Andrew Neil and Mark Carruthers are joined by shadow home office minister Keir Starmer and Conservative MPs David Davis and Philip Davies.
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Hello, and welcome to Sunday Politics.
The Assembly is preparing to debate same-sex marriage
for the fifth time in recent years.
But should it be a matter of conscience rather than party policy?
I'll be asking the Alliance Party and the SDLP
why it's such a difficult issue for some of their members.
Plus, as Emma Pengelly is made a minister
just a month after becoming an Assembly member,
is there a better way to replace MLAs than co-option?
And with me throughout are the journalist Allison Morris
and the academic Professor Peter Shirlow.
The Assembly will vote on same-sex marriage tomorrow
for the fifth time in recent years
and, for the fifth time, the proposal is destined to fail
after the DUP lodged a petition of concern.
However, it's not just the DUP which has a problem with the issue.
Members of the Alliance Party and the SDLP
have both either abstained or voted no on previous occasions.
So, should it be a matter of personal conscience?
With me are the SDLP's Claire Hanna, and the Alliance Party's Trevor Lunn.
We did ask the DUP to send someone along today, but the party declined.
Welcome to you both.
Claire Hanna, this motion isn't going to pass tomorrow.
It can't with the petition of concern.
But how will your members vote?
I think it's unfortunate that it won't be debated fully,
that the outcome is pre-supposed.
But I understand that some of my colleagues
who did have a problem with it before
are likely to change their mind, and at least one isn't.
And I think at least the issue will be debated.
The referendum in the South, I think,
moved people on tremendously
and the arguments were aired and were played out
in a constructive fashion.
And, clearly, a lot of people changed their mind.
If you look how far we've come, it wasn't five years ago
that people were using terms like "abomination" and "repulsed",
and we don't hear that any more, and if you look at...
As I say, in the Republic,
the polling initially wasn't encouraging.
People like Enda Kenny, who weren't enthusiastic,
and by the end of it became strong campaigners on the issue.
And I think that we will see some movement in the Assembly.
That's interesting. So, just to be clear, in April,
when this was last voted on in the Assembly,
five members of the SDLP abstained, nine voted yes.
But the five who abstained, you're saying some of them
may have changed their positions and may vote yes tomorrow?
Well, that's my understanding. Do you know how many?
I don't want to put an exact number on it.
But it has been discussed, and I think a number of things...
Have they been threatened with disciplinary action?
No, they haven't been threatened.
I don't think that's the type of debate that we want to have.
I certainly don't want to be in a party where people are coerced,
that doesn't allow dissent.
I don't want to be in a society that doesn't allow dissent.
I think people are balancing up,
people are struggling to reconcile it with their faith.
Although I personally was very encouraged,
and I know other members have been,
by the likes of organisations, Faith in Marriage,
that talk about what a great institution marriage is
and how it's helpful to extend it.
But I think people have been persuaded by the argument,
they've seen some of the testimony of people in the South
of what it has meant to them to have equal marriage offered to them,
what it has meant to young people
who might have been struggling with their sexuality... OK. ..and the perception of it.
There have been, Trevor Lunn, four votes on this in the past.
You have voted against and you have also abstained.
You've had a change of heart. Are you going to vote yes tomorrow?
Yes, Mark, I'll be voting yes, along with five of my colleagues.
We're still talking to two of them.
It has been a journey for me, certainly.
I have gone from having misgivings a way back about civil partnerships,
right through the whole spectrum of opinion on this.
I'm now satisfied it's an equality issue.
And if I think that gay people are equal to the rest of us, and I do,
and if I think they're entitled to display that,
if I think they're entitled to adopt, as I do,
and I have no problem whatever with gay blood,
in fact, equality right across the board,
then I find it very difficult any more to oppose civil marriage...
Do you think, then, that you got it wrong in the past?
I think politicians are entitled to change their mind, Mark.
You mentioned at the top of the programme
whether it's equality or conscience.
It's an equality issue for the party.
It's very difficult to divorce your conscience from an issue like this.
It's very sensitive.
Right across the parties...
All the parties in the Assembly have some problems with this.
What about your party colleagues who, tomorrow,
may abstain or might vote no?
We've had to deal with this...
In particular, the party has had to deal with me in the last five years.
I have not been disciplined.
In our last manifesto, which is really where it goes back to,
same-sex, equal marriage wasn't mentioned.
It wasn't an issue then.
It's since become a firm party policy.
