The SDLP has been challenged over its stance on gay marriage, after one of its council leaders declined to toe the party line during a vote on the issue.
Despite the official SDLP policy of supporting gay marriage, its leader on the Causeway Coast and Glens council abstained on the matter on Tuesday night, and then refused to explain why when asked.
Sinn Fein accused the SDLP of trying to “ride two horses”, and revealed that it will soon bring another motion to Stormont asking MLAs to back gay marriage.
It will be the fifth such motion since 2011, something which the DUP described as a bid to “flog the same dead horse”.
On each occasion the matter has come up at the Assembly, MLAs have rejected it – with the most recent such rejection coming just four months ago.
When a pro-gay marriage motion came before a committee of Causeway Coast and Glens councillors on Tuesday, only one out of its three SDLP councillors was present – group leader Maura Hickey.
Asked why she abstained, Councillor Hickey politely told the News Letter: “I don’t wish to comment at this moment in time, if that’s alright.”
By contrast, the very same night the SDLP’s Newry branch was hosting a tribute event to PA Mag Lochlainn, a veteran gay campaigner who died in 2012.
When it comes to the differing approach shown towards gay marriage by SDLP members across the councils, Sinn Fein said last night: “Their hypocrisy on this issue knows no bounds...
“This is not the first time that the SDLP has attempted to ride two horses on the issue and their failure is another let down to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.”
When Sinn Fein’s criticisms were put to her, SDLP Causeway Coast leader Maura Hickey she said: “Again, I don’t wish to comment on it at this moment in time.”
She added that the other two SDLP councillors who could have voted at Tuesday’s meeting (Orla Beattie and Stephanie Quigley) had been on holiday at the time.
She would not comment on how they would have voted if they had been present.
The SDLP’s party headquarters said last night: “The SDLP remains committed to marriage equality with robust protection for faith groups.
“This is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, where a majority of SDLP MLAs continue to vote in favour of the change.
“Since its inception, the SDLP has believed in the power of persuasion and we will continue to make the case for equal marriage and pursue equal rights for the LGBT community.”
Fellow SDLP Causeway Coast councillor Gerry Mullan said: “Obviously it’s a very, very emotive issue, and one people will have very, very strong personal views on.
“And whilst the party may have a line on issues, individuals at the end of the day are free, and given the freedom, to decide which way they want to vote themselves.
“So this is obviously a case of Maura having her own very strong opinions for either religious or moral grounds. And I am happy to support her and her own personal view, but it may not well reflect the position of the party itself.”
His own view is that he supports gay marriage.
Asked about Sinn Fein’s criticisms, he said: “They would say that. They’re playing politics with it obviously, as usual.”
Although the Causeway Coast motion supporting gay marriage failed, it will come back to the full council, possibly as early as next Tuesday.
At that stage all councillors – not just those from that one committee – can debate the matter and vote.
Meanwhile Sinn Fein’s pledge to bring the matter to Stormont yet again was derided by the DUP last night.
Chief whip Peter Weir MLA noted it had been voted down on each consecutive occasion it had appeared.
Mr Weir said: “It’s hard not to see this as a certain form of Groundhog Day, with people trying to flog the same dead horse.”
He noted that the make-up of the Assembly has barely changed since 2011, and added: “When something has been brought forward for the fifth time with the same people, I would assume the result would be the same.”