Northern Ireland: Still a long way to go.

Ten years ago the Good Friday Agreement was signed in the North of Ireland. This represented a peaceful settlement to our thirty year conflict and a new beginning for everyone. One of the most important aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is what has become known as the Equality Clause; section 75.

Section 75 made it illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of; religion, political belief, race, age, marital status, gender, disability or sexual orientation. It also created the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which has wide-reaching powers to investigate public bodies when it believes that discrimination has occurred.

SDLP Youth

SDLP Youth

However, although public bodies must now comply with equality legislation it has proven more difficult to change the hearts and minds of wider society into accepting a more pluralist and equal society. In Northern Ireland, we became good at hate. For so long, polarising parties such as the Democratic Unionist Party (Christian Evangelicals) and Sínn Féin (political wing of the Provisional IRA) fuelled the flames of sectarianism, making it impossible to ignore the divide between Protestant and Catholic, Nationalist and Unionist. This has changed since the Good Friday Agreement. With all parties sharing power, sectarian attacks still occur but are greatly decreased. The public are now much more accepting of their neighbours with differing political and religious outlooks. But all is not well in the North.

The overt hate, once reserved for sectarianism, has been transferred to other groups seen as ‘different’. In recent years, my own constituency of South Belfast has seen attacks on migrant workers sky-rocket with people having swastikas painted on their doors and in some cases, being burnt from their homes. Every weekend, in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, home of the Gay Village, police armoured vehicles always keep a visible presence to stop the frequent attacks on people as they leave clubs.

What doesn’t help us in the LGBT community is the fact that the DUP is now the largest party in Northern Ireland. The party, founded by the creator of the Free Presbyterian Church, which has previously orchestrated the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. The DUP has consistently refused to acknowledge the rights of LGBT people, using religious rhetoric and allusions to perversion to justify its arguments. Even last year, the then  junior Minister Ian Paisley Jnr. said that he was ‘disgusted’ by gay people and that they did not care that they were, ‘harming themselves and harming society’. This came from the Junior Minister for the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, whose department is responsible for equality and social cohesion.

The DUP has rejected all equality legislation regarding sexual orientation such as, the Single Equality Bill, the Goods and Services Regulations and Civil Partnerships Legislation. Of the 18 members of the UK Parliament for Northern Ireland, only the 3 SDLP MPs supported the Civil Partnerships Act.

In the face of this overt opposition, what is there that we, as social democrats, can do to achieve equality for all citizens? We will always be the youth group present at Belfast and Derry Pride, taking part in all aspects of the Pride festivals. But being active in Pride is not enough. We must be active and vocal in community groups such as; HIV Support, LGBT Youth Groups, Gay and Bisexual Health Organisations to name just a few.

We must promote positive pride, ensuring that gay people are not viewed as a distant and separate community but that we are your teachers, your doctors, your bus drivers and your police.

All these will be steps in the right direction but in order to achieve full equality, governments must look at equality in a holistic manner and not simply as a boxticking exercise.

Gavin Boyd

ECOSY Bureau Member from SDLP Youth (Northern Ireland) and member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party