The drive for same-sex equality puts Northern Ireland on road to normality

 

The campaign for same-sex marriage is seeing a gradual realignment of politics here along Left-Right lines and away from tribal allegiances, writes Lyra McKee.

 

Following the success of the Irish referendum on equal marriage, there was chatter among the Northern Ireland LGBT community and its allies about what could be done to gain the same rights for our citizens.

Amnesty International March for Equality as it makes its way through Belfast city centre

Amnesty International March for Equality as it makes its way through Belfast city centre

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called for a referendum – a well-meaning but foolish idea, one that local LGBT activists like Stephen Donnan and Ellen Murray were rightly against.

If we were to describe Northern Ireland in American terms, we would probably say that it is the UK’s “Bible Belt”, a society dominated by the whims of Republicans (ironically, in this case, the DUP) with the equivalent of US Democrats being Sinn Fein, Alliance, PUP, NI21, the Greens and the liberal wing of the UUP.

Northern Ireland politics has always been obscured by the Orange and the Green. Instead of backing politicians based on whether they represent Left-wing, or Right-wing, values, as the rest of the UK does, we judge them based on how well they’ve stuck to their tribal allegiances.

Canvassing during election time, one UUP member told me the issue that seemed to rile voters the most was Sinn Fein: “We need to keep the Shinners out.” Not the disgustingly low educational attainment rates amongst Protestant boys, our failing health service, or the poverty facing the working classes. Nope, just keep those republicans from getting into power.

And it’s no different on the nationalist side. Even in childhood I could recite the mantras “Vote tactically” or “A vote for Alliance is a wasted vote”.
 Don’t vote for the smaller parties, so the thinking went. Even if you disagree with the big parties, vote for them to keep the DUP out. Who cares if your area is riddled with anti-social behaviour and nothing has been done about it since the last election?

Or that, 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement, there is still little equality of opportunity for working-class young people, whatever their religion? Each side lives in fear of what the other will do – and so they put the X on their ballot sheet beside the candidate who represents the deepest shade of Green or Orange.

And so we have large portions of the working classes voting for Right-wingers who would make a Ukiper blush, or those who made lots of promises at the last election and had delivered on none by the time the next one came round. One friend, an activist with one of the smaller parties, told me how an employee of one of the big parties announced to him: “We love the working-class vote, because it’s the only vote we don’t have to work for.”

Yet, with the equal civil marriage issue, we are seeing the beginnings of a radical change. The issue has split Northern Ireland parties in terms of those who are Left-wing and those who are Right-wing – instead of on tribal and religious grounds.

During the motion for equal marriage put forward at Belfast City Hall, it was a wondrous sight to see Sinn Fein, PUP, People Before Profit, Alliance, Greens and three UUP councillors join together to vote in favour.

At Stormont, unionist party NI21 is vocal in its support of equal civil marriage, with leader Basil McCrea voting in support whenever a motion for it is tabled (usually by Sinn Fein). Maybe I just didn’t notice it before, but it’s hard to remember another time when nationalists and unionists were united on an emotive issue.

For those of us who grew up on the interfaces, with the sound of helicopters hovering overhead on summer nights as riots broke out, it’s a nice sight to see.

A few months ago, walking through a nationalist area during election time, I saw a DUP billboard. It was the first time I’d ever seen one there. The party seems to be making an appeal to the conservative Catholic vote, gathering support among church-goers who are disillusioned with Sinn Fein’s stance on equal civil marriage, LGBT rights and abortion.

One SDLP member told me that, during a canvass in one middle-class Catholic area, many voters expressed outrage at Sinn Fein over its liberal take on abortion in particular.

Whether that anger is big enough to motivate them to switch to the DUP remains to be seen – it wasn’t in this election. Yet, the DUP seems to see an opportunity there.

Back in December the Catholic Church announced that it was ending its relationship with an adoption services provider after an attempt to overturn a law allowing unmarried couples and same-sex couples to adopt failed.

Who came out to support it at the time? Step forward Paul Givan (left), DUP MLA for Lagan Valley and the architect of the dreaded “conscience clause”.

He was quoted as saying: “Equality of opportunity for Catholics to access adoption services from their own Church is being denied as a result of our laws. Just as with Ashers bakery, the Catholic Church should not have to act in violation of its deeply held religious beliefs. A truly tolerant society should be capable of making space to accommodate difference in our community.”

Anyone not suffering from the effects of short-term memory loss may have done a double-take at that. With its links to the Free Presbyterian Church, the DUP has always been a staunchly Protestant party. It doesn’t seem that long ago that it was decrying the “Papish” influences of the Irish Government.

Yet the equal marriage issue has forced an alignment of the stars within the Right-wing camp, bringing the DUP and Catholic Church together. In some ways this is a positive thing, signalling the emergence of “normal” politics in Northern Ireland: Conservatives to the Right, Liberals to the Left.

Religion was never a distinction I saw made within the LGBT community. Turning 18 and going to gay bars with friends for the first time, the collective feeling was that we’d all been shunned by our respective priests, nuns and vicars in some way.

Religion didn’t want us. And we were outsiders as it was, with only each other to turn to.

Growing up, my friends in school and outside were the misfits, the kids who didn’t fit in – mostly gay. Some of us didn’t particularly get along, but we had no one else our age to turn to.

And when it came to meeting gay teens from other areas, why would we care whether they were Protestant or not? We had few friends as it was without turning people away because they were baptised at a different altar.

We dated people from the opposite religion at a time when it was still considered dangerous or wrong by the communities we came from.

The LGBT community comprises such a broad church (excuse the pun), one not limited by tribal identity or religion. This is reflected in the debate over equal civil marriage. It’s forcing Northern Ireland into the 21st century in more ways than one.

  • Lyra McKee is a Belfast-based freelance journalist
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