I haven’t written anything on this blog in a while. It’s been summer and therefore not much interesting going on in the political world (well, nothing I found interesting enough to write about) so I’ve kept quiet. My last post was about the start of Equal Marriage NI campaign and today there was a vote at Stormont. The motion was brought by Green Party MLA Steven Agnew.
The bad news is that the motion failed 50 to 45. The good news is that the result is really a lot closer than I’d have hoped. It certainly shows some potential for the future.
What disappointed me most was the fact that only 4 out of the 8 Alliance Party MLAs voted in favour of the motion, despite the Party adopting support for the idea as official policy at the start of September.
The four who voted in favour of the policy (Ford, Lo, Dickson and Farry) can be proud that they voted to enhance the liberty of our society without reducing the liberty of others. The four who were absent (Lyttle, Cochrane and McCarthy) and voted against (Lunn) have caused a certain amount of disappointment amongst liberal supporters of the party, if the Twitter reaction is anything to go by (let’s just assume it is for now).
I won’t criticise the four who did not vote in favour of the motion personally. The motion itself included protection for religious groups that don’t want to carry out same-sex marriages and I don’t think the MLAs should be lambasted for holding views opposed to equal marriage. But I do disagree with them and consider them to have failed to deliver on liberal grounds.
My problem isn’t that there are differing views in the Alliance Party on equal marriage. My problem is that only half of Northern Ireland’s liberal party voted for the liberal option (The three absent ones could have a good excuse not to be there, but isn’t it their job to turn up at the Assembly and vote?).
It is perfectly possible to disagree with equal marriage on religious, cultural (etc…) grounds but still to vote in favour of it as a liberal. Liberals should seek to extend the freedoms of everyone in society without reducing the freedom of others, even if they don’t agree with the viewpoint of those with new freedoms. I’m not religious (and that’s putting it mildly) but I wouldn’t want to stop people having the freedom to believe what they want. I may try and change their mind/views (since no opinion is beyond the right to be challenged), but I’d never want to ban their viewpoint unless it somehow caused harm to others.
Basically, it’s possible to be religious and believe in the liberal foundation of extending freedoms (in this case to equal marriage) but I don’t see how it can be possible to be a liberal and to oppose the extension of a freedom that harms no-one, even if one finds it morally objectionable (though, of course, I’d say that it’s not).
The big question I took away from the vote was this: what sort of party is Alliance, really? They are certainly the most liberal party in Northern Ireland. But that’s not necessarily saying much. Northern Ireland is not known for its robust liberalism.
Are Alliance really a liberal party that will fight against vested interests in government and in industry? Are they a party that will do everything in their power to extend personal, civil, political, economic and religious freedom to everyone in Northern Ireland? Are they a party that will resist paternalist urges to tell people what or how much they should eat and drink? Will they fight to provide true equality of opportunity to everyone in society so that anyone can rise (or fall!) depending on their merit?
I suspect the answer to many of these questions is “yes” but there are others I’m not so sure about. Along with today’s vote I’m not sure how deep liberalism runs in the Alliance Party. Another question that I’ve always wondered about that was once against thrown up today is:
Are they “simply” a non-unionist, non-nationalist party with views from all over the political spectrum and little concrete views apart from on that of the constitutional question?
Admittedly, if that’s “all” they are then I’m still glad to have them and to be a member, but I look forward to the day that I can be sure they’re the liberal party they claim to be, and not just a middle-of-the-road, little bit of everything party.