But because it hasn't been endorsed in a manifesto,
we're taking a reasonable view with people,
like myself in the past, and with a couple of stragglers now,
who choose to maintain,
for their own personal reasons, a particular point of view.
Is that perfectly reasonable that they should do that,
those stragglers, as you call them,
who are not singing off the same song sheet as the rest of the party?
Is that reasonable for them to do that on this issue, or not?
I can hardly criticise them personally, Mark,
because of where I've been on this.
I have to respect somebody
who perhaps comes from a devout Catholic background
who just can't reconcile themselves to this,
or any other particular religious background.
But I'm comfortable with where I am now on it.
But I have to respect other people's views.
It's a sensitive issue. It is a sensitive issue, obviously.
Do you think, Claire Hanna, that this should be an open vote,
based on conscience, for all of the parties right across the board?
I think it probably should,
and that's how we'll get to an open discussion.
There are going to be people...
There are, I understand, members within the DUP
who would like to support it.
I want to be very clear, I'm 100%... I've heard that anecdotally.
Are you sure that is the case? I've only heard it anecdotally.
I haven't heard it from the horse's mouth.
But, you know, you would imagine, representative of society,
it's unlikely that 30-plus people are all opposed to it,
and people will have that discussion.
I want to be very clear. I'm 100%.
I have no problem supporting this,
and I hope the same would be of my colleagues.
I want them to be persuaded by the arguments.
I think people are balancing up their faith,
but also their conscience, but their duty as a representative as well.
I know I've had literally just shy of 500 e-mails
into my office in the last week asking me to support this,
which I'm happily doing.
And I think others as well are being persuaded
on the strength of feeling among their electorate as well.
But I think where people can vote on their conscience
is probably the only way to get it through
and for it not to be a petition of concern.
And it would be good if the Assembly could be ahead of it
and not have to be forced to do it through the courts.
It would be good if people could come to a positive realisation.
I'll come onto that in a moment.
I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the courts,
and also on the use of the petition of concern.
But, Trevor, I'm just picking up on Claire Hanna's point there
that she's been deluged with people lobbying her on this issue.
I suspect you've probably had a lot of lobbying as well,
and some of it may have been coming from different quarters.
Are there people who are disappointed that you have changed your position?
The people who praised me in the past for maintaining a position
are now quite critical because I've changed my position.
And what do you say to them in response?
I say to them that politicians are entitled to change their mind.
It makes me smile... I hear you talking about, Claire, about the DUP
and whether all their members, for instance, would support this
if they weren't dragooned into acceptance of the party position.
I would be in absolutely no doubt about that.
And I wouldn't be in any doubt that there's members of Sinn Fein
who would not support it if they were given a free vote.
A free vote is the way to go on this. A free vote.
That's interesting that you're both saying that.
Are you also both saying that it is wrong
to use a petition of concern in a situation like this?
Well... Do you regard it, Trevor Lunn, as an abuse of that mechanism?
Well, I have long thought that petitions of concern
on Private Members' Motions are a complete nonsense.
And the petition tomorrow
will not change the balance of the vote one iota.
Because the three-line whip by Sinn Fein and by DUP
would have exactly the same effect.
This is an unnecessary use of a mechanism
which I continue to think is unnecessary in the first place.
Do you agree with that? It's unnecessary, and it's inappropriate.
The petition of concern is designed to protect minorities,
and in this case, it's being used to, effectively, oppress a minority.
It's being used to block progress for a minority.
So, it's inappropriate,
and it is using a hammer to crack a nut in this case.
Just a quick answer from each of you.
Will the courts ultimately settle this issue? Yes, they will.
And I think it would send out such a positive message to society
and to young people in particular that we can say
your relationships are valid and to be celebrated
and the same as anybody else's.
It's ridiculous that you can be married
in every other part of this island, but not in Northern Ireland.
Where does your marriage become invalid?
The courts are going to clear it up.
You'll look at the Supreme Court ruling in the US that says
you can't have inconsistent marriage laws across states.
It will come through, but we shouldn't have to be dragged through the hedge about it.
Do you agree with that? Because as we understand it,
there are a number of cases going through the courts at the moment.
Yes, there are cases pending in the courts.
I think it's a sad reflection, frankly,
on our ability to pass legislation in this country,
that we have to leave it to the courts.
But I can't help thinking that some of the people who oppose this now,
oppose the principle,
would be quite happy to see the courts take a decision on it,
because it gets them off the hook.
