Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Alliance Leading Change for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people

Alliance at Belfast Pride

On 1 September over 80% of Alliance delegates voted in favour of Marriage Equality by endorsing a motion in favour of same sex civil marriage after an internal process led by Alliance Deputy Leader Naomi Long MP.  A copy of the motion is provided at the end of this blog entry.

Whilst some would seek to focus on this significant step in isolation I see it as part of wider efforts by Alliance to build an inclusive Shared Society for all.

Our move to support Same Sex Civil Marriage (which I will touch upon later) was preceded by the inspirational and decisive announcement in late July by Alliance Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry MLA to fund a project to raise awareness amongst over 2,000 employers on the issues which affect lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the workplace.

Alliance Justice Minister and Party Leader David Ford MLA has meanwhile been standing up, speaking out and taking strategic actions to tackle all forms of Hate Crime as a key partner in the Unite Against Hate campaign.

Alliance fought hard for Hate Crime legislation and the inclusion of homophobia and disability as motivating factors and is determined to stamp out all forms of Hate Crime through the new Community Safety Strategy recently unveiled by Minister Ford.

It is often said that together we are stronger. In this sprit Alliance has continually pressed Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) for a Sexual Orientation Strategy. On International Day Against Homophobia this year Alliance MLA Anna Lo again demanded publication of the long awaited strategy which has been promised since 2008. Joining up government to build a better future for lesbian, gay and bisexual people makes sense. Dither and delay doesn’t.

Inclusion of lesbian, gay and bisexual people within a new Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy (CSI) also makes sense. Adopting hierarchies and a separate but equal approach by focusing merely on religion, political opinion and race fails to recognise the need to tackle the underlying prejudice that exists towards many minorities.

Alliance OFMdFM spokesperson Chris Lyttle MLA has been working relentlessly for a better, stronger and more inclusive Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy despite the shambles and shenanigans within the CSI Working Group. Casual scant references to gay people will not be acceptable to the LGB community nor Alliance. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people should be integral parts of any new strategy not afterthoughts.

Strategies are however worthless if Ministers stand idly by whilst lesbian, gay and bisexual people face discrimination, bullying and harassment. Actions speak louder than words.

Alliance has therefore been persistently lobbying the DUP Health Minister to end the discriminatory Gay Blood Ban. Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy continues to question, probe and demand action and will not rest until this irrational ban is lifted and Northern Ireland brought inline with the rest of the UK.

Alliance Education Spokesperson Trevor Lunn MLA also continues to seek action from the Sinn Fein Education Minister on the issue of Homophobic Bullying. Alongside Judith Cochrane MLA Trevor has tabled many questions asking why no specific concerted action is being taken to stamp out this particularly evil form of bullying against perhaps the most vulnerable people in our society.

Alliance Chief Whip Stewart Dickson MLA and I greatly enjoyed meeting representatives from the Rainbow Project last week to discuss these and other issues.

A significant amount of our time also focused on the battle for Marriage Equality, recently described by the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore TD as "the civil rights issue of this generation".

Same Sex Civil Marriage is immensely important to the Alliance Party because it sends a strong message about the type of shared society we desire where lesbian gay and bisexual people are respected and valued as equal citizens.

As Vice Chair of the Alliance Party I welcomed the internal debate which took place during the consultation phase and have no issue if dissent and debate continues internally in a disciplined and moderate manner but no longer can the issue be considered a matter of individual conscience. A binding position has now been reached.

With the right to freedom of religion robustly protected within the motion Alliance has agreed a way to deliver Marriage Equality whilst ensuring that no church or religious celebrant is forced to undertake same sex civil marriages if they disagree, perfectly balancing individual rights and views (for and against) alongside the responsibility of the state to treat all citizens equally. Active public opposition won’t be accepted nor is it expected from any Alliance Elected Representative.

Some people say that Same Sex Civil Marriage isn’t necessary after the introduction of Civil Partnership legislation in 2005. Whilst Civil Partnerships provide many legal entitlements akin to marriage a form of discrimination is still being upheld similar to the ‘cups incident’ recalled within Nelson Mandela’s autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’.

Within Mandela’s book he recalls the seemingly kind offer of a cup of tea made when he commenced employment at a legal practice in Johannesburg. Everyone was offered tea but when it came to the cups a small but crucial distinction was made. Black employees were not allowed to use the same cups as their white co-workers.

Lesbian and gay people in Northern Ireland are today also being offered a cup of tea but when it comes to the cups opposite sex couples get china cups (Civil Marriage) whilst same sex couples get a mug (Civil Partnerships).

While this is unfair and must stop Northern Ireland faces the real risk of being stuck in a legal limbo for a generation whilst Scotland, England, Wales and possibly Ireland legislates to enable Equal Marriage. Inaction by NI Assembly due to the veto held by the DUP could cause a significant inequality strangely caused because of the Peace Process and devolution which, despite delivering many positive benefits also hands the DUP the right to put the brake on gay equality.

Those who wish to leave the issue for the courts to decide fail to realise the length of time that will have to elapse for a case to be built and considered. We would also be entering unknown territory with Article 14 not tested in Dudgeon v United Kingdom (Decriminalisation of homosexuality in NI at European Court of Human Rights) re disparity of treatment in NI compared to GB.

For many years Alliance has called for an end to the sectarian carve up the Assembly. Designating MLAs as Unionist, Nationalist or Cross Community and handing the DUP & Sinn Fein a veto over everything (via Petition of Concern) must end for Same Sex Civil Marriage to become law. We’ve offered the alternative (weighted majorities) and it’s up to others whether they wish to join us, make the changes and put their own principles over any lust for power.

Michelle Obama recently said that 'Change is hard and change is slow'.

Alliance is prepared for the hard slow battle ahead based because, as Labi Siffre says  “Something Inside So Strong”


‘Something Inside So Strong’ - Labi Siffre

Same Sex Civil Marriage Motion agreed by Alliance Party Council

That, in line with Alliance's core commitment to equality and to freedom of religion, Party Council supports the extension of civil marriage provisions to same sex couples, provided that robust protections are provided through legislation to ensure that faith groups and religious celebrants will not be forced to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies or to have them conducted on their premises.

In recognition of the importance of freedom of religion, Alliance further believes that faith groups which, in conscience, wish to marry same sex couples should not be prevented by the state from doing so. We would also support the extension of the authority to solemnise marriages to accredited Humanist Celebrants, which cannot currently do so.