Is the LGBT community about to be thrown under the bus again?

If any of you are like me and are a massive political nerd, then the current round of talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Executive have probably been as exciting and enthralling as washing the dishes. I’m not for a moment insinuating that the talks process isn’t important. But much like washing the dishes, it’s now become routine, benign and banal. Karen Bradley continues to underwhelm and underperform at the most basic level, as both the Alliance Party and Sinn Féin have turned down her offer of free drinks and nibbles at the Stormont garden party tomorrow. I mean if you can’t entice people over to yours with the offer of complimentary bubbly and Walker’s Sensations, then what can you do?

But I’m not writing to criticise Karen Bradley’s tenure as Secretary of State. Suffice to say that the talks process seems to be gearing up for another fudge on a long standing issue here – marriage equality. Last week Eamonn Mallie, in conjunction with Brian Rowan, detailed some of the documents from the talks process on his website. Their summary of the key talking points was succinct and focused mainly on the working group around Rights, Language and Identity. The only progress, however, on issues not related to language and culture reads back to the February 2018 draft agreement, which states that marriage equality for same-sex couples will not be included in any Programme for Government and will be handled exclusively through a Private Member’s Bill in the Assembly.

This already reflects the current reality. Having worked for the Love Equality NI campaign in both a voluntary capacity, and then as the Campaign’s and Communications officer for Rainbow Project, I can speak with some authority on this as the Private Member’s Bill was drafted and ready to go in January 2017 with agreement from Sinn Féin, Alliance, SDLP, the Green Party and individual members of the Ulster Unionist Assembly groupings. The only parties that were not signed up were People Before Profit, and not unsurprisingly, the DUP and TUV. I remember sitting round the table with representatives from the parties involved and drawing the name of an MLA out of a hat that would take the Bill forward.

Because of current Assembly rules, only one MLA may sponsor a Private Member’s Bill. On that day, we drew out the name of Alex Attwood MLA (who has since lost his West Belfast seat). The mood was positive. A consultation was prepared, to be launched on Valentine’s Day and the campaign was looking forward to moving ahead. We were acutely aware that with no reform of the Petition of Concern, and with continued opposition from the DUP, we would ultimately be unsuccessful, but we also wanted people from across civic society (religious groups, trade unions, third sector etc.) to engage with the consultation and give us some breathing space to build momentum before the Bill would likely be killed by a Petition of Concern at the second reading.

The day we agreed sign off was also the same day that Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister and the house of cards came down around us. The Bill has been sitting there, gathering dust, for over two years. That isn’t to say that the Bill won’t at one point be revived, or that marriage equality will never happen here (I am confident that it will, but I have been campaigning for this since 2011 so forgive me if I sound jaded) but without any meaningful reform of the Petition of Concern, or without the DUP refusing to abstain on any vote then it will fail, and continue to fail, in the Assembly.

We have been here before, though. In referring to the draft agreement from the February 2018 talks, Sinn Féin were criticised by The Rainbow Project for repeatedly making public commitments to marriage equality being part of any power-sharing remedy hashed out with the DUP, but then seeming to drop the issue in favour of an Irish Language Act being agreed.

If that agreement is the basis of the discussions around marriage equality this time around, then it’s pretty clear that no substantive movement has been made on the issue. Sinn Féin are not the ones that have to shoulder this blame – they were the co-sponsors of motions to remove the ban on same-sex couples marrying in the Assembly a total of five times, each time being defeated by either a Petition of Concern or a simple majority vote. The party made public a commitment from the UK Government to legislate for the matter, but so far the current Conservative minority government, propped up by DUP MPs, has made absolutely no legislative progress in Westminster on this, or a myriad of other social issues that are outstanding.

I must be honest, when the Assembly collapsed in January 2017 and the prospect of Direct Rule seemed imminent, it was the hope of many (including myself) that this would mean Westminster would be forced to act on this, and also access to reproductive health services in Northern Ireland. This current lame duck Assembly has made it convenient for the UK Government to argue that, even though it is de facto defunct, MLAs are still in place and therefore the devolution settlement and the responsibility for dealing with LGBT rights issues are in the remit of the NI Assembly.

We have heard this time and time again from Karen Bradley and outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May when pressed on the issue. In fact when Private Member’s Bills were brought by Conor McGinn MP (Labour) and Lord Hayward (Conservative) to force the Government’s hand, they were both shot down before any progress could be made.

In the time between the referendum on marriage equality in the Republic of Ireland and in the aftermath of the murder of LGBT rights advocate and writer Lyra McKee, there have been no less than four instances when same-sex marriage campaigners have taken to the streets in Belfast to demand their rights. These calls seem to have fallen on wilfully ignorant ears in Westminster.

Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt has been criticised on social media when she congratulated Taiwan for extending marriage to same-sex couples earlier in the year, a tone deaf approach considering the ongoing discrimination against gay couples in the UK’s own back garden. Similarly, Minister for Women and Equalities, Baroness Williams, was called out by activists here for her speech at the Government’s 2019 LGBT conference in which she lauded the reforms for equality pushed by the UK abroad and at home, but made no mention of the situation in Northern Ireland.

In fact the UK Government’s LGBT Action Plan does not mandate for any legislative or funding progress for Northern Ireland. To add insult to injury the Northern Ireland Office under Karen Bradley spent a grand total of £318 on LGBT issues here, splashing the meagre amount of cash on rainbow lanyards for NIO staff.

Since the restoration of power sharing in 2007 there has been zero legislative progress on any issue that would improve, advance or equalise the situation for LGBT people living in Northern Ireland. The period of Direct Rule during which the Labour Party were in Government allowed for a number of LGBT rights to be enshrined in law here in the absence of a devolved Assembly. Rights such as gender recognition, civil partnerships etc. are a reality in Northern Ireland only because there was no Assembly here to make a dog’s dinner of the issues. I have no doubt in my mind that had there been an Assembly here during that time we would have spent years fighting for those rights alone, never mind being brought into line with the progress that has been made in England, Scotland and Wales.

LGBT rights have continually been thrown under the bus in the face of other issues. This time it might be an Irish Language Act. Personally I have no issue with this being legislated for, but without the full spectrum of rights that are afforded to citizens in the rest of the UK being extended to Northern Ireland then it’s a bitter pill to swallow. But it’s a pill that LGBT campaigners here know the taste of all too well.