It's an abdication of responsibility.
Interesting to hear your thoughts.
It's going to be interesting to hear the debate and to see what the result is.
Although I suppose we know what the ultimate result is going to be.
But it will be interesting to see how the numbers stack up.
Let's hear what my guests of the day make of that.
Allison Morris and Professor Pete Shirlow are with me.
Allison, do you think that the tide is changing on this issue?
The tide's definitely changed, and we've seen that with the South.
Who would have thought, you know, in the Republic,
that was once completely controlled by the Church
that you would have had such a sort of swelling
and such support then for gay marriage?
And I think it makes our position seem all the more ridiculous.
And they're right.
The use of the petition of concern in this case is an abuse.
It's an abuse of the process.
And to leave it for the courts to sort out is a cop-out.
And if there was a free debate and if there was a free vote,
I think you would find, probably not with an outstanding majority,
but it would definitely pass through the Assembly
if that was allowed to go ahead.
Although it lost... It was two votes the other way last time round.
But we can hear Trevor's changed his mind.
I think several other people have also changed their mind.
And also, it's interesting to see,
if the Sinn Fein and the DUP both lifted their whip,
who would go either way?
Would some people in Sinn Fein vote against, or would some people in the DUP vote for?
Wouldn't we love to know what people really thought?
Because if I'm voting for someone,
I want to know what they think on certain issues.
I think that's why it should be a free vote.
The electorate have the right to know the people they're voting for
and what they think on this issue.
But we're a long way away from that, Pete, at this stage.
We're a long way away from a vote like this ever happening
without a petition of concern and a free vote.
Yeah, and we'll probably be back
for the sixth and seventh and eighth debate
unless the courts change it.
One of the things we have to realise here is what's happening
is a change in attitudes
which has taken place over the last 20 or 30 years.
If you look at the Life and Times survey
and you look at the recent survey we completed with the ESRC funding,
what you find is the vast majority of people support gay marriage.
And amongst those under the age of 30,
a significant majority support gay marriage.
So, we're looking at something that has changed dramatically.
One of the big changes that's taken place
when you look at that question that's been asked over 30 years
has been the Protestant community,
who have actually increasingly become supportive
both of gay marriage and also of mixed marriage,
where you now are talking about a majority
for both of those questions.
So, the tide, what Nesbitt talked about...
Mike Nesbitt talked about the wrong side of history.
They're on the wrong side of public opinion.
And that's crucially important.
And I think that idea of the courts being a fob
is the reality of what we're looking at here.
We also have to realise this is a debate about righting wrongs.
We're talking about a community that's been criminalised,
that's been exploited, that's been oppressed
that's been placed outside society.
It's crucially important that we do show leadership,
that Northern Ireland is a plural, open, liberal, tolerant society.
We'll hear more from both of you a little later in the programme.
For now, thanks very much indeed.
Let's take a look back at the political week gone past
in 60 seconds with Chris Page.
As the Stormont talks approached the endgame,
everyone was discussing deals and deadlines.
I do think that we're talking more about days rather than weeks.
My judgment is that...
if we do not get agreement within the next ten days,
there will be no agreement.
We will remain in the talks at Stormont House.
It looks as if we've got a week or two maximum.
The DUP appointed their recently co-opted MLA, Emma Pengelly,
as a junior minister.
But not everyone in the party was happy.
Giving someone who has earned something the chance,
rather than someone who does not have one solitary vote.
A party grandee endorsed the young pretender
in the SDLP leadership contest.
But the incumbent was still confident.
Seamus is a very distinguished member of the party
and he's entitled to his opinion.
But we've some 300-odd other delegates out there with opinions.
Chris Page looking back over the week,
which included the appointment of Emma Pengelly.
That appointment has highlighted the issue of co-option,
the system where MLAs who leave their posts
can be replaced by a party colleague without a by-election.
But is that the best way to bring new blood to Stormont?
With me is the independent MLA Claire Sugden
and the former SDLP director of communications, Ruairi O'Kane.
You're both welcome to the programme.
Claire Sugden, you were co-opted to replace your former boss,
David McClarty, the late MLA.
Is the system the best option available to the Assembly?
I think it's the best option available.
Whether it's the most ideal option's another story.
I wouldn't want to have been in this seat through co-option.
I'd rather be elected.
But I think it's given me now an opportunity
to realise that I've been given this opportunity...
