Victory for gay rights in New York

The state becomes the sixth in the US to legalise same-sex marriage.

Cheers and celebrations echoed around New York's West Village well into the early hours - outside the Stonewall Inn where the modern gay rights movement was born more than forty years ago. For last night another milestone in equality for lesbians and gay men was passed - as the bill legalising same-sex marriage was signed into state law.

For New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, this was a defining victory on an issue he'd made one of his top priorities - a victory too, for social justice. "New York has finally torn down the barrier that has prevented same-sex couples from exercising the freedom to marry and from receiving the fundamental protections that so many couples and families take for granted," he said. "With the world watching, the Legislature, by a bipartisan vote, has said that all New Yorkers are equal under the law. With this vote, marriage equality will become a reality in our state, delivering long overdue fairness and legal security to thousands of New Yorkers."

New York is now America's sixth, and largest state, to allow same-sex marriage, after the bill passed by 33 votes to 29. Just one Democrat voted against - but four Republicans crossed the floor to ensure the measure went through. One of them, Stephen Sarland, who voted against the issue two years ago, said he'd changed his mind. "I have to define doing the right thing as treating all persons with equality", he said, adding that he was at peace with his conscience. The city's republican mayor Michael Bloomberg, who'd helped to lobby for the law, called it an "historic triumph", declaring "together we have taken the next big step on our national journey toward a more perfect union".

The lobbying effort had been backed by a huge number of political figures and celebrities - from Bill Clinton to Lady Gaga - indeed the singer urged her fans to contact one Republican lawmaker, Mark Grissini, to persuade him to back the measure - and last night, he did just that.
But the vote was a huge political victory for Governor Cuomo, who spent two years planning and campaigning for this moment. As New York Magazine revealed, he worked relentlessly to make it happen. A close confidante paid tribute to his sheer persistance: "It's an orchestra, it's a symphony, it's political skills. It's 500 phone calls to individual senators. It's birthday calls, it's anniversary calls, it's going to their district, it's all last year campaigning with them."

The final piece in the jigsaw was a deal over a special exemption for religious groups, who want the right to refuse to perform services or provide the space for same-sex weddings. That agreement won over the final Republican votes, and the bill was passed into law.

There have been protests, of course - the state's Catholic bishops said they were "deeply disappointed and troubled", while the National Organisation for Marriage, which had lobbied hard against the new legisaltion accused New York's republican party of tearing up its contract with the voters'.

As for President Obama, his public position on gay marriage is said to be "evolving". From an early commitment to the policy, when he first ran for the Senate fifteen years ago, he changed his views during the 2008 election, declaring himself in favour of civil unions, but no more - citing his religious faith. This week at a fundraiser in New York, he tod a group of activists that "gay and lesbian couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country", although he wouldn't give any specific commitment on the same-sex marriage issue.

But last night there were plenty of New Yorkers who were unequivocally overjoyed - same-sex couples will just have to wait 30 days before the first marriages can take place.

Not so much of the country, though: it's still banned in 39 states - while California remains in something of a hiatus, after a judge overturned a ban - yet no gay marriages are able to take place while his ruling is being appealed - a decision which could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Governor Andrew Cuomo is certainly hoping New York will lead the way: "This vote today will send a message across the country.", he said. "This is the way to go, the time to do it is now, and it is achievable; it's no longer a dream or an aspiration."

Or as Lady Gaga put it, on Twitter: 'the revolution is ours to fight for love, justice+equality. Rejoyce, NY and propose. We did it!!'.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.