Fighting for equal marriage in Northern Ireland

LGBT activist Claire Mullaly explains why trade unions are at the heart of the battle for equality


Claire Mullaly, right, with colleagues at Pride In London 2017


As I awoke in my home city of Belfast on the morning of 9 June to the dystopian nightmare of a potential DUP pact with the Conservative Party, horror thoughts were abound. What about the Good Friday Agreement and peace? What about devolution? What about Northern Irish women’s struggle for control over reproductive rights and their own body autonomy? And what about the ongoing struggle for LGBT+ rights?


Northern Ireland is the one region of the UK where we still do not have equal marriage. Worse than that, the LGBT+ community is constantly under attack, often from some of our most senior political leaders.


The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) recently assessed Northern Ireland as the worst place in the UK for LGBT people, with 74% equality of LGBT+ rights compared to 86% equality of LGBT+ rights for the UK overall.


In 2014, Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the DUP, attempted to legislate for a “conscience clause” to be applied to equality legislation where businesses would be allowed to refuse to serve LGBT+ people on religious grounds. One year later, the DUP then used a veto mechanism called the Petition of Concern, which was designed ironically to protect minority rights, to block equal marriage in Northern Ireland despite there being a majority of members in favour.


Claire, right, at this year's Pride In London parade


This creates a toxic atmosphere for the LGBT+ community, one in which politicians freely use anti-LGBT+ rhetoric. For example, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr has said: "I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think is wrong” and Jim Wells, the former DUP health minister said, “You don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That child is far more likely to be abused and neglected.”


Repeated denial of equality, attempts to create division, and isolation in society is traumatic for the LGBT+ community and has a heavy psychological impact, with a recent study by the Rainbow Project finding that 47% of those surveyed had considered suicide and 71% had suffered depression.


If same-sex marriage is the benchmark for LGBT+ equality in the western world, then the message the devolved Assembly at Stormont sends out to LGBT+ people is loud and clear. Whilst equal marriage is not a panacea for LGBT+ problems of poverty, homelessness, workplace issues, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, health access and education problems, it is important that all people can dream the same dream and to see the same horizon.


But we are not standing still. In July, I was part of the equal marriage march that brought Belfast city centre to a standstill and polls now show that around 70% of the people of Northern Ireland support equal marriage.


Trade unions, like the one I’m part of, were at the heart of that march and of the campaign for LGBT+ equality in Northern Ireland. This week, I have the privilege of speaking about the campaign to the Trades Union Congress annual meeting in Brighton. I will make the case for LGBT+ rights both in Northern Ireland and across the UK following the Conservative Party’s pact with the DUP. We must be vigilant and we must act to defend existing equalities legislation across the UK and ensure we finally get the right to equal marriage for everyone.


Claire Mullaly lives and works in Belfast. She is a member of Prospect union and involved in the campaign for Equal Marriage in Northern Ireland


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