It's a huge privilege for me and I know in this past year
I've certainly been trying to earn it, and I'm still earning it.
So, whilst, you know,
we wouldn't have all chosen to have gotten our seats this way,
it's the only system, I think, in a single transferable system.
Is it the only option, in your view, Ruairi?
I think, to be fair to the parties who are elected,
it will be unfair, if they have a by-election,
for a smaller party who can then lose out to a bigger one.
But I think where the public do have an issue,
the sheer volume of unelected MLAs we have at the minute.
There's almost a fifth, and there's a couple of reasons for that.
First, this Assembly has gone on a year longer than it was supposed to,
so we've talked a lot about people who have only mandates for four years instead of five.
And the second, the double jobbing has been phased out as well,
so we've seen more.
But we can perhaps tweak the system.
If people are going to be elected, if they were to provide a list,
and so people knew publicly
that if someone was to step down during the next period of a mandate,
they know who would be their substitute.
We've had that before, except it was done privately.
Parties had no control over it.
You look at how they do it in Scotland with the list system.
The SNPs, for example,
have already published up to 12 candidates in each constituency.
So, if you're in Glasgow
and you don't get Nicola Sturgeon as your constituency MSP,
you know she's coming as a list MSP.
That might be a bit more open.
At least people know then what they're getting.
Take a constituency like South Belfast.
Four of the six MLAs in South Belfast currently are co-optees.
Anna Lo said she's not standing again.
I don't know what's going to happen.
But if she resigns and is replaced by another candidate before next May,
which might or might not happen,
that would mean five out of the six weren't elected.
That's quite astonishing. It is quite astonishing.
But we are coming towards the end of a mandate.
If there are going to be new candidates put in place,
it should happen with an election, which is less than six months away.
I would certainly be disappointed if some candidates ran
and then after the election they co-opted,
because they've five years ahead of them, and that's not right.
In situations where we've got less than a year,
then perhaps this is an option.
It is a difficult one and we would prefer it not to happen that way.
But it is what it is in respect of single transferable voting.
Yeah, I suppose the question, Ruairi, is,
is there now a system which has developed
of, effectively, party political patronage?
We talked there about Emma Pengelly being brought in,
a former special adviser, brought in as an MLA,
now promoted to be a minister.
There was quite a bit of movement within Sinn Fein
when Mairtin O Muilleoir was drafted into South Belfast,
that involved Alex Maskey moving from South Belfast to West Belfast.
The system was never really designed for that.
No, that's exactly right.
I mean, the spirit of the law has perhaps been bent there.
And I think that's when you look at each individual co-option.
Most are for very legitimate reasons.
But when you see a sort of stroke played
like when Alex Maskey moved to West
and Mairtin O Muilleoir went to South for electoral purposes,
that's when people begin to raise their eyebrows.
Emma Pengelly, as a new MLA, probably would have been better
turning down the offer of being put into the junior ministry
and spending more time in her constituency.
I think what this does,
it adds to a public kind of mood of disdain towards politics here,
and that's not helping.
To be clear, in both of those instances that we've talked about,
nothing was done that was against the rules.
No. Letter of the law, spirit of the law,
are the two differences here,
and I think when the public are turning their nose up at Stormont
and seeing the dysfunctionality,
it just adds to that sort of perception.
I think the parties could perhaps play it a little bit smarter.
As Claire rightly said, the system hasn't been abused that much.
There's only two instances
where people can say it's been controversial.
But I think next year, when you have people running for election...
If people aren't running for election and were to stand down now,
and allow people six months in, I think that's different.
But I think those who are in, such as Emma Pengelly,
might have been better saying no to a ministry
and getting into constituency work.
It certainly is overwhelming, the level at which it's happening.
We're now into double figures
of people who've been co-opted in this mandate.
But if you look at the current 108 MLAs,
about a fifth of current members
had their first taste of Stormont and through co-option,
either this mandate,
or in the previous mandate and then were subsequently elected.
That is quite astonishing, isn't it?
Yeah, it is quite a lot, but then I think
it's one of the negatives of a single transferable vote system.
I do think that when you're in this position, you have to earn it.
Is one month an opportunity to earn it?
I don't think so. It's taken me a year and I'm still earning it.
I think we need to move forward
and we need to look at people who are in the job
and give them what they deserve.
Yeah, but it's across the board.
