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Last Updated: Monday, 19 December 2005, 17:03 GMT
'Gay weddings' first for Belfast
Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close
Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close say they are privileged
The first set of civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples in the UK have been held in Northern Ireland.

Two women, Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close, exchanged vows at Belfast City Hall, followed by a gay couple and another lesbian couple.

The new Civil Partnership Act provides same-sex couples with similar legal rights to married couples.

The first ceremonies in Scotland will take place on Tuesday, and in England and Wales on Wednesday.

Ms Sickles and Ms Close's ceremony took place at 1000 GMT at City Hall, which already has 20 provisional bookings for the services.

This is for all the people who went before us and this is for protection
Shannon Sickles

As they left City Hall, Ms Sickles said she was "delighted" and hoped that there would be "many more" civil partnership ceremonies.

The couple were cheered and applauded by supporters as they left the ceremony in a ribboned Hackney cab.

Speaking before the ceremony, Ms Close said they were "in a very privileged position".

"For us, this is about making a choice to have our civil rights acknowledged, and respected and protected as any human being," she said.

"We could not be here without the hard work of many queer activists and individuals from the queer community and we feel very privileged and blessed to be here doing this."

"This is for all the people who went before us and this is for protection," her partner Ms Sickles added.

Afterwards, Belfast couple Henry Kane and Christopher Flanagan also exchanged vows.


About 40 people staged a protest outside City Hall.

The Reverend David McIlveen, of the Free Presbyterian Church - among the protesters - said he was "very much opposed" to the "marriage in all but name" of gay couples.

The Bible described marriage as "a relationship between male and female for the bringing up of children", he told BBC News.

Anti-gay protesters
Anti-gay protesters lined up outside Belfast City Hall
"It is revealed as being an honourable relationship whereas the Bible speaks of same sex relationships as being an abomination. You cannot reconcile the two."

But Maria Quirey from Northern Ireland's Lesbian Advocacy Service said the ceremonies would be welcomed by many.

"I would remind people that we're talking about a minority, but quite a substantial minority and the British government have given the official figure now as 6% of the population," she said.

"So in the north of Ireland, we're talking about 100,000 people - men and women."

At least 1,200 ceremonies are confirmed as being scheduled across the UK already, according to figures from councils compiled by the BBC News website.

Busy Brighton

Hundreds of couples across the UK are expected to go ahead quickly, with Brighton conducting 198 ceremonies before the end of the year.

Overall, the city has taken 510 bookings for the coming months, thought to be the highest in the country.

It's been a long time coming, but it's a wonderful thing
Sarah Booker, Chalfont St Giles

Other cities which have seen strong interest include London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Two weeks ago a terminally ill man from Brighton received special permission to go ahead with a ceremony before the normal 15-day waiting period after registration.

Matthew Roche, who had lung cancer, and Christopher Cramp held their ceremony hours after the Civil Partnership Act became law on 5 December. Mr Roche died the next day.

Campaigners say the law ends inequalities for same-sex couples.

Since it came into force, couples have been able to legally register an intention to form a civil partnership with local councils.

Henry Kane and Christopher Flanagan exchanged vows
Henry Kane and Christopher Flanagan exchanged vows

It means same-sex couples can have their relationships recognised in law for the first time.

It also provides registered gay and lesbian couples with a number of legal rights and entitlements already held by heterosexual couples in civil marriages.

But unlike marriages, the signing of the legal partnership papers does not need to happen in public.

Last month, Lisburn City Council in Northern Ireland overturned its policy regarding gay and lesbian unions.

The council had banned the use of its wedding room for same-sex civil partnership registrations, prompting gay activists to threaten legal action.

After consulting lawyers, a council committee decided the ban should be lifted.

See the couple after the ceremony

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