With plans for gay and lesbian marriage developing fast in England, Scotland and Wales, the struggle for equality in Northern Ireland has received far less attention.
But a new executive committee has been elected to run Equal Marriage Northern Ireland and its chair, John O’Doherty is confident of success.
It won’t be the same strategy as in the rest of the United Kingdom. A political debate is under way but the constitution in NI and its conservative make-up – including some virulent homophobes – prevent a political resolution to the issue.
Instead O’Doherty and his team have to steer a more complicated course. But in doing so they have lessons for other parts of the world about how to handle the issue with respect for everyone, including their religious opponents. It’s a lesson that Northern Ireland’s history has uniquely prepared them to share.
Gay Star News spoke exclusively to O’Doherty to discover the whole story.
How did you get involved in this campaign and elected as chair?
I work as director of the Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland’s largest LGBT organization. The initial campaign was started as a student movement and a number of LGBT organizations came together and decided they wanted to build something stronger and more robust. I was approached and asked to act as interim chair and then we held open elections.
We do have a lot of people on the executive who are workers or activists within the LGBT community and that has its positives and negatives. The negative being the amount of time people can dedicate. But the positives are we have the contacts we need, we understand the political structure of Northern Ireland, we are experienced in campaigning, we are trusted by the community. And those are the sorts of things you can’t buy
We also have an activist base of 120 people plus more people through social networking. The role of the executive will be to help anyone who wants to get involved in this campaign to do so.
What’s the view of people on the street in Northern Ireland about same-sex marriage equality?
It’s very hard to know, no real opinion polls have been carried out here. But from our experience, we receive very little concern about equal marriage.
The message is getting out there that it will not impact anyone other than those who want to access a same-sex marriage – it will not devalue anyone else’s marriage.
People realize that in the seven years since Belfast held the first civil partnership in the United Kingdom, things haven’t changed, society hasn’t fallen apart and kids haven’t been put at risk. All these different lies which were told in 2005 have been shown to be untrue. I think people are smarter than to listen to the same old rhetoric.
One issue which consistently comes up is about religious freedom. How important is that to the debate in Northern Ireland?
It’s one of the biggest fear points for our communities.
We are very clear that no faith organization who doesn’t want to carry out marriages between same-sex couples should be forced to so. But on the flip side those faith organizations – such as pagans, Buddhists, non-subscribing Presbyterians – who wish to carry out these ceremonies should be allowed to.
One difference we have in Northern to the rest of the UK is you can’t have a faith-based civil partnership in Northern Ireland. Regardless of whether a faith group wants to provide that service – they are not allowed to by law.
What political support and opposition do you have?
The debate politically here started because of a motion that went to every borough, district and city council across Northern Ireland. It has been brought forward by Sinn Fein who, as a party, have stated their full support for marriage equality across the Island of Ireland.
That very much encouraged the other political parties who didn’t have positions to develop them.
One of the best-covered by the media is the Alliance Party, where they had a difference of opinions within the party and unclear messages about where they stand. The party now supports marriage equality but when we pushed them further on that, they said there would be no disciplinary action against any member that abstains from any vote around equal marriage.
The SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party] is just the same, it’s a question of conscience for how their members vote. The same with the Ulster Unionist Party.
Not surprisingly the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] are completely opposed to marriage equality and have come out very clearly in opposition to it.
The Green Party put forward a motion calling for marriage equality in the last Assembly which failed to get any backing, so while it was proposed it wasn’t seconded.
Northern Ireland is quite unique because it has a system of forced coalition so the five main political parties form a coalition government. It makes it very difficult to get any legislative agenda passed ¬– because they are coming from such a different position.
Any change for marriage law will never be brought forward by the Northern Ireland Assembly, not in this lifetime. The reason being is that the DUP having the level of power they have can bring forward what’s called ‘a petition of concern’, something very unique to Northern Ireland [effectively a veto over the Assembly’s decisions].
So what is your strategy?
Our strategy is to call for the debate to happen. What we have at the moment is the DUP saying we don’t want to think about this, let alone talk about it. Thankfully we have this motion going forward and we’ll be calling for a dignified, honest, open and fair debate.
