Mal O'Hara becomes first openly gay political party leader in Northern Ireland

Belfast councillor Mal O'Hara has become the first openly gay leader of a mainstream party in Northern Ireland.

Photo of first openly gay party leader in Northern Ireland, Mal O'Hara.
Image: Via Twitter - @oharamal

Mal O’Hara has been named the new leader of the NI Green Party, becoming the first openly gay man to hold the leading role of a mainstream political party in Northern Ireland.

After previous party leader Clare Bailey decided to step down, Belfast councillor O’Hara has taken her place, vowing to change people’s hearts and minds on environmental issues. Before getting involved in partisan politics, Mal O’Hara was an activist for LGBTQ+ rights who acted as vice-chairman of the marriage equality campaign and worked with the Rainbow Project.

When discussing his journey to becoming a politician, he said, “I did give consideration to other parties but after talking with friends and family and others, it felt right in my gut and in my heart and my head to join the Greens and I joined in late 2014″. He said that what’s most important to him and his party is “to show a vision of hope and opportunity for a different society,” and that in order to do so “we need to do it in the communities that have been most affected by the Troubles.”

“North Belfast sometimes gets painted as the most sectarian area, rife with poverty, but it is the best part of the city and it is beautiful and I love it and it is my home,” he continued.

His predecessor Clare Bailey decided to step down as leader after the disappointing Assembly election results, in which members of the party lost their seats. Despite that, O’Hara shared that he feels proud of what his party has achieved.

“We brought two pieces of law, but also we forced the Executive to bring forward a Climate Bill,” he said. “We have always been the progressive vanguard of change.”

He then also added, “But we are a post-conflict society. We are still locked in that binary understanding of constitutional politics and the recent election we had was focused around those issues and that had an impact on us.”

“But when there is another Assembly election, and who knows, there might be one pretty quickly, we are determined to regain those seats and we will fight hard and focus hard and I think the public will want Green representation in Northern Ireland,” he said.

As the first openly gay party leader in Northern Ireland, O’Hara is acutely aware of how much still needs to be done to reach equality for the LGBTQ+ community. When discussing what it’s like to be an openly gay man in his country, he said: “Like a lot of people, I went away to go to university in 1998 and that is when I came out. I made a decision around 2003/04 to come home and live authentically as an out gay man.”

He added, “I am very lucky, I have a fantastic family, I have a good social network, good supports around me. I have been very blessed, but I know that is not the experience of everybody.”

Despite this, he hasn’t been immune to the rampant homophobia that still pervades society. “I’ve had death threats, I’ve had harassment, I’ve had homophobic abuse, I’ve experienced all of that and that is what led me into LGBT activism,” O’Hara said.

He also spoke about how he is aware that there are people that wouldn’t vote for him because of his sexual orientation. “Luckily, those numbers of people are decreasing every single year,” he said.

“The fundamental failure is the Executive promised a sexual orientation strategy in 2007; it is 2022 and that has still not been delivered and that is a key mechanism for addressing inequality,” he discussed. “There has never been a better time to be LGBT, but there is still a lot of work to do to make sure it is better for coming generations.”

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