NOEL KING, HOST:
Next year in Northern Ireland, for the first time, same-sex couples will be allowed to get married. The rest of the United Kingdom already allows same-sex marriage. The change in Northern Ireland has been unconventional, and the turning point was the collapse of the Northern Irish government. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story from Belfast.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: About a year ago, Amanda Milnes, a Belfast office worker, popped the question to her girlfriend, Christina Conlan. They were on a ski vacation in the snow-covered mountains of Bulgaria. Amanda was anxious not about Christina's response, but because of the uncertainty about their legal status back home in Northern Ireland.
AMANDA MILNES: I obviously got down on one knee not thinking and not knowing. And at that time, it wasn't legal to get married. We always thought that we'll go away and get married to somewhere where it is legal. But that was quite apprehensive in terms of coming back to the city of Belfast where we live and not being recognized.
LANGFITT: Northern Ireland is the most socially conservative part of the United Kingdom. And unlike the rest of the country, it didn't recognize same-sex marriage. And Christina feared that might continue for a long time.
CHRISTINA CONLAN: For years, I didn't think this was actually going to happen because the parties that were involved - they just were completely against us because it was against their religion.
LANGFITT: The key party opposed to same-sex marriage were the Democratic Unionists, founded by the late evangelical preacher Ian Paisley. Diane Dodds, who serves as a member of the European Parliament, explains.
DIANE DODDS: We as a party have always supported traditional marriage. We're not a religious movement. We are a political party, but we have taken a socially conservative view on some of these issues. That's as simple as that.
LANGFITT: But attitudes were shifting on the island of Ireland, particularly to the south in the Republic of Ireland, a once-strict Catholic country. In 2015, Ireland held a referendum on legalizing gay marriage. Here's Canada's CBC reporting the results.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is the moment it became official - confirmation the Irish people had decisively voted to include same-sex marriages in their constitution.
LANGFITT: Patrick Corrigan is Amnesty International's program director for Northern Ireland. He'd been campaigning for same-sex marriage for years. Now, he saw an opportunity.
PATRICK CORRIGAN: The referendum in the Irish Republic on marriage equality turbocharged the debates on both sides of the border while only voters in the south were getting a vote. And we relaunched our campaign for marriage equality off the back of that.
LANGFITT: But the campaign faced a barrier. Even though there was majority support for same-sex marriage in the Northern Irish Assembly, the Democratic Unionists were able to veto it. Two years later, though, the assembly collapsed over an unrelated dispute, leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning government. So Corrigan and others began lobbying the British Parliament. After 2 1/2 years of dysfunction in Northern Ireland, U.K. lawmakers in London's government district of Westminster finally stepped in and approved same-sex marriage in July.
CORRIGAN: At a certain point, Westminster had to take action on this issue, and it wasn't right for a same-sex couple in one part of the country to have fewer rights than a same-sex couple in every other part of the U.K.
LANGFITT: Back in Belfast, Amanda Milnes was thrilled.
MILNES: I would say waking up on the day that it went through - absolutely fantastic and so excited and so overwhelmed that it's happened and nobody stopped us.
LANGFITT: Same-sex couples in Northern Ireland will now be able to marry as early as Valentine's Day. Milnes says this is a big step for Northern Ireland.
MILNES: It's great to see that it's now coming into the 21st century and that it is legal. And it shows that Northern Ireland is not going to be the one behind everybody else.
LANGFITT: And that same-sex couples here will be treated like those elsewhere across the United Kingdom, which Milnes says is all she ever wanted.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Belfast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.