“People are being treated differently in NI because of their sexual orientation & that cannot be acceptable”

After a long period of reflection and internal discussion The Equality Commission today published a policy document on Promoting Sexual Orientation Equality: Priorities and Recommendations.

SOME-NI logoThe Chief Commissioner Michael Wardlow said:

People are being treated differently in Northern Ireland because of their sexual orientation and that cannot be acceptable in the 21st century.

In summary, the paper “recommends that legislation should be introduced to permit same sex marriage and adoption and that a ban on blood donations from any group, including men who have sex with men, must be based on clear medical evidence”.

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The forty page policy begins by justifying the The Equality Commission’s intervention. The independent public body established under the Northern Ireland Act 1988 has particular duties under the sexual orientation equality legislation.

It has a duty to work to eliminate unlawful sexual orientation discrimination and harassment, to promote equality of opportunity, and to keep the working of the legislation under review.

The Commission is also empowered [to] offer advice to public authorities and others in connection with the duties imposed by Section 75 of the [Northern Ireland Act 1998]. It is also empowered to authorise investigations into alleged failures by such authorities to comply with equality scheme commitments.

Three priority areas for strategic action are recommended in the document.

  • tackling prejudicial attitudes and behaviour towards LGB individuals; specifically in relation to homophobic hate crime and violence; harassment both inside and outside the workplace and homophobic bullying in schools; and
  • promoting positive attitudes towards LGB individuals; and
  • raising awareness of the rights of LGB people; both amongst LGB people themselves and amongst those with responsibilities under the sexual orientation equality legislation.

In a section entitled Strengthening Legal Protections, The Equality Commission makes three specific recommendations:

  • reform sexual orientation equality law so as to ensure robust legislative protection for LGB individuals against discrimination and harassment, as well as to strengthen enforcement of the legislation;
  • introduce legislation that permits same-sex marriage and provides heterosexual couples access to civil partnerships on the same basis as that available to same sex couples;
  • extend the scope of adoption legislation so as to allow unmarried couples, those in civil partnership and same sex couples to apply to be considered as adoptive parents.

ECNI finds public support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the 2012 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey where “57% of those surveyed indicated they were in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriages” (32% indicated this should not be legalised and 11% didn’t know).

7.9 Marriage is a civil institution as well as a religious one and the State recognises equal rights in other aspects of civil life. We consider that it cannot justify preventing people from marrying unless there are good reasons for doing so and a person’s sexual orientation is not a justifiable reason …

7.11 In addition, we are of the view that by insisting marriages and civil partnerships are kept separate, organisations and individuals perpetuate the notion that relationships between same-sex couples are not ‘as valid’ as those between homosexual couples.

7.12 In addition, we are of the view that by insisting marriages and civil partnerships are kept separate, organisations and individuals perpetuate the notion that relationships between same-sex couples are not ‘as valid’ as those between homosexual couples …

7.15 The Commission supports the availability of civil partnerships to opposite-sex and same-sex couples on the same basis.

7.16 In 2004, in our response to the consultation on Civil Partnership in Northern Ireland we noted we were “disappointed that this opportunity has not been used to extend the civil registration process to heterosexual co-habiting couples”. We also noted “We fail to understand the reasoning behind excluding opposite sex couples from availing of this process as several other European countries provide civil registration for both same sex and opposite sex couples.”

7.17 We consider that the extension of civil partnerships to opposite sex couples will remove potential discrimination against heterosexuals. Many people do not wish to marry and yet cannot avail of the tax allowances enjoyed by married couples and those in civil partnerships. We consider that access to civil partnership by opposite sex couples would give greater legal and financial security in areas including inheritance, housing in terms of transfer of tenancies and pensions.

The Equality Commission’s Sexual Orientation – More Equality microsite has more details and resources. At the time of posting, political reaction to The Equality Commission’s leadership and policy publication is muted with no obvious press releases on any local party website.

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