Amanda Milnes proposed to her partner Christina Conlon in January when same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland was illegal. It was an act of love and hope.
On Tuesday, 10 months after Milnes went on bended knee and offered a ring, the Belfast couple celebrated a historic change to the law.
“What a day to be gay in Northern Ireland,” said Milnes, 29. “What a day to see history happen. It’s just a phenomenal feeling knowing that I will marry Christina, the love of my life, and celebrate until our feet can’t hold us up any longer.”
Same-sex couples across Northern Ireland erupted in jubilation at the stroke of midnight on Monday when a law extending marriage equality took effect.
It was the culmination of a rollercoaster campaign to align Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK in the face of opposition from the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and other social conservatives.
“We stayed up till 12 and counted down the seconds like it was New Year’s Eve,” said Milnes, a bank worker. “Today we can just take a deep breath and say it’s actually legal, we’ve the same rights as everybody else.”
She proposed to Conlon, 30, during a ski holiday, unsure if same-sex marriage would become legal. “Now we can start planning the wedding. We have our guest list sorted. We can go shopping for wedding dresses knowing we’re not doing anything wrong in the eyes of the law.”
England and Wales enshrined marriage equality in 2013, followed by the Republic of Ireland in 2015. Opinion polls showed a big majority favoured same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, but the DUP blocked change at the Stormont assembly.
Then in 2017, a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed the assembly, creating a vacuum. MPs at Westminster stepped in by passing an amendment in July by a backbench Labour MP, Conor McGinn, extending marriage equality to Northern Ireland.
Monday was the last chance for opponents of change to restore Stormont and avert the legislation. The DUP and others attempted a recall to block the extension of abortion rights – a far more contentious change – but the effort failed, allowing liberalisation of both marriage equality and abortion rights.
Julian Smith, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state, said the first gay marriage was expected the week of Valentine’s day 2020.
“You don’t grow up saying ‘I can’t wait to have a civil partnership’,” said Cara McCann, director of Here NI, a charity that advocates for lesbian and bisexual women. “You grow up saying ‘I want to be married’. They’re different things.”
She and her partner Amanda McGurk, 39, had a civil partnership ceremony in Belfast in February. They plan to convert that into a marriage once guidelines are published, said McGurk. “It’s validation for us.”
McCann’s son Ryan, 25, hailed the law change in a Facebook post. “The day my rock my mum and her amazing wife Amanda have the same rights as me and my partner.”
Overt homophobia has ebbed in Northern Ireland. Pride parades have grown in popularity, drawing corporate sponsors, clerics, families, politicians and police. The murder in April of Lyra McKee, a writer and LGBTQ activist who was planning to marry her partner, Sara Canning, channelled grief into demands for change.
Anthony Flynn, 28, and his partner Cory Quinn, 25, celebrated the legislation with a bottle of prosecco.
“I was incredibly cynical and sceptical of it passing right up until the last moment because we’ve been pushed back so many times in the past,” said Flynn, a software developer and Green party councillor. “Today shows that progress can be made.”
After six years together marriage is on the cards, said Flynn. “I’m threatening to pop the question. Both of us come from a traditional family life where marriage is a building block in growing up. I’d be a traditionalist – I want to marry the person I love and build a family around that.”