We've talked about Emma Pengelly because it's an interesting example,
but it's not right to just single out the DUP
or, indeed, Sinn Fein, because pretty much all of the parties
have been involved in co-option.
You're an independent, so it's affected independents as well.
I agree, but the system itself is not necessarily wrong.
It's the only option we have,
but it is the parties who have chosen to abuse it
and to maybe put forward their own arrogance
and maybe put the party first
instead of the people, and that's wrong.
Hopefully, the people can decide that
when we come to an election next May.
You're a politician and you've worked with politicians a lot.
Politicians will always do
what politicians think is best for them, isn't that right?
They'll work the system.
I suppose what we do see is some parties use it differently.
I know from my experience with the SDLP,
when an opening arises, it's put to an internal vote,
so there's an internal contest, where some others decide
that they will bestow that sort of patronage on them.
But I do think that if the parties were honest before an election
and said, "Here's our candidates for the vote,
"but should anything happen, here's a list of ten people
"who may well take their place,"
that might get round that sort of thing.
Also, can you tell someone if they step down from one constituency during an Assembly,
that's them barred from going into another?
That would stop the switching or the boomerang representatives who've come back in.
Would you support those ideas?
Yeah, sure, I know when David put forward my name,
he did it shortly after he was elected in 2011,
and I myself, when I was co-opted.
If you want to get a freedom of information,
you'll see whose names are on those lists.
I'd have no issue with that.
But that's something you have opted to do, you are not required to do.
No, I'm not required. I could have left that list blank.
Is that equally as fair? No, because in my own constituency,
we'd have got a candidate that would have never got into that position
had it been run through the transferable system.
It's trying to weigh up what's best for the people I represent.
It's complicated, there's no doubt about that. It is.
Let's just have a final word from Allison and Pete.
What do you make of it? There's no easy answer, really.
A lot of people feel uncomfortable about elements of this,
but it's hard to fix it.
The co-option itself I don't think is the controversial thing,
especially as we are coming up to an election
and Emma Pengelly will have to be tested, you know,
by the electorate when we do come to an election next year.
I think the controversial aspect of that appointment
was her rapid rise through the ranks to junior minister,
and I think that's when eyebrows were raised.
I agree, she probably would have been wiser to turn that down
and maybe do some work in her constituency...
She's ambitious, she wants to be a minister.
Who doesn't want to be a minister, if you get involved in politics?
She is, and I think the reason...
You know, people, the cynics, would say it's Peter Robinson,
who's under fire from within his own party,
and people who are loyal to him in positions of authority
to watch his back, as it was.
OK, well, that's one interpretation.
I'm not sure if necessarily those in the DUP would agree.
Pete, what do you make of it?
Let's get back to the issue of co-option in the first place. Is there a better way of doing it?
The Belfast Agreement, which created the Assembly,
created something which was coming out of conflict.
It created all these checks and balances
which were there to create some stability.
Didn't work, given the fact it's fallen so many times
and the nature of the talks we're having at present.
But the idea was to protect the institution in some ways.
I think after the next election, we have to have a radical overhaul
of what the Assembly is and how it operates.
It needs to start functioning in a much more normal pattern and style.
In a sentence, are we going to see a resolution to the talks issue this week?
We were told that we had a two-week deadline before doomsday
and we went to direct rule.
They've been very quiet as to what sort of agreement has been reached.
I doubt very much it's going to be this week.
I'd say we're going to have to extend that deadline somewhat.
You agree? It's so quiet, they're getting on with each other.
Therefore, there must be something coming out of the pipeline somewhere.
You're suspicious? OK, all right. Interesting to hear your thoughts.
Thanks both very much. Thanks to my other guests.
That's it from Sunday Politics for this week.
Stormont Today is back tomorrow after the mid-term break.
That's on BBC Two at 11.15.
For now, from everyone in the team, thanks for watching. Bye-bye.
There's an extra special line-up on Nolan Live this week.
We'll be linking up with RTE to bring you debates
from studios in Belfast and Dublin.
And revealing the results of our cross-border survey
on a range of political and social issues.
Join me in Belfast. Join me, Miriam O'Callaghan, in Dublin.
Andrew Neil and Mark Carruthers with the latest political news, interviews and debate. With shadow home office minister Keir Starmer on the forthcoming Investigatory Powers Bill, Conservative MP David Davis on Europe and fellow Tory MP Philip Davies explaining why Parliament should debate men's rights.
Panellists are Janan Ganesh, Polly Toynbee and Nick Watt.