I wonder is Kellie Turtle genuinely surprised (see online petition) that Judith Cochrane and Chris Lyttle abstained from voting on the joint Green Party-Sinn Fein motion on gay marriage at Stormont last week or is she just trying to embarrass the Alliance Party? There is, of course, nothing wrong with trying to embarrass the Alliance Party. Indeed, I encourage it. Over the years the party has got something of an easy ride from journalists as well as the voting public in this part of the world. Beyond a vague wish for a 'shared future', a term bereft of any meaning that increasingly irritates me when I hear it, there is not much to set Alliance apart from the rest of our no-mark local parties. Throwing some mud at wooly well-meaning liberals who break even the most bland and moderate of their promises should never be looked upon as a waste of one's time. The important thing to know is why you are throwing it.
First off, I have to be honest and admit that the gay marriage issue is one that fails to fire me up. Yes, I support marriage equality. Yes, the Northern Ireland Assembly has once again got it wrong. But I would telling a lie if I said this is one of the burning issues that I think about on a daily basis. In fact, I have always found it slightly strange that it tends to be more of an issue for the left rather than for the right. I thought David Cameron hit the nail on the head when he said he supported gay marriage "because he was a conservative". To me this has always sounded more like a Burkean reform of the conservative institution of marriage, unfortunately many faith groups and people on the right don't seem to be able to appreciate this.
Secondly, for all those people there who feel 'sold out' by Cochrane and Lyttle, you really should have seen this coming. The first sign (well, the first one that I noticed) that the party contained an anti-gay grouping came back in 2005 when an Alliance councillor in Lisburn opposed the use of the council's wedding rooms for civil partnership ceremonies. Since then the party has been forced to walk something of a tightrope. On the one hand, the organisation has been visible at the annual Pride marches in Belfast and wants to be seen as the "party of equality and human rights" (the words used by it's deputy leader during the Lisburn debacle). On the other hand, the party has to take a look at electoral reality. West of the Bann the Alliance Party is virtually non-existent. All of their eight seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly lie east of the river. The majority of those are in places with large Protestant populations (North Down, East Belfast, East Antrim - in other words places where Christianity is actually taken seriously). This being the case it is not surprising that Alliance seem split on how to approach the marriage equality question.
At the weekend Chris Lyttle issued a statement which he said he hoped would "clarify" his position on the dispute. In truth, it did nothing of the sort. The first paragraph stated that for "personal and health reasons" he had been unable to attend a number of debates at Stormont, including the one in question. In the second paragraph Lyttle said that "as a Christian I personally believe that marriage is the voluntary lifelong union, under God, of one man and one woman." Following this he states in paragraph three that he supports the party position on gay marriage, namely that marriage be available on "an equal basis to same sex couples with legislative protection for faith based organisations to perform religious marriage as they determine."
In one sense it's totally contradictory, in another I can see where he is coming from and then in yet another way I can see that what he is essentially doing is struggling like hell to keep his liberal credentials intact while at the same time thinking about how the people in the church halls of east Belfast will vote at the next Assembly election. Whatever his motive, he hasn't come out of this looking well. With Judith Cochrane also failing to turn up at Stormont for the vote last week and with Trevor Lunn happily appearing in order to vote no to the gay marriage proposals (at least he is honest about it), almost half of Alliance's Assembly party has either abstained or refused to follow an official party policy it was claimed last month had the support of about 80% of party members.
As for those non-Alliance MLAs that voted yes, I remain to be convinced that the Basil McCreas and Barry McElduffs of this world are suddenly shining examples of open-minded progressive thought. Remember how back in 2008 all of the nationalist and unionist parties at Stormont formed a united sectarian alliance to oppose the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed in this respect. The fact that an almost fifty year old Westminster reform giving women control of their own bodies is still unanimously opposed by our local representatives tells us so much more about them than anything that has arisen from the recent marriage equality debate.
The Northern Ireland of 2012 deserves much better than the Assembly it is currently lumbered with. By all means attack the pathetic actions of the naysayers in the Alliance Party but do not allow yourself to be misled by those in Sinn Fein, the majority of the SDLP and the tiny number of unionists that last week voted yes. The traditional parties may have hired good PR firms, but they remain at heart the same old beasts overseeing the continued sectarian apartheid of Northern Irish society. If we our to have any hope of a decent future in the long term then it must be a future that exists without them.