Gay, pro-choice loyalist Julie-Anne Corr Johnston breaks mould of Ulster politics

Recently married councillor says her sexuality was not an issue for Belfast voters

Julie-Anne Corr Johnston Belfast city councillor Julie-Anne Corr Johnston of the Progressive Unionist Party. Photograph: Paul McErlane
She is the first openly lesbian politician in Northern Ireland, a pro-choice feminist and the new face of working-class Ulster loyalism at Belfast City Hall.
Julie-Anne Corr Johnston is a glaring contrast to the old stereotypes about Northern Ireland loyalists. But the 27-year-old still belongs to a political party that evolved out of the Ulster Volunteer Force and despite her social radicalism maintains she is vehemently pro-union.
Just back from her eastern European honeymoon after marrying Kerry Johnston, the Progressive Unionist party councillor admits she made history when elected to City Hall in May. Representing working-class loyalists in Oldpark, one of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, Corr Johnston says local people have been fully supportive of her marriage. “There were a lot of great comments across social media and loads of emails of support. But the electorate were fully aware of my sexuality prior to the election.”
Reflecting on her election, Corr Johnston says: “To be totally honest when I got elected I didn’t think ‘Oh I’m the first LGBT to be elected!’ … What really got me excited was that I’m a young, progressive loyalist who happens to be a woman in politics, which is something we rarely see here and that is what I am most proud of.”
Some fellow unionists such as the Democratic Unionist party oppose equal rights for gay people, but Corr Johnston says she prefers to be “diplomatic” towards those politicians whom others in the local LGBT community accuse of blatant homophobia. “Many heads, many minds is my approach. We don’t have to think alike and nor do we. The Progressive Unionist party has an equality policy and inclusivity in practice. And that means inclusivity for Peter and Paul in society rather than robbing one to pay the other. The DUP is a political party with a religious ethos and there is room for that in society.”
Asked if the DUP were as diplomatic with her as she is with them, she replies: “No, no problems with them, in fact we get on extremely well and when we need to work together we do.”
The DUP is currently trying to force a freedom of conscience bill through the Northern Ireland assembly, which effectively would allow born-again evangelical Christians to opt out of equality laws. It was prompted by the Equality Commission in the region finding a local bakery chain, Ashers, guilty of anti-gay discrimination for refusing to make a gay-themed cake for an LGBT couple.
Corr Johnston says she would vote against any motion on the council that would back the DUP’s campaign. “Yes I would be opposed, that would be my personal viewpoint. The freedom of conscience bill only gives way for further discrimination.”
While socially liberal and diametrically opposed to the DUP’s anti-abortion, anti-gay rights agenda, Corr Johnston insists she is like those in other unionist parties “rock solidly pro-union”. She says: “The United Kingdom? You don’t get a more liberal, progressive democracy in this world. And I am confident of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. Our best interests are served being inside that union.”
The PUP councillor says she became politicised by taking part in the grassroots loyalist protests against Belfast city council’s decision two years ago to reduce the number of days it flies the union flag. She also fully supports the right of North Belfast Orangemen to complete a controversial parade banned since July 2013 from passing the republican Ardoyne district close to where she grew up. “I was a flag protester at the time and that is what brought me to politics and political activism.”
Corr Johnston says another main reason why she chose to join the PUP was its pro-choice stance on abortion. “I support the Marie Stopes clinic and women’s right to access services in it in Belfast. The party is pro-choice, that is why I joined.”
The Ashers bakery controversy, the freedom of conscience bill and the fact that Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where Corr Johnston’s marriage is not on a fully equal footing suggest the region is still a hotbed of homophobia. But she believes the people are ahead of most of their politicians. She welcomes the fact the Republic of Ireland is holding a referendum in the spring to make gay marriage equal in law. “It is potentially what we might have to do here in Northern Ireland, and let the people speak.
“When I was in Egypt recently with Kerry we both had to hide our sexuality whereas in Northern Ireland we have come a long way with LGBT issues. Some in the media would have you believe we are behind the times but think of the thousands of citizens who turn out in this city every year to cheer on the Gay Pride marchers. It’s evidence that people out there are more tolerant.”
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