Northern Ireland

Same-sex marriage: Why we just can't wait to wed

Richard Scott and Neil Lennon Image copyright Richard Scott/Neil Lennon
Image caption Richard Scott, 36, and his 38-year-old fiancé Neil Lennon would prefer marriage to civil partnership

Richard Scott and Neil Lennon have been engaged for 11 years, but their big day was put on hold as they wanted to marry in their native Northern Ireland.

Unlike England, Wales and Scotland, same-sex marriage is still illegal in Northern Ireland.

Two years ago, the couple decided they had waited long enough for the law to change and booked a civil partnership ceremony for New Year's Eve 2019.

"We decided to hold off and hold off," explained Neil.

"Then I said to Richard: 'You know, I'm getting older, let's just do it'."

Now, after two years of planning their ceremony, there is a chance they could just miss out on the right to marry in Belfast by a mere two weeks.

That's because the Westminster Parliament has set a deadline to legalise same-sex marriage by 13 January 2020 - unless there is a deal to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly by 21 October 2019.

So, if Stormont MLAs cannot agree to sort out their differences by late October, Secretary of State Julian Smith has exactly 12 weeks to change the law.

Image copyright Richard Scott/Neil Lennon
Image caption The couple pictured shortly after they got engaged 11 years ago

"When we heard what was to happen around October time, it was getting exciting," said Neil.

"We thought if it does happen, it's not a kick in the teeth away from December. Could they push it through?

"Could we be the first ones to be legally married in December?"

No matter what happens at Stormont though, the Scott-Lennon ceremony will still go ahead on New Year's Eve.

That particular date means a great deal to the couple, as they got engaged on 31 December 2008 during a New Year's Eve party at Richard's family home in Antrim.

With family and friends looking on, Neill got down on one knee to pop the question.

Image copyright Richard Scott/Neil Lennon
Image caption Belfast man Neil Lennon proposed to Richard Scott about a year after they met in a nightclub in the city

Civil partnerships had been available for two years at that stage, in fact Northern Ireland made history in 2005 by hosting the UK's first civil partnership ceremonies.

But Neil insists he made a proposal of marriage to Richard and they waited over a decade in the hope it would be legalised.

"It's disappointing that there's no equality," said Neil.

"We feel like we're treated differently... love is love."

Richard agrees that access to civil marriage would make them "feel more equal in society".

They both know more than most about weddings as they spend most of their working lives helping other people to plan their big day.

The couple run their own events company, which specialises in providing wedding entertainment and decor.

Image copyright Richard Scott/Neil Lennon
Image caption Neil Lennon and Richard Scott are award-winning wedding planners

"I get excited doing weddings anyway," said Richard. "But I always say, I would love to get that feeling of actually getting married, rather than having just a civil partnership."

'Recognition'

That sentiment is shared by Rainbow Project director John O'Doherty, one of Northern Ireland's most prominent campaigners for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

"Our parents are married; our siblings are married; our friends and our colleagues are married," he said.

"The law seeing us as equal, and the majority of people in society as equal, is important for LGBT people."

Homophobia "remains a serious issue" in Northern Ireland, he added, so achieving equality under the law could help to change attitudes.

Despite his involvement in the Love Equality marriage campaign, Mr O'Doherty also made a personal decision not to wait.

Last year, he entered a civil partnership with Martin Toland at a ceremony in Belfast.

Image copyright John O'Doherty
Image caption John O'Doherty and Martin Toland's civil partnership ceremony took place in Belfast last year

Some of their family members were elderly, others were ill, and the couple wanted to share their ceremony with them while time was on their side, he explained.

Mr O'Doherty said there are often financial as well as family reasons behind the desire to get hitched at home.

"We could choose to travel to England, Scotland or Wales or indeed down south [to the Republic of Ireland] to have a same-sex marriage," said Mr O'Doherty.

"There is a big expectation comes with that - that friends and family and others will take on that expense and travel with you. That's not something that we wanted to do."

"Additionally, this is our home city," he said.

"We wanted that moment; that celebration; that time with our friends and family; that acknowledgement and recognition of the commitment that we were making to each other to be in our home city."

Image copyright John O'Doherty
Image caption The couple pictured with Mr O'Doherty's parents after their civil partnership ceremony

Since the Westminster vote on 9 July, more than 150 LGBT people have contacted both the Rainbow Project and Love Equality campaign seeking advice on how soon they can marry.

'Working blind'

Mr O'Doherty believes if there is no Stormont deal by 21 October, and the secretary of state acts quickly, same-sex marriage regulations could be in place before the end of the year.

"While the [13] January date is a deadline that it must be achieved by, it's not necessarily the date that it will be achieved by and that date could be earlier," he said.

For couples like Richard and Neil, there is little official guidance on if or when their civil partnership could become civil marriage, even from their registry office.

"The problem is they don't know," Neil said.

"Until it happens they don't know what's going on. They are working blind, that's what we've been told."

Image copyright Richard Scott/Neil Lennon
Image caption Dates are important as Neil and Richard have planned a 1920s-themed ceremony on eve of 2020

All engaged couples are legally required to give 28 days notice of the date of their proposed marriage or civil partnership.

Richard and Neil's civil partnership notice was submitted back in January, but they do not yet know if this would count towards a marriage notification or if they would have to start the process from scratch.

"They can't do anything until October, but after that [we were told] to go back to them and we could maybe argue the case and see if we could push it through sooner," Neil said.

"I just hope that it does happen, because we've waited so long."

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