LGBTI people in Northern Ireland fear Brexit could throw the region’s fragile peace process into turmoil.
They also fear losing the protection of the EU and being at the mercy of the notoriously anti-LGBTI Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The controversial political party has so far successfully halted same-sex marriage coming to the region.
The United Kingdom’s planned departure of the EU in March 2019 will impact both the UK and Europe. Nowhere will this be felt more acutely than in Northern Ireland. After Brexit, it will be the only part of the UK that has a land border with Europe.
What happens to this border is one of the main sticking points in negotiations between the EU and UK.
The potential return of a hard border
Nobody wants to see a return to a hard border, with possible checkpoints and customs inspections, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In fact, the Good Friday Agreement which came into force in 1999, and which helped quell the long-running troubles in the region, stipulates there be no hard border between the two territories.
However, once the UK leaves the EU, the exact nature of the border remains undecided.
Marcus Hunter Neil, 36, works as radio host and as drag queen Lady Portia Di’ Monte. He lives in Belfast. He often crosses the border to perform gigs in Dublin. Marcus says the atmosphere in Northern Ireland is already fractious due to the breakdown of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Assembly at Stormont was a power-sharing arrangement made up of Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein and DUP politicians. However, following disagreements, the working relationship between the parties broke down.
The DUP want Northern Ireland to maintain a close union with the rest of the UK. Opponents Sinn Fein, who are considered more left-wing, want a united Ireland.
Because of the falling out, the Assembly has been suspended for over 18 months. This has frozen major policy decisions in the region. It has also left many in Northern Ireland – the majority of whom voted for the UK to remain in the EU – feeling voiceless when it comes to Brexit.
Crossing the border
At weekends, Marcus, with his wigs and dresses, often catches the bus from Belfast to Dublin to perform. The journey takes around 90 minutes. However, any sort of hard border will likely increase this.
‘The bus runs 24 hours. I can get the 1.30am bus home and I’m back no problem. I had friends staying. They were Chinese, and they were studying in England. They were here for three days and were going to take a day trip to Dublin.
‘Well, they now have guards getting on the bus and they were taken off the bus because they didn’t have the right paperwork, even though they were studying in the UK. They got taken off the bus, brought to a police station, and then put on a train back to Belfast because they didn’t have the right paperwork to go and visit Dublin for the day.’
Impact on tourism
Marcus fears that this will become much more common post-Brexit, when those in Northern Ireland will be commuting in and out of the EU. He also thinks many tourists will simply not bother to visit Northern Ireland and just stick to Dublin instead.
‘And the thing is, Northern Ireland was starting to do well with tourism. We’ve got the Titanic Museum, we’ve put the years of conflict behind us, but again, our Government tightened all the licensing laws.
Indeed, Northern Ireland’s comparatively restrictive licensing laws – particularly around Holy Days – are likely to bemuse some visitors.
‘They rule with the Bible,’ says Marcus. ‘They’re worse than Trump supporters. They’re the biggest bunch of clowns.’
He doesn’t see Brexit, and a possible hard border, doing anything to boost tourism.
‘If that border happens and people don’t have the right paperwork, and one or two tourists from America get stopped, all of a sudden the rumour mill will start up again: “Oh, you can’t go back into Northern Ireland because they’re back in conflict.” People will start avoiding Northern Ireland.’
Commuting for work
Colin Matchett, 40, works as a Cabin Service Manager for an airline. He too lives in Northern Ireland and has to cross the border to Ireland frequently for work.
‘At present I commute to work like anyone else. It’s a simple two-hour journey. But I have no idea what the future holds, how much time will I have to allow to get to work should a hard border be brought into place?
‘This two-hour journey could suddenly take eight hours or more. And that’s before I even look towards the tax implications, pension and equivalent of national insurance contributions. At present there are many safeguards and regulations that make working across borders within the EU very simple, but these will of course disappear with the UK exit.
‘Will I now need an international driving licence to drive to Dublin? How will this affect my car insurance? Will I need a special policy for driving in Republic of Ireland?’
