Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

More mixed couples tying the knot

By Niall Glynn
BBC News

More couples of different religions are getting married

A by-product of the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland has been a rise in the number of mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants.

It is estimated that about one in 10 of all marriages in Northern Ireland are now mixed.

This followed a sharp decrease during the Troubles, when the fear of violence and intimidation and the resulting polarisation of communities, prevented many cross-community relationships.

In 1998, during the Drumcree standoff the three Quinn brothers - Richard, 11, Mark, 10, and Jason, nine - were killed when a petrol bomb was thrown into their home.

The boys were from a mixed marriage and were living in a loyalist area of Ballymoney when their house was attacked.

The Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) has been working to support couples for more than 30 years.

NIMMA's Paul McLaughlin said mixed marriages were a reflection on the health of society in general and the increase in them in the last 10 years augured well for the future.

"We know that the rate of mixed marriages did drop quite considerably with the start of what we call the Troubles, because people just weren't getting the opportunity to mix socially.

"Certainly in the last 10 years, when social life has returned to a certain normality, more and more young people are meeting who probably wouldn't have met before," he said.

In any mixed marriage what you actually have is a couple who are putting love before traditional allegiances and tribal allegiances
Paul McLaughlin, NIMMA

"So the more opportunities there are for young people to get together, the more we'll see of this in the future."

Mr McLaughlin said in the past, mixed marriages had been easier for couples who could afford to buy a new home and so to live in a more integrated, "safer" area.

Research has shown that in Northern Ireland 95% of all social housing estates are lived in mainly by people of one religion.

"That is actually being addressed very strongly by the NI Housing Executive - they're now producing areas of shared social housing right across the province," Mr McLaughlin said.

"They have a target of rolling 30 of these areas out within the next two years and they've got over 20 in situ at the moment.

"These aren't estates specifically for mixed marriage couples, but they are estates where the people who live in them want to live in a mixed area."

Mr McLaughlin said NIMMA had become more proactive in the last 12 months - from being an organisation that provided information and support to one that now lobbied politicians and public bodies.

Belfast peaceline
Segregated housing has been a major obstacle to mixed marriage in NI

This includes sending out a newsletter to clergy across Ireland.

"There are some clergy who have been left behind, while others have moved on and you'll find situations where there are some who will refuse to participate in a mixed ceremony," Mr McLaughlin said.

"That is being addressed and it's being addressed from the top down."

Another obstacle to mixed marriages can be opposition from the couple's family.

In 1983, NIMMA members had to act as witnesses at a wedding between a Presbyterian man and a Catholic woman because the relatives refused to attend - the bride's parents sat in a car outside the church.

"It's a lot about educating people and letting them know there's nothing to be afraid of.

"In any mixed marriage what you actually have is a couple who are putting love before traditional allegiances and tribal allegiances," Mr McLaughlin said.

My perception is that attitudes are increasingly relaxed when it comes to services being shared together
Presbyterian minister

"When people get into mixed relationships, they don't get into it for any ecumenical reasons, it's much more basic than that, it's down to whether a girl fancies a boy or a boy fancies a girl."

Presbyterian minister, Rev Charles McMullen, who is a member of the Inter Church Standing Committee on Mixed Marriage, said many young people in Northern Ireland were now less interested in religious labels and badges.

He said they were forming relationships in the work-place, universities and when socialising, but then turning back to their churches to get married.

"My perception is that attitudes are increasingly relaxed when it comes to services being shared together, although this will again depend on individual ministers and priests," he said.

"For those who come from a mixed background, I try to be as accommodating and helpful as possible. If the service is in our church, I am happy for a priest to be involved."

However, Rev McMullen said he would have concerns if couples are encouraged to sign documents to try and ensure any children from the marriage are brought up in a particular faith.

This concern was echoed by a Church of Ireland minister who has performed many mixed marriage ceremonies in his 25 years with the church.

"I'd want to check that neither party had given any commitment on the upbringing of the children," the minister said.

"We would advise people not to be making any commitments like that because it only puts a strain on the couple later on.

"The couple should have the right to decide what they're going to do with the children and not to be forced in any way."

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