MLAs from the Ulster Unionist Party lend their support to a petition of concern, but today departing UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has come out in favour of same-sex marriage.
Mr Nesbitt, who is set to be replaced as party leader next month, finally spoke out on the issue on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.
The leader had previously opposed equality but suggested he was “evolving” on the issue. Speaking to Stephan Nolan, he confirmed he had “finished the journey”.
Asked if he personally believes gay people should be allowed to marry he said: “Yes they should, but the churches must also have protections.
“One of the reasons I took a position of not supporting the change in the law was sitting in my own church on a Sunday and thinking, how would this congregation feel if there had been a gay marriage here on Saturday afternoon?’
“I reckoned a lot of people wouldn’t have been that comfortable, but the legislation will put in protections so no minister will have to conduct a same-sex marriage if it’s against his conscience and no church will have to allow it in their church if they’re against it.
“If those protections are in, you know what? If two people love each other and that’s what they want.”
He added that he would not have backed equality in the past “because I was on a journey…. but that journey is now complete.”
Asked if he was backing equality now because he has less to lose, he said: “If that’s how [people] feel, it’s how they feel. I was on a journey.”
Of his rationale he explained: “If it was your son, your daughter, your niece, your nephew? Would you stop loving them because they were gay? Or would you continue to love them and want the best for them?”
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However, he added that the UUP will continue to consider same-sex marriage a “matter of conscience”, saying that it’s up to MLAs to “decide for themselves”.
The DUP have just 28 seats in the Northern Irish Assembly – two short of the 30 needed to pass a petition of concern by themselves.
UUP MLA Roy Beggs said he would join a veto effort.
He said: “I am against gay marriage and that is still the case. Nobody is sure what rules may apply for a petition of concern or if there will even be an Assembly, nobody knows. Where do we go from here?
“I wouldn’t be honouring the people who voted for me if I voted any differently because I have spoken openly in the past about my views on the matter.”
TUV MLA Jim Allister also previously vowed to aid any bid to block equal marriage, saying: “TUV is a party committed to traditional family values and will continue to resist attempts by the homosexual lobby to introduce the oxymoron which is same sex marriage to Northern Ireland.”
With the support of Beggs and Allister, the DUP would have the 30 signatures needed to veto equal marriage.
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