Queen's Policy Engagement

Public attitudes towards LGB equality and same-sex marriage

Nicola Carr, Paula Devine, Siobhán McAlister and Gail Neill reflect on a current judicial review on same-sex marriage, and use data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey to explore public attitudes to LGB equality issues.

Public attitudes towards LGB equality and same-sex marriage

Last week saw the beginning of a High Court challenge by two couples to quash the ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. The case is to be argued on the basis that the current ban breaches entitlements to family life and marriage under the European Convention on Human Rights. This is the only place on the islands of Britain and Ireland where same-sex couples do not have the legal right to marry. In evidence to the High Court in the ongoing legal challenge the Attorney General, John Larkin QC has argued that this issue is one of ‘pure social policy’ and therefore for the legislature to decide.

However, proposals to allow for marriage between same-sex couples have been debated in the Assembly on five occasions since 2012. On the last occasion in November 2015, and for the first time, a majority of MLAs voted in favour of the introduction of legislation. However, a ‘Petition of Concern’ triggered by the Democratic Unionist Party means that any legislation is effectively blocked. Therefore, this legal challenge regarding the failure to enact legal provision for marriage equality in Northern Ireland will be hugely significant. Of course, we cannot ignore the landmark Marriage Referendum in the Republic of Ireland, which was passed in May 2015.

Other high profile controversies in the past year include comments by Jim Wells (then Minister for Health) which linked same-sex relationships with child abuse. In the following month, the High Court ruled that Ashers Bakery had unlawfully discriminated against a gay man in respect of the provision of a service (a cake bearing a slogan supporting gay marriage). Reaction to this judgement included renewed calls to introduce a so-called ‘conscience clause,’ allowing individuals or businesses to refuse to provide services if they clash with their religious beliefs.

Policy context

The heat that these issues have generated within political debate and public discourse has not been matched by policy or legislative development. A Draft Sexual Orientation Strategy was published in 2006 when Northern Ireland was under Direct Rule. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) committed to publishing this strategy and associated action plan with the objectives of promoting equality of opportunity and an environment free from harassment and abuse. However, despite the fact that the consultation on this document ended in June 2014, to date no strategy has materialised. Part of the reason for policy stagnation is the retrenchment of political positions.

Public attitudes and equality

So where do public attitudes fit into these debates? Our recent analysis of the annual Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey* indicates that public perceptions of unfair treatment of lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) people have increased substantially. In addition, over half of the NILT respondents in 2013 (56%) felt that more should definitely or probably be done to promote equality for LGB people. Interestingly, a similar proportion (58%) felt that schools should teach about equality for lesbian and gay people, as they do for other social groups. Consistent with previous survey findings published in 2009 and 2014, the most recent NILT findings show an association between attitudes towards teaching LGB equality in schools and age, gender, religious affiliation and personally knowing someone who is lesbian or gay.

Women were more supportive than men of equality for lesbian and gay people being taught in schools. The oldest age group (65+ years) reported relatively low levels of support for this (35%), while 18-24 year olds expressed a high level of support (72%). Support was higher among those with no religion (73%), or Catholic respondents (66%) compared to those identifying as Protestant (43%). Finally, two thirds (66%) of those who said that they know a lesbian or gay person supported teaching equality on this issue in schools. This is almost twice the figure for those who reported not personally knowing someone (34%).

While there is increased awareness of LGB inequality, and over half of the sample believe more should be done to promote equality and to teach this in schools, it is noteworthy that close to one-third (31%) of the sample perceives that equality for lesbian and gay people has probably or definitely gone too far.

Same-sex marriage

Around six out of ten people taking part in NILT reported support for the legal validation of same-sex marriage (59%). Again, women are more supportive than men, and those under 65 years are significantly more supportive than those over this age. Those with a Protestant affiliation are less likely than Catholics or people with no religious affiliation to support the validation of same-sex marriage.

Given that the latest survey findings ‑ like those of the previous survey ‑ reveal lower levels of support among those defining as Protestant, it is important to attempt to understand in more detail the attitudes within this group. Perhaps most significantly, 46% of this group do support same-sex marriage, which is slightly higher than those who do not (42%). In other words, while the survey consistently highlights those with no religious affiliation and those defining as Catholic as more supportive than those identifying as Protestant, within the Protestant sub-category itself, there are in fact more people in support of marriage equality than not in support of it.


The most recent findings from the NILT survey suggest a significant level of public support for lesbian and gay equality, which reflects the attitudes of the majority of MLAs, but not current legislation. As observed by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, strategies to promote sexual orientation equality need to tackle prejudicial attitudes and behaviour, and strengthen legal protections. Furthermore, delivering these objectives will require political, civic and community leadership.




* The questions on LGBT issues in the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey were funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

 The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey is carried out annually and documents public opinion on a wide range of social issues. In 2013, 1,210 adults were interviewed in their own homes. Fieldwork was carried out by Perceptive Insight. The survey is a joint project of the two Northern Ireland universities and aims to provide an independent source of information on what the public thinks about the social issues of the day. Visit the website for more information on the survey findings (www.ark.ac.uk/nilt) or call the survey director on 028 9097 3034 with any queries.


The featured image in this article has been used thanks to a Creative Commons licence.

Dr Nicola Carr
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Dr Nicola Carr is the Programme Director for Criminology and Co-Director of the MSc in Youth Justice in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. Dr Siobhan McAlister is a lecturer in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast and her research interests are in the broad fields of youth, social justice and criminal justice. Dr Tanya Serisier is a lecturer in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast and her research interests include private and public narratives of gender, sexuality and sexual violence.

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