Friday, 21 January 2011

Breaking the mould as first openly gay Councillor

Longer version of the article which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph today (Friday 21 January 2011) can be found below entitled;

Rise of minority politicians a refreshing sign of the times

Gay councillor Andrew Muir believes old prejudices can no longer thwart moves towards a more liberal-thinking society.

Last year I stepped forward and broke the mould by becoming Northern Ireland’s first openly gay Councillor. This occurred as a result of my appointment as an Alliance Party Councillor on North Down Borough Council for the Holywood area on 8 July 2010 via the new co-option procedure.


Wearing Councillor Robes at Bangor
Town Hall for Freedom of the Borough Event 

for the RNLI on 18 September 2010 
along with Cllr Dr Stephen Farry MLA
It is widely known throughout Northern Ireland that I am gay. I don’t hide my sexuality nor do I shy away from the difficult issues. 

When I see something wrong I don’t turn a blind eye or hope that somebody else will address the matter. I take action and stand up for what is right. I stand out from the crowd and am known for my clear commitment to a Shared Society where diversity is embraced and celebrated.


The fact that my appointment as Northern Ireland’s first openly gay Councillor passed without any adverse comment hopefully signifies that Northern Ireland has changed. 

We have evolved from a place where it was illegal to be gay to a new Northern Ireland where gay people are protected against discrimination and now feature in many professions whether it be medicine, law, finance or politics.

Since July I have been working hard to meet the needs of my constituents, attempting to make Holywood the best place in Northern Ireland for everyone to live, work or visit. 

I have received a warm welcome from nearly every person I encounter. Whether at the Town Hall or across Holywood, I am judged by most people on my ability to do the job not my sexual orientation. 

Cllr Andrew Muir
The next challenge is to face the electorate in May and be returned as a Councillor for the Holywood area. I have already managed to achieve progress in building a prosperous, shared, clean and green Borough and hope I will be given the opportunity to continue my work as a Councillor.

But why did we have to wait until 2010 before Northern Ireland got its first openly gay Councillor? 

The answer to this question lies in North Down. In 1953 Patricia Ford was elected in that constituency as Northern Ireland’s first ever female MP. This development occurred 35 years after Constance Markiewicz became the first female MP to be elected to the House of Commons in 1918 followed by Nancy Astor in 1919 for the Plymouth Sutton constituency.

Naomi Long MP
When Patricia Ford was elected in 1953, it was 35 years since older women had been given the right to vote in Westminster elections and 25 years after universal suffrage was achieved in 1928. It took far too long but thankfully having great female MPs such as Naomi Long for East Belfast and Lady Hermon for North Down has helped to partly right this wrong.

A long delay therefore seems to occur in terms of the representation of certain people in Northern Ireland following legislative and attitudinal changes. 

Stephen Twigg MP when elected
in 1997 beside Michael Portillo
Across in Great Britain, they already have many openly gay MPs and Lords. Maureen Colquhoun became the first openly gay MP in 1976 followed by Chris Smith in 1984. Neither of which were however known to be gay when selected and elected unlike Stephen Twigg and Ben Bradshaw. Both Stephen and Ben were elected in 1997 as openly gay candidates. I will always remember Twigg’s iconic election success unseating Michael Portillo and ushering in the New Labour era which saw significant progress in terms of equality for lesbian and gay people.

The Irish Senate has several openly gay members including Presidential hopeful David Norris whilst a wide range of gay people have been selected as candidates by mainstream political parties in winnable seats for the forthcoming Dail Election. In addition to this the Scottish Parliament has four openly gay Members.

Irish Presidential hopeful
Senator David Norris
Northern Ireland still hasn’t any openly gay MLAs or MPs. I do however believe that this will change within the next four years. 

Northern Ireland has already had elected representatives who weren’t straight. I dare not speak their name. 

The challenge ahead is for mainstream political parties to select men and women who are openly gay to stand in winnable seats so that the people can elect a new generation of politicians fully reflective of today’s society. 

The Alliance Party has already proven its ability to meet this challenge with myself as Northern Ireland’s first openly gay Councillor. I hope others will also step forward. 

Peter Robinson recently remarked “We’re the party of progress, We are the party of the future. We are the party of Northern Ireland.” Their ability to attract openly gay candidates and voters should be used to test whether this is rhetoric or reality. 

With legal protections now in place and attitudes changing, an increasing number of lesbian and gay people have the confidence to be out and proud. 

This is now feeding into the political system, with being gay less of an issue for party members. Barriers to selection are slowly breaking down and I hope more openly gay people will soon emerge as election candidates.

Anna Lo MLA
Anna Lo was the first politician born in East Asia elected to any legislative body in the UK.  She was also the first person from an ethnic minority elected to any office in Northern Ireland. Anna bucked the trend and lifted the glass ceiling. It was a great step forward but we need to go much further. 

In order for politics to work we need people to get involved. Anna stepped forward and has proven a fantastic MLA for South Belfast.

The time for others to step forward is now. To those who yearn for change, I call on you to join a political party and consider putting yourself forward as a candidate. If you don’t want to stand for election, do attend party meetings and re-balance the debate. Political parties which are much more representative of society will ensure a wider and more varied slate of candidates emerge.

Shortly after winning a supervisor's seat in San Francisco, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected in the US and later to be assassinated stated “It’s not my victory, it’s yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We’ve given them hope”. I hope to continue the beacon of hope lit by Harvey back in 1977 and that others will join me. Together we change Northern Ireland. 

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