Besides issues around the border, Marcus highlights the unique politics of Northern Ireland as another reason to be wary of Brexit.
Every time the subject of same-sex marriage legislation arises, the DUP blocks it. This is despite the fact a recent poll showed 76% of the country in favour of marriage equality.
‘It’s so frustrating and it’s so embarrassing,’ says Marcus. ‘Our government cannot separate church and state. The DUP keep putting up a petition of concern.
‘This is an instrument for power sharing, to be used when there was deep political disagreement, and if one side had the slightly upper hand – a “petition of concern” gave the opposing side a voice.
‘But it wasn’t meant to be used as something to block everyday human rights. Basically, that’s what it is. It’s a human right they’re keeping away from us and every time it’s put forward, it’s blocked.
‘But they can’t stop if forever. It will happen. It’s just frustrating that we’re just going to be years and years behind everybody else.’
Who oversees human rights in Northern Ireland?
Campaigners for Brexit believe leaving the EU means the UK will no longer be dictated to by the European Court of Human Rights.
Although the UK has proposed its own human rights legislation, Marcus says there’s no guarantee that this will offer the same, broad protections to LGBTI people. Particularly so when, ‘the DUP have the UK government in their pocket.’
At the General Election in 2017, Theresa May’s Conservative Government in Westminster lost its majority. This led to it having to form an agreement with the DUP, giving the small Northern Ireland party, with its 10 MPs, considerably more influence than they were previously used to.
‘When we don’t have the heavier eye of the European Union looking on Northern Ireland, it allows our government to treat us whichever way they want,’ says Marcus.
‘Because really, at the moment, the DUP can do anything they want because they’ve got the British government in their hands. They don’t care about human rights. They just care about the Bible.’
‘I fear the bullies will have free reign’
‘I am tired of the constant stifling of progress in Northern Ireland by the DUP,’ says Colin of the party’s continual blocking of marriage equality legislation. ‘They have also illustrated their usual level of hypocrisy here by refusing a border in the Irish Sea, as they refuse for NI to be treated differently to any other part of the UK. Yet on a daily basis they fight to maintain differences in NI in regards to equal marriage and women’s rights.’
Besides being opposed to equal marriage, the DUP is resolutely anti-abortion. As recently as 2011, several of its MPs unsuccessfully called for a debate on the return of the death penalty.
‘The most fearsome part of Brexit is the removal of protections that the EU provided the LGBTI community in NI,’ says Colin.
‘The DUP will gain free reign in the pursuit of their hate filled policies. At present they have the Conservative Government held to ransom, and for our community in NI, I fear with the loss of the EU what the future could hold.
‘With the removal of a very strong form of independent protection, I fear the bullies will have free reign.’
‘An era of interdependence, peace and relationships that cross political boundaries’
Colin says Brexit has prompted him and his partner to consider relocating. He says the potential implications ‘keeps me awake at night.
‘I do not know if I will be able to continue in a career that I’ve spent 15 years building. Alternatively, my partner and I will have to make the choice in that do we finally leave NI.’
‘Brexit, to some, feels like freedom from oppression. But I fear that these people look to a view of a world of the past when Britannia ruled the waves and the sun never set on the British Empire.
‘We live in an era of interdependence, peace and relationships that cross political boundaries. I personally feel that we are now standing on a cliff edge, I hope there will be some miracle of a second vote.’
There has been speculation that if Brexit is not handled smoothly, it could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom. Besides Northern Ireland, Scotland voted convincingly to stay in the EU.
For Marcus, the idea of the peace process in Northern Ireland faltering is a terrifying one.
‘That, to me, is like an American Horror Story series. To actually think about that happening is far too frightening,’ he says of the UK breaking up.
‘But the way the world is at the moment, that’s not beyond the realms of possibility, but I would be very nervous for the country’s safety is something like that did happen. Because that is opening Pandora’s Box and you do not know what is going to come out.’