By Rachel Savage
LONDON, Feb 5 (Openly) - A lesbian couple is set to hold Northern Ireland's first same-sex wedding next week as the conservative province overcomes deep division to catch up with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The couple, in their 20s, voiced excitement at making history but said equality remained out of reach so long as same-sex couples could not convert civil partnerships to marriage.
"The feeling is indescribable," said Sharni Edwards, a Pizza Express manager from England.
"We're very humbled, especially to be the first from our community, knowing how hard thousands and thousands of people fought for this," the 27-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
It will be "absolutely amazing, just to be able to share our love," said Robyn Peoples, a nursing home carer from Belfast.
Edwards and Peoples, 26, will marry in the coastal town of Carrickfergus on Feb. 11th, their sixth anniversary as a couple.
"We just wanted to go ahead and celebrate our love and not be held back any more," said Edwards.
"It's kind of fate that this has happened."
The British parliament voted in July to force Northern Ireland, which had been the only part of the United Kingdom without same-sex marriage since 2013, to amend its laws while the region ran without its devolved government.
The province is governed separately on many issues, a legacy of sectarian conflict.
However, in recent years, LGBT+ rights have been increasingly supported by the nationalist Sinn Fein party, traditionally backed by Catholics.
Sinn Fein wants Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, which legalised same-sex marriage in 2015.
But same-sex marriage was opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which wants Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom and whose support base is largely Protestant.
The DUP had repeatedly blocked gay marriage when it was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, using a veto intended to protect minority rights.
NOT THERE YET
The British government is running a consultation until Feb. 23 on same-sex religious marriages and how couples can convert civil partnerships into marriages in Northern Ireland.
"Regulations on these issues will follow in due course, after we have analysed the responses to this consultation," a Northern Ireland Office spokesman said in an emailed statement.
Same-sex couples have been able to get civil partnerships, offering most of the same legal protections as marriage, since 2005. They were extended to straight couples at the end of 2019.
Cara McCann, 44, and Amanda McGurk, 39, who both work for HERe NI, a charity that supports lesbian and bisexual women, said they were unhappy at having to wait to marry, after sealing their civil partnership last Valentine's Day.
"It's quite ironic. If we would have waited a year, we probably would have been one of the first to get a same-sex marriage," said McCann, HERe NI's director.
"I'm urging the British government to get this done ASAP so that this inequality doesn't continue."
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland director, said he expected same-sex religious marriages to be available for religious groups that opt in by April and civil partnerships to be convertible to marriage later.
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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