The DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr has signalled that he would “accept the law of the land” if the UK Parliament opts to extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland, in a dramatic shift of stance.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without same-sex marriage, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May has faced calls to act on the issue in the UK Parliament due to the ongoing suspension of the region’s devolved power-sharing Assembly.
LGBT campaigners in the region say it is up to the Prime Minister to deliver equal rights in the absence of the devolved government, which broke down more than a year ago and shows little signs of reforming.
The primary opposition to equal marriage in the region comes from the Democratic Unionist Party, but the party has recently begun to shift its approach to LGBT rights.
One of the party’s leading MPs, Ian Paisley Jr, today suggested he would “have to accept” an intervention on the issue in the UK Parliament, as a backbench Labour Party bill on the issue steadily gathers supporters.
Appearing on Channel 5’s Wright Stuff, Paisley Jr said: “The key issue here is, should Northern Ireland follow suit [on equal marriage]?
“I say very strongly – and it’s not about my personal opinions, it’s about the law of the land – if there is a Northern Ireland assembly in place, with powers devolved to it, that assembly should be up and running and it should make the laws and the legislation for the country.
“That’s respecting devolution, as we do in Scotland and Wales.
“If [the assembly] is broken, as it is at the present time, we either put all our efforts into fixing the Assembly and letting it function and take the decision, or else we take everything back to Westminster and we legislate for it… and I would have to accept the law of the land at that point.”
However he suggested that such a plan may have “unintended consequences” for the Conservative government.
He said: “The fact of the matter is, the government knows that if they intervene in Northern Ireland on one single issue, which for many people is a priority but for many people is not, the unintended consequences of that is, I also have issues I want them to intervene on and change.
“Other parties will have other issues, and it will become a catastrophe. It’s far better that we put our efforts into getting the assembly up and running again and we address these issues then.”
Paisley Jr also appeared to suggest that the DUP would not block a settlement on equal marriage that included a public vote on the issue.
He said: “We’ve made it clear in our manifesto that we would vote against changing the marriage law [in the Assembly].
“There’s another way of addressing this, and I’ve suggested it, we could have a referendum in Northern Ireland, and if Northern Ireland decide to have a referendum on this, we would then implement the will of the people.
“There’s various ways we can address all sorts of social and political issues.”
A referendum on equal marriage was held in the Republic of Ireland in 2015 as required by the country’s Constitution, with the vote passing by a landslide.
Polling suggests there is also overwhelming support for equality in Northern Ireland, but LGBT campaigners have been wary about any deal needlessly putting equal rights up for a public vote, given there is no requirement to do so in Northern Ireland.
Paisley Jr was less forthcoming on the petition of concern mechanism, a peace process power that the DUP employed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2015 to override a democratic vote in favour of equal marriage.
He said: “The petition of concern in the Northern Ireland Assembly was given to the parties by Tony Blair. In his wisdom he gave a veto to parties to use as they will. All parties have used that veto on numerous occasions for various pet projects and issues.”
However he did not confirm whether the DUP would continue to employ the petitions of concern against equal marriage in a future assembly.
Paisley Jr, the son of late ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ founder Ian Paisley, has previously made his extreme personal opposition to LGBT rights clear.
In 2007, Paisley Jr spoke of his “hatred” of homosexuality, saying: “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and – without caring about it – harm society.”
But the MP appeared to distance himself from those public comments this week.
He told the Wright Stuff: “My personal views will be crass to some people and supported by others. But I’m a lawmaker, and I have to put in place laws that reflect the general view of the people.
“I take a very strong stance on this personally… it falls into my moral values my moral code. But I’m no longer going to express views that might hurt or offend people.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster signalled the beginning of the party’s evolution on the issue last month when she spoke at the PinkNews Belfast reception in Stormont – the first time a DUP leader has addressed an LGBT event.
In her speech at the event Foster spoke of her wish to extend an olive branch to the LGBT community, while maintaining the party’s traditional beliefs.
Several DUP officials also subsequently attended the PinkNews London reception at Speaker’s House in Parliament.