Fight for same-sex marriage to go to Northern Ireland Court of Appeal

Grainne Close, Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane Picture Mal McCann.
Grainne Close, Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane Picture Mal McCann.

"I DON'T want to walk down the aisle in Ahoghill."

Grainne Close is trying to explain how little there is for conservative and religious parts of Northern Ireland to fear granting herself and partner Shannon Sickles the right to marry.

"For us, this isn't about a religious marriage. We respect people's right to religion," she said.

Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane nod in agreement. The four are launching their appeal against Mr Justice John O'Hara's August ruling dismissing their application to end the ban on same-sex marriage in the north.

Tuesday will mark 12 years since they strode out of Belfast City Hall as history makers - the first couples in the UK to be granted civil partnerships.

They have a new solicitor, Darragh Mackin from the prominent human rights firm KRW Law - which is taking on the case pro bono - and a crowd justice funding drive to cover the legal costs of the Northern Ireland executive, should they lose this round of the legal challenge.

That figure is likely to be around £30,000.

"We always classed it as a marriage," Chris said.

"We thought it was going to be automatically converted," Henry explained.

"We saw civil partnership as the first step to recognising same sex relationships," Grainne said.

"We just thought, through time the next step would be marriage. But that hasn't happened. Twelve years ago we took the first step to gaining equality, but now it feels like, 12 years on we haven't moved on at all."

"It feels like we've gone back," Chris said.

The two couples have had to watch as every other part of Ireland and Britain legalised same-sex marriage - the pioneers have become an anachronistic anomaly.

Shannon said on May 22 2015, the day the Republic voted to legalise same-sex marriage, was a watershed moment for her.

"That's when I felt so left behind. When it came in so drastically and dramatically in the south."

She gets frustrated when people ask what material difference will make to their partnership - it seems that the legalities mainly relate to divorce.

"People say, it's not really going to make a difference so why can't you be happy with what you've got? But then I turn it around and say, if it is so little why are you denying it to us?

"And it does have an impact. I'm American and the US government won't recognise our civil partnership. It means, if for some reason we wanted to move to Trump's America [cue laughter] Grainne would not get a Green Card."

Grainne adds: "And Shannon and I have been together for 15 years."

Grainne Close, Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane Picture Mal McCann.
Grainne Close, Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane Picture Mal McCann.

In addition, both couples are now parents, Chris and Henry have a five-year-old son and Grainne and Shannon have a toddler.

Darragh Mackin points out that inheritance for the children conceived in a civil partnership is directly affected by their different status.

But, a key point for all four of the parents is what the legal team will argue in front of the Court of Appeal on February is the "quasi-discriminatory label".

"We are straight away being pointed out as being gay when your child has to say `My daddy's in a civil partnership', rather than `My daddy's in a marriage'," Chris said.

"Even when you're filling in school forms, there's just no box for you. There's `married' or `single' but there is nothing for civil partnership.

"And other application forms, if you put down civil partnership you are labelling yourself as gay and that is putting us at risk of discrimination."

The legal team are continuing to argue on the basis of Article 8 of European Convention on Human Rights - the right to a personal and family life.

In August, Mr Justice O'Hara indicated that the European Union leaves it up to member states to legislate for same-sex marriage if they choose to do so.

Mr Mackin said they will be advancing the argument that in every state where civil partnership has been brought in - including the rest of the UK - it has been followed with the introduction of same-sex marriage.

All insist that they "have always been in it for the long haul", but no one was expecting it to be quite such a long haul.

Their initial judicial review was launched in 2015 and they waited almost two-years for the judgement, and now another bittersweet `anniversary' will be marked in the same state of limbo.

"Twelve years on and we're still fighting," Grainne said.

"We've always done it on our own. No one is funding us but we're not just fighting for ourselves. We want equality for everyone."