Love Equality – the fight for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland
It was whilst working at Royal Mail at the central Tomb Street sorting office in Belfast in 2002 that I first truly fathomed the transformational power of the trade union movement. A 20-year-old Catholic postman Daniel McColgan was murdered by the loyalist paramilitary group – the UDA in January 2002 as he arrived for work. The paramilitaries then issued death threats against all Catholic postal workers. Royal Mail workers, both Catholic and Protestant went on strike for 3 days until the threats were lifted, and 20,000 workers attended a city centre rally during a half day stoppage called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions which was attended by a cross section of workers including the Fire Brigade who had not been on strike since 1977. Fear and division was replaced by strength and solidarity.
Fifteen years on, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, alongside Amnesty International, NUS Union of Students Ireland and local LGBT+ groups is a part of the Love Equality consortium fighting for Equal Marriage in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, with its population of 1.8 million is the only region in UK and Ireland where marriage equality is not legally recognised. In October 2016 First Minister Arlene Foster, of the DUP, vowed to block equal marriage for the next 5 years using the veto introduced under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, designed to protect minorities, called the Petition of Concern. The First Minister claimed to speak for those “who want to protect marriage and don’t want to see it redefined”. This is utterly incongruous with the intention and spirit of sexual orientation equality legislation, that individuals should not be treated less favourably because of their sexual orientation. This bleak situation is in contrast to the euphoric scenes in the Republic of Ireland following the Yes vote in the 2015 Equal Marriage referendum, and in contrast to the US Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case in which the Court determined by 5 votes to 4 that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples.
As recently as 2014, Northern Ireland has been on the precipice of a human rights regression. The largest 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. Continual political attacks on the LGBT+ community and the continued use of the Petition of Concern veto impacts massively on mental health. A recent study conducted by the Rainbow Project discovered that within Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community, 47% of those surveyed had considered suicide, and 71% had suffered depression. A further cruel blow to the LGBT+ community is the situation whereby a person could leave Northern Ireland, fall in love, get married and never be able to come home without their marriage being changed against their will to a civil partnership.
If displacement is considered as an involuntary movement, when people feel they have no choice but to move, then the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, with its direct correlation between levels of violence and outward migration of people from Northern Ireland created a displaced people living in mainland UK and beyond. Should these people wish to return, they return to a province where the LGBT+ community are treated unequally and excluded from the institution of marriage and the benefits and respect that marriage confers.
It can be said that same-sex marriage is the benchmark for LGBT+ equality in the western world. If this is the case then the message the devolved assembly at Stormont sends out to LGBT+ people is loud and clear – your place is on the fringes, and you are not part of society.
The struggle is hard fought and gruelling in a post conflict Northern Ireland, where there is a makeshift and often dysfunctional power sharing devolved government. The devolved government is currently in a state of disarray following its post RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) scandal disintegration. The March 2017 elections following the collapse of Stormont returned the DUP as the largest party again, this time one seat short of the 30 required to trigger the Petition of Concern veto, they do, however, require only one likeminded MLA to support their veto should a government be formed.
The Northern Irish people are overwhelmingly in favour of Equal Marriage and in a recent IPSOS MORI poll, 70% of respondents were in favour of Equal Marriage and even 50% of DUP supporters were in favour, and furthermore the scene of 20,000 people, including huge trade union representation marching through Belfast demanding marriage equality in 2015 was utterly breath-taking. In addition to all other avenues, there are currently two legal challenges in progress, one by a same-sex couple who were married in England and are fighting to have their marriage recognised in Northern Ireland and the second challenges the ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, on the basis that this is a human rights breach under the European Convention on Human Rights. We are so close, yet so far from achieving Equal Marriage and call on all trade unionists with all their transformational powers, in UK, Ireland and beyond – to support Love Equality, to communicate and give visibility to our cause, to influence decision makers in Westminster and beyond, and to stand shoulder to shoulder in strength and solidarity with Northern Ireland to help deliver Equal Marriage without any more wasted years and without any more barriers to love.
For more information on Love Equality visit: http://loveequalityni.org/
For more information on Irish Congress of Trade Unions visit: http://www.ictuni.org/