Interview: Alliance Party LGBT Convener asks what’s next for gay people in Northern Ireland

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Lib Dem Councillor Mathew Hulbert interviews Stephen Donnan, Convenor of the LGBT Group in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland for PinkNews to discuss the future of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Stephen, update us on what’s happened recently in regards to Equal Marriage in Northern Ireland?

Of course, the third motion to be debated on the subject was brought before the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was tabled by Sinn Fein, Alliance and Green Party MLAs.

Again, as expected, the DUP brought a Petition of Concern against the measure which forces any issue to a cross community vote.

As the DUP have the majority of Unionist MLAs they have effectively blocked it. The motion also lost the popular vote by 51 to 43. It was very close.

So, the DUP have a veto on your equality under the law?

Basically, the Petition of Concern is a mechanism left over since devolution began in 1998. It was primarily put in place to prevent either Nationalists or Unionists passing legislation that would be sectarian or discriminatory. Ironically it has been used to allow discrimination to continue.

OK, so where does a cross community party like Alliance fit into that? And how did your MLAs vote?

Any party that designates as Other, as Alliance does, doesn’t have much of an input into it, as we’re cross community.
Four of our MLAs voted in favour and two against.

OK, so, clearly majority support in your Assembly group…but some will be surprised there’s still some dissenting voices. Are you disappointed?

Yes I am disappointed but I have already given up much hope of this ever being a measure that the Northern Ireland Assembly will legislate for.
I predict, as is usually the case for LGBT issues in Northern Ireland, that this will be a matter for the courts.

So, what happens next for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland?

This is the million dollar question – With this being the third time MLAs have rejected Equal Marriage I can only guess that this will not come before the House again any time soon.

I suspect and, indeed, hope that couples from Northern Ireland who have had to marry in England and Wales will challenge the current ban through the legal system.

It is unsustainable for one area of the United Kingdom to exclude its residents from rights and responsibilities that they are afforded elsewhere.

The same thing has happened with the ban on same sex couples being allowed to adopt and for gay and bisexual men being allowed to donate blood. Both have been successfully challenged in the courts and have won. The Assembly is at risk of being ruled by our judiciary.

Stephen, do you mind if I ask about your personal situation? You have a long-term partner, right? How will this affect you?

That’s right. Trevor and I have been together for three and a half years now. I proposed to him last July and he said yes (surprisingly!)

We plan on marrying next May in Scotland once the situation there becomes tangible enough for same sex couples to get married. We will be having a ceremony in Belfast but unfortunately we won’t be married any more (legally) once we come back to Northern Ireland. We will be Civil Partners under Northern Ireland law.

So, yours could be a test case? Are you ready to be a poster boy for Equal Marriage in the province and take on the vested interests?

Trev and I have talked about it but it is a big decision that would involve a lot of work and publicity. I can guarantee you that if we do take legal action we won’t be the only couple doing so. But that is something we will have to think about.

How does you being an out and proud gay man factor in to running for a Council seat in Lisburn and Castlereagh, one of eleven new super councils, given the highly religious nature of Northern Ireland society?

In honesty? It doesn’t. Not a single word has been said about my sexuality by other politicians or my constituents. I have always been very open about my sexuality and I don’t think anyone can say I haven’t been public about it either!

People don’t see it as an issue and they are more concerned with where I stand on things like the economy, social justice, education.

My experiences around my sexuality have definitely informed and influenced my politics and I will be an effective voice for young LGBT people in Castlereagh even if I’m not elected.

And what is life like for young LGBT people in Northern Ireland these days?

It’s definitely getting much better, but we still have ways to go. At the moment homophobic bullying isn’t being dealt with by the Department of Education but there are organisations out there like Cara Friend, GLYNI, Rainbow Project that are doing fantastic work to change things. Young LGBT people experience the same issues as everyone else and they deserve to be treated with respect and understanding.

Other youth work organisations who don’t specialise in LGBT outreach are also paving the way on how to influence change at a governmental and sector level too. We will get there together.

Alliance Party offices were again targeted by men of violence (recently), can you tell us more about that please? 

Everyone is fine thankfully but it could have been worse and that bears remembering. Over the last fourteen months we have become the target of violence over our stance on flags however it won’t deter us.

Our MP Naomi Long has stood up to bullies her entire life and she won’t give in now and neither will we. Her staff, our Cllrs, candidates and MLAs Chris Lyttle and Judith Cochrane make an excellent team who help everyone in East Belfast.

Thugs with bricks and petrol bombs won’t change that. I can guarantee you that despite the threats and attempts at intimidation it is business as usual.

And how can the LGBT community in the rest of the UK be of help?

Just keep doing what you’re doing but remember that equality is not equality unless it applies to everyone so keep the pressure up back home with your MPs to ensure that as much as possible is done to strengthen the laws we already have and to influence change even further than Northern Ireland.

Stephen Donnan, Convenor of the LGBT Group in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and is standing as a council candidate in Lisburn and Castlereagh.

Mathew Hulbert is a Lib Dem Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire and an LGBT Rights Campaigner.