Beyond that we will really be looking across the water to see what happens in England, Scotland and Wales and like on many other issues we’ll be looking to the judicial system to bring in any change here.
If marriage equality is introduced in England and couples got married in England, what is the authority of the Northern Ireland government and assembly to not recognize that marriage? And as they would be deemed as married they wouldn’t be able to have a civil partnership – so they would be banned from having a civil partnership by a government which refuses to recognize their marriage. That’s the kind of basis we will probably be moving forward on.
It’s worked in just the same way around the blood ban [ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood]. That was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales but not in Northern Ireland because our DUP minister refuses to accept the best available scientific information on this and its going forward as a judicial review case.
There is a really difficult political structure where instead of getting leadership from political parties we are relying on the judicial system to bring in the equality laws.
It’s also worth noting that in Northern Ireland there has never been any measure introduced by the Northern Ireland Assembly for LGBT people. Any of the protections we have – goods and services laws, civil partnerships – was brought in during direct rule [from London] under the previous Labour government.
So it seems like it will take a long time…
It will all depend how well the [UK] coalition government hold up to their promises [on introducing same-sex marriage equality in England and Wales]. The other option happens around Scotland, the [planned] introduction of marriage equality in Scotland puts a lot of pressure on other parts of the United Kingdom to introduce this legislation as well to work as a single unit of the UK.
It’s quite different to civil partnership which was introduced to all parts of the UK at the same time…
The difference is that there was no Northern Ireland Assembly at the time civil partnership was introduced, it was direct rule from Westminster so things were very different then. Because of devolution, equality is devolved to the assembly.
How confident are you this is going to happen?
I’m 100% confident that full marriage equality is going to be introduced in Northern Ireland. It is just the time-frame.
There is no way we are going to be left behind the rest of the United Kingdom. And considering the political position of politicians in Northern Ireland from a unionist background, to have a different system here to the rest of the UK flies in the face of everything they believe and their voters believe.
Times are changing here, the authority of the church has been challenged, particularly because of the difficulties faced by the Catholic church in Ireland. It is getting easier to be LGBT, more families have openly LGBT members, young people are growing up with LGBT friends.
We really are, I believe, living through the gay civil rights movement here and I think this is going to be one of our key, crowning achievements and I honestly believe it’s going to be achieved, at the longest time-frame, in the next five years.
Equal marriage will have benefits to transgender people as well (who currently have to divorce their husband or wife when they transition and then re-register as a civil partnership). Is that part of your message?
Absolutely, it’s very important. This is why we are talking about equal marriage, not gay marriage. Full equality, not just across sexual orientation but also gender and gender identity as well. What we have through marriage is a continuation of a sexist, heterosexist view of how our society should conduct itself and that’s something we are completely opposing through the Equal Marriage NI campaign.
What can you learn about how to win this from countries which already have marriage equality or where it is being debated at the moment?
We have contacts internationally, groups we’ve worked with right across the world and in particular in England, Scotland and Wales.
We are very much looking to our partners, getting advice, looking for support from across the border as this is an all-Ireland issue as well – looking at the similar conservative history of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a way of approaching the campaign.
We’ve got information from the America about how they’ve run their campaign and engaged the public.
But the key thing we’re learning internationally is to call for respect. We don’t want to have people getting offended, we don’t want to have incitement to hatred. We want to have a fair debate about the realities of marriage equality. We want to respect faith groups’ beliefs but we want them to respect who we are and what our legal and civil rights are.
Northern Ireland has changed almost beyond recognition so do you feel this is part of that transition?
Absolutely – 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Northern Ireland. The fact that, in that short period of time, we’re able to be having these conversations is so important.
But more so than that, what makes Northern Ireland unique is our history. Look what we’ve been through by opposing difference. Look at the loss we have had through sectarian violence, through racism, through all this hatred.
I think in Northern Ireland we have such a specific perspective when it comes to celebrating difference. When we’re looking at this it’s from the position of respecting each other, of learning each other and celebrating the difference we have because that’s what’s worked.
Looking at what we’ve achieved, particularly in the last 10 or 20 years makes me hugely hopeful for the future of LGBT people in Northern Ireland.