Four out of five of the main political parties in Northern Ireland attended a conference on Thursday to join in a unanimous call for marriage equality, anti-bullying legislation and gender recognition reform.
The conference was organised by UK-based LGBT+ publication PinkNews, as a part of their Belfast Summer Reception.
In attendance was Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly, who called for Northern Ireland to join the rest of Ireland, as well as the UK, in introducing Marriage Equality.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re elected to represent all people in society,” she said. “The LGBT+ community is a valuable and integral part of our society and I’m determined to ensure that people are heard.
“I’m determined to ensure that you can enjoy the same rights, the same benefits that everybody else does. That’s not a privilege, that’s just your right. There’s absolutely no room for second class citizenship in our society.”
LGBT+ equality is currently blocked in Northern Ireland by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Marriage equality passed by a small majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2015, but has not been enacted to date as the DUP used a petition of concern to prevent this from happening.
The petition of concern was designed during the peace process to prevent legislation from passing that would favour one community over another (in the case of Northern Ireland, Republicans and Unionists). However, the DUP has yet to clarify how the passing of Marriage Equality would be of detriment to Unionist communities.
The DUP was the only one of Northern Ireland’s main political parties to not attend the conference.
The blocking of Marriage Equality by the DUP is a contributing factor to a current political stalemate which has led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Also in attendance at the conference was Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann.
Speaking directly to the LGBT+ community, he said: “it’s not as if there was an avalanche of legislation that benefitted you passing through this place in the past 10 years.
“If and when we restore devolution, Stormont must offer a platform and bring representation and legislation for our LGBT+ community,” he said.
Speaking on the topic of mental health in LGBT+ youth, he called for politicians across the political divide to “grasp the mettle and experience of those in our schools.”
He continued: “When I spoke here last year I reflected on the horrific statistics on LGBT+ youth in Northern Ireland, where two out of three do not feel that school is a welcoming environment. Where three out of five say they have had suicidal thoughts because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
His sentiments were echoed by Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), who called the LGBT+ Rights Movement “this generation’s civil rights movement.”
The politicians in attendance paid tribute to Lyra McKee, the journalist and LGBT+ rights campaigner who was killed while reporting on riots in Derry in April.
Alliance MLA for South Belfast, Paula Bradshaw, opened the event by noting the contributions of McKee and other “absent friends” to the fight for equality.
Recently asked why they had denied Lyra McKee equality in her lifetime, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “We have a long-standing policy which hasn’t changed. That remains the position of the party.”
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