We must stand up for LGBT+ rights in Northern Ireland

It has been over a year since legislation was introduced in Scotland to allow same-sex couples to marry. In England and Wales it has been nearly two. In Northern Ireland last week, legislation to allow same-sex marriage failed. For the fourth time.

For the fourth time, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) presented a ‘petition of concern’ to the Stormont Assembly. And so again, in my home, fundamental human rights have become victim to petty party politics, ancient divides and religious fanaticism.

For those unfamiliar with Northern Irish politics, a petition of concern is a mechanism introduced as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement intended to protect minority interests and human rights concerns. However, it is rarely used for this purpose and is extremely open to abuse, as has been seen with the same-sex marriage debate. Due to the specific nature of Northern Irish politics and society, any vote tabled by a single or multiple parties can be made into a ‘cross-community vote’ – meaning with majority support of both Unionist and Nationalist parties – if a petition of concern is presented, which may be brought with the support of 30 or more Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). What this petition does is ensure that a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if it is supported by a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, with at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting. This means that, provided enough MLAs from a given community (or a large enough party representing that community) agree, they can effectively exercise a veto on the Assembly’s decisions.

This is what has been happening with the same-sex marriage proposals. The notoriously homophobic and anti-same-sex marriage DUP brought a petition of concern to the Assembly over the proposed legislation. The DUP, holding the majority of 38 seats, are the only party with enough MLAs to bring a petition of concern without support from another, so there is no way for a Unionist majority to vote in favour. What was once a mechanism to protect those least represented has turned into a corrupt farce, a way for one bigoted party to enforce its worldview on the whole Assembly.

In Northern Ireland, human rights are nothing more than a political football. At last week’s vote, 37% of SDLP (nationalist) members didn’t even turn up to the vote when it is the Republican side who supposedly support us. Even more disappointingly, Alliance, a party which self-designates as ‘Other’ and is the only stated cross-community party in the country, abstained. They abstained when we needed them most. I hope that fence they are sitting on is sharp.

Northern Irish politics are derided and farcical from the outside, and on the inside we laugh too because we must. Westminster don’t want to get involved and use devolution as the excuse, Ed Miliband being the recent example. So much for Labour’s international LGBT+ envoys if they won’t even get their own house in order.

We desperately need more people to know about this and for the rest of the UK to support us and pressure the government to send the issue to the courts, which is now the only way the voice of our people can be heard democratically. A referendum is good publicity and great symbolically but rights for the minority must not be decided by the majority. It may be funny from the outside looking in but there are people here, living breathing people, children who have to grow up under this discriminatory tyranny, being told we as LGBT+ are worse than paedophiles, abusive and abnormal. These are our lives and our human rights being violated. Don’t just stand on the sidelines and laugh: support us. We need it.

Image: Benson Kua

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