The partner of murdered Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee has challenged Theresa May’s government to ignore the objections of the Democratic Unionist party and impose marriage equality on the region.
At a mass rally in central Belfast on Sunday, Sara Canning said the prime minister should introduce legislation at Westminster to allow LGBTQ couples to get married in Northern Ireland, in order to be true to McKee’s memory.
Canning told several thousand demonstrators at Belfast City Hall on Saturday that equal marriage was “not an Orange and Green issue” and that its implementation in the region should not be seen as a victory for one community over another.
In a direct message to May’s government, including the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, Canning said: ‘We pay our taxes. We are covered by the same laws… why should we not be afforded the same rights in marriage?”
The government has resisted calls from gay rights campaigners and Tory and Labour MPs to impose marriage equality legislation in Northern Ireland.
The region is the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage remains illegal. The DUP’s 10 MPs have kept the Tories in power since the 2017 general election. In the absence of devolution in Belfast, central government does have the power to introduce a marriage equality law.
The Love Equality march began on Saturday lunchtime at a poignant spot in Writer’s Square facing St Anne’s Cathedral, the Belfast Anglican church where McKee’s funeral took place after she was shot dead on 18 April by a New IRA gunman in Derry.
Canning pointed out that both May and Bradley had attended her partner’s funeral in the cathedral.
She said that if they were sincere in their grief, they should fulfil McKee’s wish for marriage equality to become a reality in Northern Ireland.
Warning against any move to turn the marriage issue into a sectarian one, Canning later told marchers: “Same-sex couples come from every single religious, cultural and racial background. A vote passing on equal marriage would not be a ‘win’ for any one side – it would be a win for all sides.”
McKee was killed during riots in the republican Creggan area of Derry city when a New IRA gunman opened fire on police lines.
The author and journalist was one of Northern Ireland’s most outspoken younger members of the LGBTQ community. She had written movingly about her own personal struggles over coming out in a society where an alliance of the DUP and Christian fundamentalists continually block moves towards same-sex marriage.
The DUP has consistently used its veto powers in the now-suspended devolved regional assembly at Stormont to block legislation to legalise LGBTQ unions. The party’s foundation is rooted in the evangelical Christian community, most notably the Free Presbyterian Church, which regards gay relationships as sinful and unbiblical.
Meanwhile, fresh appeals have been made for more information to catch McKee’s killers.
The dissident republican group the New IRA have admitted responsibility for McKee’s murder, claiming it had been a mistake and that their real targets were Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers at the riot.
The New IRA is the biggest of the dissident republican groups operating in Northern Ireland. It has been linked with four murders, including the shooting of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry in April 2019.
The group is believed to have formed between 2011 and 2012 after the merger of a number of smaller groups, including the Real IRA, which was behind the 1998 Omagh bombing.
Its presence is strongest in Derry, north and west Belfast, Lurgan in County Armagh, and pockets of Tyrone, including Strabane.
In January 2019 the group was responsible for a car bomb outside the courthouse in Derry. The explosives-laden car was left on Bishop Street on a Saturday night, and scores of people, including a group of teenagers, had walked past before it detonated.
The New IRA also claimed responsibility for a number of package bombs posted to targets in London and Glasgow in March 2019.
On Friday, the PSNI officer leading the investigation issued an appeal to the gunman responsible to hand himself in to police.
Det Supt Jason Murphy said : “Come and provide an explanation. Lyra McKee’s family deserve an explanation for the events of that night and thus far not one single person has provided a direct explanation to Lyra’s family,” he said.
He urged anyone with “information as to who the gunman is, where the gunman went, where the gun is or has been, to come forward and talk to me”.
McKee was also the posthumous recipient of a special award from the Journalists’ Charity at the Regional Press awardsin London on Thursday. A bursary for young journalists has now been established in her name by the Centre for Investigative Journalism.
On Friday, Nicola Coughlan, the actress who plays Clare Devlin in hit TV series Derry Girls, added her voice to calls for marriage equality legislation.
She said: “In Derry Girls I play the wee lesbian, Clare Devlin. Since the show has come out, I’ve received so many messages from people from all over the world to say how much Lisa McGee including an LGBTQ character in her show has meant to them.
“However, what a lot of these people don’t realise is that Clare Devlin would still not be allowed to be married in her own country in 2019.”
Polling has consistently shown majority support among the public and in the Northern Ireland assembly for reform of marriage laws.
At least 55 out of 90 assembly members in the Stormont devolved parliament have publicly voiced their support for marriage equality legislation.
In November 2015, a majority of MLAs in the assembly voted to support equal marriage, but the measure was blocked by the DUP using a petition of concern, a voting mechanism designed to protect the rights of minorities in Northern Ireland.
An April 2018 Sky News poll showed 76% support for marriage equality amongst the Northern Ireland public.