Interview: The Pressure for LGBT Equality is Not Reflected in Ulster’s Elected Representatives

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has called it the most homophobic place in Western Europe: Northern Ireland is now the only region of the United Kingdom where gay men and woman are unable to marry. And the issues facing the LGBT community and campaigners go much further than that. Power-sharing, which was designed to protect minorities, is being used to block moves towards LGBT equality. This glaring divide cut deeper following last year’s overwhelming and historic vote in favour of equal marriage in the Republic of Ireland. 

Disclaimer interviews John O’Doherty, Director of The Rainbow Project, about ending the veto, and working to achieve greater rights and acceptance for LGBT people in Northern Ireland.

First of all, could you give us some insight on the work and aims of the Rainbow Project?

The Rainbow Project is Northern Irelands largest LGBT organisation with offices in both Belfast and Foyle. We aim to improve the health and wellbeing of LGBT people and their families through the provision of professional services and advocacy. We deliver a large range of services including co-cultural counselling, rapid HIV and Syphilis testing, safer sex packs and materials for MSM and LGB women, personal development etc. The Rainbow Project also campaigns on key inequalities experienced by LGBT people and their families in Northern Ireland including the blood ban (which is still in place as a lifetime referral), equal marriage, and health inequalities.

Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK where equal marriage is not legal. What obstacles do you think stand in its way?

Unfortunately the Northern Ireland Assembly has never passed any bill or measure that would address inequalities experienced by LGBT people in Northern Ireland. The rights that exist in Northern Ireland including civil partnerships, hate crime legislation and protections in employment were all introduced by Westminster during direct rule. To date there have been five debates in the Assembly on equal marriage. Of these on four occasions we failed to received majority support for equal marriage. In the fifth vote however, we received a majority vote of one in support of equal marriage - the biggest achievement of the campaign to date. Unfortunately, in the Northern Ireland Assembly we have a mechanism called the petition of concern. It is relatively complicated but basically 30 members from either a nationalist or unionist designation can call for a cross community vote on any issue. Once a POC has been tabled it requires 50% of nationalists and unionists to support something for it to pass. While broadly nationalists are in support of equal marriage only a small number of unionists voted in support of it meaning the motion fell.

Is pressure for marriage equality mounting after the ‘Yes’ vote in the Republic of Ireland?

Northern Ireland couldn’t help but be drawn in to the positive response to the Yes Equality campaign in the republic. It has substantially moved people in the North’s understanding of LGBT people and the inequalities we experience. What is clear through polls and research is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland support the introduction of equal marriage. Unfortunately this has not been reflected in the views and opinions of our elected representatives meaning that changes in the law have been slow. It is for this reason that court cases on LGBT equality issues are often taken and decisions left to the courts. What we know is that equal marriage will be a reality in Northern Ireland - we just don’t know how long it will take.

Many LGBT rights bills struggle to pass through Stormont. What other routes are there for achieving eqUALITY?

Ultimately we believe that the best solution would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass legislation allowing for marriage equality. We believe it is the duty of our legislators to vote in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and remove marriage discrimination. However, if the Northern Ireland Assembly proves itself to be unable or unwilling to end this discrimination we believe that it is correct for the courts to intervene and protect the human rights of LGBT people. There are currently two challenges to the bans on same-sex marriage. However, seeking human rights changes through the courts is a lengthy process and the Northern Ireland Assembly could instead choose to act now, pass legislation and end the on-going discrimination against LGBT people without being compelled to do so by the courts.

There have also been some calls for Northern Ireland to hold a referendum on equal marriage. Although numerous polls show that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland support marriage equality, we do not believe that the fundamental rights of minority groups should be put up to a popular vote. In the Republic of Ireland, marriage equality could only become legal by amending the Republic’s constitution, which requires a referendum. No such requirement exists in Northern Ireland of the rest of the UK. Additionally, referenda in the UK are not automatically binding and would still require the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote on legislation giving effect to the referendum result. We believe it is likely that this vote would be blocked just as previous votes on marriage equality have been blocked by the use of the petition of concern.

Do you think there is the potential for greater acceptance of the LGBT community within the DUP?

There are those within the DUP who support and accept the LGBT community and support fundamental rights. I know because I have engaged with them. However, not all parties allow free votes on these issues and often the minority voices are drowned out. There is also a lot of focus on the DUP, which is not surprising considering their history on LGBT issues and their role in the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. What is noted regularly though is that the vast majority of unionist elected reps and unionist parties in Northern Ireland are opposed to equal marriage and other aspects of LGBT equality. While there is a specific issue to note with the DUP it is important that people do not get distracted from the other elected reps and parties who for generations have stood in the way of LGBT equality.

To what extent does religion factor in attitudes towards LGBT rights? How far do issues equal marriage receive cross-community support?

Religion certainly plays a factor in attitudes towards LGBT rights in Northern Ireland.  However, in Northern Ireland we can’t just view Catholic and Protestant as religions, they also make up our community background. A person may own the identity of Catholic or Protestant without practising religion or even believing in God. Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided society with not only single identity communities but also single identity towns and villages. Our education system still splits children into Catholic and Protestant schools, and even our integrated schools (open for all) have a faith-based ethos. Therefore I would say that religion isn’t just a factor on issues such as LGBT rights, it is a factor on practically all aspects of our society. Outside of political parties equal marriage has more than 50% support from people both from Catholic and Protestant communities.

Northern Ireland also has harsher rules on MSMs (men who have sex with men) donating blood. Why do you think MSMs donating blood is still such an issue, and what can be done to change this?

I have been campaigning against the MSM blood ban for 16 years and cannot believe it is a debate that we still have to have. Thankfully, polls have shown that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland support its removal. I think the MSM blood ban made sense when it was introduced as it was introduced in response to the best available medical evidence during the height of the HIV and AIDS crisis. Our understanding of HIV and other blood borne pathogens has developed so substantially and therefore so has our understanding of risk taking behaviour. I believe that a new deferral system is required which reflects actual risk rather than the presumption of risk based on sexual orientation. Behaviour is the biggest indicator of risk of blood borne infections and the deferral system should reflect this.  In Northern Ireland we still maintain the lifetime ban. The ban has been upheld by consecutive DUP Health Ministers who have used public safety of the blood supply as justification as well as stating they have not yet made a decision on the change to a one year deferral as proposed by SABTO. While a one year deferral is preferable it is not reflective of actual risk. For example a same sex couple who are monogamous and are not living with infection pose no risk to the blood supply, however under the one year deferral they will never be able to donate blood. It is our position that decisions on the management of blood, tissues and organs should be made based on the best available medical evidence and in Northern Ireland unfortunately this has not been the case. Like most issues related to LGBT people including equal marriage and adoption by same sex couples, the blood ban has been challenged in the courts. A recent appeal did not uphold the previous ruling and ruled that maintaining the ban is not discriminatory. It now falls to the Minister once again to make a decision on this important issue.

Trans issues seem to be a big part of the zeitgeist nowadays. Are you sensing a greater acceptance towards trans people in your work?

In Northern Ireland we have seen a huge emergence of trans people which has been really fantastic. With increased visibility of trans people we can work to better understand their needs and work to address the inequalities that they have experienced. In the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly Election we have the first ever trans candidate standing for election. I think we still have a long way to go for trans people to experience the same acceptance, understanding and recognition that LGB people receive from the vast majority of people and I look forward to supporting their campaign for equal civil and human rights in the coming years.

Read about The Rainbow Project’s work and up-coming campaigns on their website. Follow them on Twitter: @TRPNI

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