Adam Long is a Board Director of the NXF (National LGBT Federation). He spoke to the leaders of the three main political parties in Ireland on LGBTQ+ rights during Pride season.
As part of the Dublin Pride festivities last month, I had the opportunity to speak at length about LGBTQ+ equality issues with the leaders of the State’s three largest political parties – the current Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Tanaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, and Leader of the Opposition Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Fein).
The initiative was a joint collaboration between the National LGBT Federation (NXF), on whose Board I serve, and Dublin LGBTQ Pride.
That the most prominent political leaders in Ireland were more than happy to be given the opportunity during Pride Month to talk ‘gay politics’ is perhaps further testament to the much more socially liberal Ireland that we thankfully now live in, and a far cry indeed from earlier decades when brave voices like Noel Browne and Mary Robinson stood virtually alone in advocating for the rights of a beleaguered and criminalised community.
In all three interviews, I was keen to secure firm and detailed commitments from the leaders of the political parties on specific policy questions ranging from Hate Crime to Education Equality to EU/global LGBTQ+ rights and more.
On the issue of Hate Crime, which our own comprehensive NXF research revealed to be the leading political issue for the LGBTQ+ community post-marriage equality, the three leaders of the political parties were emphatic that they would resist any and all attempts to water-down the current Draft Bill published by Government last April and which is due to be debated when the Oireachtas returns in the autumn. In particular, they pledged to ensure it remained fully LGBTQ+ inclusive, explicitly encompassing both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression – very important when you consider the toxic discourse that has developed elsewhere around trans issues in particular and not too far from our own shores.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin told me that having come so far in our LGBTQ+ rights journey, we couldn’t countenance any backward steps in that societal evolution.
Similarly, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald stated that the LGBTQ+ community could be “absolutely assured” of her party’s strong support for robust, fully LGBTQ+ inclusive Hate Crime legislation but added that the new law needs to be backed up with sufficient resources to ensure effective enforcement. Indeed, the Opposition Leader agreed with me that any law in this area could not be merely symbolic and that a (Hate) crime which targets a person’s core, innate identity needs to be treated as an absolute priority.
For his part, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar spoke of being a target of online racist and homophobic abuse and how social media platforms were failing abysmally in that regard. He agreed that self-regulation has manifestly failed and referenced not just the Government’s Hate Crime Bill but also Online Safety legislation currently making its way through the Oireachtas.
On the issue of implementing a much needed ban on the abusive and discredited practice known as so-called ‘Conversion Therapy’ (torture), Mary Lou McDonald said that we need to adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach and ban the “barbaric practice” outright, with no exemptions for ‘prayer’ or anything else under the guise of ‘religious belief’.
Tellingly, she also stated that Arlene Foster lost her job as DUP leader because she choose to abstain rather than join her more fundamentalist party colleagues in voting against a ban on this ‘therapy’ when the issue was debated in Northern Ireland.
For his part, the Taoiseach said there can be no place in a modern society for something as abhorrent as ‘Conversion Therapy’ and agreed that any ban needs to be comprehensive and fully cover all settings, to prevent an array of individuals and religious groups in particular peddle this ‘therapy’.
Meanwhile Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said Minister for Equality Roderic O’Gorman can be assured of his full support in bringing forward proposals to ban the practice so as to make clear, in the Minister’s words, that a person’s “sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is not up for debate”.
Education Equality was another prominent policy area where I was keen to get a sense of the will of the political parties to enact much needed change and reform.
In 2019, an All-Party Oireachtas Committee on Education recommended that current legislation be amended to make RSE (Relationships & Sexuality Education) both mandatory and fully LGBTQ+ inclusive, regardless of ‘ethos’.
The Taoiseach expressed his support for the Committee’s findings and pledged that the necessary legislative changes would occur during the current period of government. A young gay man who shadowed the Taoiseach for a day and who told of his experiences of homophobic bullying left a real impression on Micheál Martin and underlined for him the importance of a culture of equality permeating the entire school community.
Similarly, the Tanaiste and the Leader of the Opposition also gave their endorsement of a standardised, fully LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum with both pointing out how we don’t allow for selective ‘opt-outs’ when it comes to other important subjects.
The appalling state sanctioned anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination being ratcheted up in Hungary and Poland was another strong focal point of our interviews, with the authoritarian government in Budapest having just enacted a Russian-style homophobic law in contravention of basic European laws and values.
According to the Taoiseach, the Hungarian government had ‘crossed a line’ and a robust response is required from the European institutions, which Ireland very much supports. He said he is very much of the ‘Joe Biden school of thought’ in that the World is becoming increasingly polarized between those who support liberal democracy and those, like the Orban government in Hungary, who are advancing reactionary authoritarianism – which homophobia is a major feature of.
The European Commission has just this week finally initiated infringement proceedings against both Poland and Hungary. In addition, many NGOs and political figures are calling for all EU funding to the two countries to be suspended until their anti-LGBTQ+ laws and policies are repealed – a call the National LGBT Federation strongly supports.
The final segment of each interview was devoted to more personal themes. Tanaiste Leo Varadkar told me how the lead-in to the historic 2015 marriage referendum was the catalyst for his coming out in politics as a gay man. He recalled sitting in meetings with party colleagues, who, while supportive of a Yes vote, spoke in ways that involved the ‘othering’ of LGBTQ+ people. The Tanaiste said this helped crystalise in his mind the importance of not just advocating for equality in the context of what is right and necessary in a Secular Republic but to do so in more personal terms.
Leo Varadkar agreed that such visibility is powerful – ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. Indeed, our own NXF Burning Issues research revealed that having openly LGBTQ+ figures in public life is a community priority, confounding those usually socially right-wing voices who seek to dismiss the importance of representation as ‘token’ or ‘identity’ politics etc. etc.
Mary Lou McDonald, meanwhile, sported a prominent ‘LGBT Ally’ badge for our interview, which she continued to wear in the Dail later that day for Leaders Questions, along with a PRIDE emblazoned mask.
For Taoiseach Micheál Martin, there was agreement with the statement that both the Marriage Equality and Repeal referendums have conclusively proven that Ireland is no longer the kind of conservative and change-resistant society that all too many in the world of politics continued to believe it to be until quite recently.
The oft-quoted ‘middle Ireland’ has spoken and it has spoken in favour of the kind of laws and values befitting a modern Republic. Or, as the Taoiseach put it, the marriage equality referendum provided a vehicle for the majority of the citizenry to acknowledge the great injustices the LGBTQ+ community have long endured and to seek to begin to put that right.
The full video interviews with all three leaders are available online on Dublin LGBTQ Pride and National LGBT Federation (NXF) social media channels.
For the full interview with Micheál Martin, visit here.
For the full interview with Leo Varadkar, click here.
For the full interview with Mary Lou McDonald, visit here.
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