A motion to pay tribute to gay rights activist Mark Ashton and to consult the family of the LGBTQ+ campaigner over a memorial to him has been passed by members of the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough council’s corporate policy and resources committee despite DUP opposition.
The motion, which was proposed by SDLP Councillor Margaret Anne McKillop, called for the council to note Mr Ashton’s “work and commitment as an activist for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights and workers’ rights, especially coal miners during the Coal Miners’ strike of 1984/1985”.
It also called for “the immediate allocation of funds and identification of a suitable site, to take place in consultation with family and LGBTQ+ groups, for a suitable memorial to Mark Ashton within the council area”.
Activist Mark Ashton was a co-founder of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), which formed the basis for the film, Pride.
A volunteer with the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, Mark then founded LGSM alongside Mike Jackson, collecting donations for the striking miners during the 1984 Pride march in London. It resulted in the miners showing their own solidarity in turn, and attending a gay Pride march.
Mark died too soon, at the age of 26 in 1987 after being diagnosed with AIDS. He was admitted to hospital with pneumonia and died only 12 days later. A huge turnout of people paid their respects at his funeral in Lambeth Cemetary.
Mark’s huge impact has been recognised in London and even Paris but never in the place where he grew up.
Cllr McKillop said: “This motion is an opportunity for us to pay tribute to Mark Ashton and pay tribute to the work he has done for the LGBTQ+ community across the UK.
“We hope this motion will allow for permission from the council to put up a plaque on council property in Mark’s memory. This will have no financial implications for council and all we ask is that council will consult with the family and LGBTQ+ groups.”
The motion comes after a campaign, organised by Jude Copeland, for a plaque in Mark Ashton’s memory to be placed in his hometown of Portrush, Co Antrim. It raised £4,500 and amassed over 28,000 signatures on a petition calling for the memorial.
The Mayor of Causeway Coast and Glens, DUP Councillor Mark Fielding, spoke in opposition to the motion saying: “Mark Ashton was not a proud socialist, if he was that was fair enough, everyone is entitled to their political views, but he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Union of Miners which he supported was funded by the communist Soviet Union and Libya.
“Communism does not espouse the democratic values we enjoy in this country, the fact we can argue and debate together is a testimony to the democracy which we share even though we may disagree. Communism only recognises their own party.”
Fielding also described the Miners’ strike as an “illegal strike” before saying his party could not support the motion.
Alliance Councillor Chris McCaw said that “it’s not too much to ask to have a memorial to him in the town that he lived in from a young age”.
UUP councillor Darryl Wilson said: “Having political freedoms within this diverse United Kingdom is very important, what a dull and uninspiring place it would be if we did not have political differences.
He said he wanted to focus on the work activist Mark Ashton did to promote the advancement of LGBTQ rights during the 1980s.
“That on its own is commendable, at a time when being part of the LGBTQ community was very, very difficult. It was frowned upon and it had a devastating impact on so many young people right across the United Kingdom at that time.
“Thankfully, Northern Ireland is becoming a more progressive society, and for that fact alone, the work that Mark carried out is very commendable and should be noted.”
The motion carried with 10 votes for and five against. It will go forward to the full council on Tuesday, 4th May for ratification.
Jude Copeland who began the campaign was delighted. “It’s amazing news that the motion to recognise Mark Ashton has passed the committee stage. I’ve just bolted from my house to the off-licence and…I’ve got a bottle of fizzy stuff to celebrate. Thank you all for the signatures and thank you for the support, I know Mark’s friends and his family are really touched by it.”
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