Interview: Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill on fight to secure equal marriage, dealing with the DUP

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 22: Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill addresses the invited guests as the unveiling of the official Assembly portrait of former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness takes place inside the Great Hall at Stormont on March 22, 2018 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Martin McGuinness passed away one year ago after a brief illness, before he died he resigned as his position as Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, the province has beeen without a government since that time. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, speaks to PinkNews in Westminster – ahead of a bid to bring equal marriage to Northern Ireland via the UK Parliament.

Q. This month a bill is coming to the UK Parliament that seeks to finally bring equal marriage to Northern Ireland. Do you support this?

Yes. We have no government in the North at the moment, we haven’t had for 14 months, and one of the issues that’s right at the heart of the political impasse is the fact that we weren’t able to secure marriage equality in the Assembly despite quite a number of attempts.

There was a blocking mechanism used called the petition of concern, which has been used to block any progress on this issue. I was very clear throughout the negotiations that if I wasn’t able to secure it as a deal with the DUP, we would go an alternative route.

Obviously, as an Irish Republican, it does not sit easily with me that we would legislate here in Westminster – but we believe there is a way to do it, which is written into the Good Friday Agremeent, which is a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with the two governments working together.

The two governments have responsibility within the agreement for equality and rights, and for me this fits into that category.

We are happy and content that this is a route that can hopefully lead to a positive outcome for our citizens who just want the same rights that people have elsewhere. It’s a very reasonable request.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (R) and Northern Leader Michelle O’Neill join gay rights campaigners in a march through Belfast on July 1, 2017 to protest against the ban on same-sex marriage. (Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Q. As an Irish Republican, it’s a pretty bold stance to support legislation going through Westminster…. I imagine there aren’t many issues you would say that for?

That’s true, it doesn’t sit easy with us at all, but sometimes you have to put the issues of people before your own views.

We do believe that we don’t want to see carte blanche everything going through Westminster and imposed – but because we have the Intergovernmental Conference, because the two governments have co-responsibility for equality and for rights, that allows us a way for this to be delivered.

If it goes through we would be delighted, because it’s something that shouldn’t be denied in this day and age.

Q. With the collapse of power-sharing, it’s been one of the sticking points in negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Do you think resolving this via Westminster instead could bring an agreement on devolution any closer?

I am 100 percent certain that the DUP will never do marriage equality, so if that’s the case, we have to find another way to do it.

Does it help restore the politics at home? Possibly in the longer-term yes, because these issues are the nub of the problem – marriage equality, Irish language rights, the Bill of Rights.

If you look at all of those issues, if those things are delivered through another route, then it perhaps paves the way for us to get back around the table and get an Executive back up and running again. I can’t see it having a negative impact.

Michelle O’Neill (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Q. If this bill doesn’t secure change, would a settlement on equal marriage be a red line for Sinn Féin in future power-sharing negotiations?

In politics, you should always be very careful about red lines, but yes – this issue needs to be resolved.

I believe there is a way to do it, and if it can be done now, we should have it done now.

Whilst there’s a vacuum in politics in the North, people shouldn’t be denied their marriage rights. If there’s a way for it to happen now, it should happen now.

Q. Last month, as talks collapsed with the DUP there was a leaked draft of a settlement that Sinn Fein had agreed to, which did not include anything on equal marriage. Why was it left out?

Because the DUP will never do marriage equality. I had come to that conclusion… I knew it before the negotiations, but certainly throughout the negotiations we knew that was not something we were going to secure in an agreement with the DUP, so we set our stall around trying to find an alternative route, and an alternative route is what we’re now seeing being worked out here [in Westminster].

We wanted to ensure that if there is legislation brought through Westminster, there would be a free vote on the Tory side, so a question was asked of the Tory government, and we were working on that during negotiations.

That was all deliberate, and we were working on a way to find an alternative route, because I was not going to go out after 14 months of negotiations and say, ‘we didn’t get marriage equality’.

Whilst it wasn’t in the deal with the DUP, there was a number of other things that were going to come separately via negotiations between ourselves and the Irish government and ourselves and the British government.

Q. The UK government is reliant on the DUP at the moment to prop up their majority. Do you believe there could be a backlash if this goes through?

I’m quite sure they’ll have conversations about it. I think the DUP’s stance is out-of-date and certainly not where wider society is.

Fundamentally, people can have their own religious beliefs, but when you’re a legislator you’re a legislator. You legislate for everybody, and you should deliver all people their rights regardless of their personal view.

So, is it going to cause trouble? If it is, it is, but people should not be denied their rights because of one party’s out-of-date stance on something.

Q. Do you have a message to MPs who may be reading this ahead of the vote?

I would implore them to support the legislation. People in the North should not be denied rights that they afford to all their own constituents.

Across England, Scotland, Wales, and the South of Ireland, the LGBT community can enjoy marriage equality. It is disgraceful that people in the North of Ireland cannot get married, so I would ask them to support this legislation to show solidarity with the LGBT community who have been denied this right because of certain politicians with personal views.

(Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Q. One of the biggest contrasts between Northern Irish politics and politics in other parts of the UK is the number of political figures who have made expressly homophobic comments – for instance, one DUP MP recently said he would not support World AIDS Day because it is promoting a ‘lifestyle choice’. Do you think politics in Northern Ireland will ever become as progressive as it is in the Republic, or as it is in other parts of the UK?

Before the marriage equality campaign in the South, if you go back ten years ago, nobody would have ever thought that conservative Ireland would have got to the point where they were bringing forward legislation.

Look how that campaign was won, on the referendum – everybody got involved, and it was a really positive thing. Will the North ever get there? I hope so. I will play my part in making sure we try and drag our society and politics into the modern era, and afford all people their rights.

Really, what has anybody got to fear by giving someone their rights? Hopefully we will get to a more positive space.

Q It’s not just equal marriage where Northern Ireland has lagged behind – on the gay blood ban, for instance, the laws changed in England, Scotland and Wales, but it took years for Northern Ireland to get there because the DUP’s health ministers wouldn’t agree to do it. Eventually that was resolved, but now again the law in England, Scotland and Wales has become even more progressive – and once again Northern Ireland is in the same place it was, with unequal regulations. Why do you think it’s so difficult to secure basic reforms like that?

It was two successive DUP ministers that blocked the ban being lifted, and I was the minister that fixed the problem and lifted the blockage… I did that within ten days of coming into office, it was one of my first actions. But you’re right, now we’re at the stage again where we’re falling behind.

You can rest assured that if any of our ministers were back into that department, we’d make sure we would move again in line with the advice that’s been given. There was no medical reason, no scientific reason to back up the blockage that the DUP had maintained for so long, so as soon as I took that office, I was delighted that that was one of the first things I was able to do.

Q. One of the remarkable things about equal marriage in England and Wales was it was passed under a Conservative government. Even as the DUP are much the same as they always have been, the Tories have somewhat changed their tune on this. Do you believe the DUP will ever go through that process?

You know, we’ll have to keep that under review.

Some people have such firm and static views… but you have to keep working with those people, you have to keep trying, and pushing, and cajoling, and doing whatever you can to get them to come on a journey and see things from a better point of view.

I think that’s what we will do as a society… but will the DUP ever change? I don’t know.

Q. The Northern Ireland Assembly is one of the few legislative bodies that doesn’t have any out LGBT representatives. Why do you think Northern Ireland has struggled with that, when others – Ireland’s Oireachtas, the UK Parliament, the London Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament – all have a lot of LGBT representation?

I think it’s an issue with politics in general, that’s not just relevant to the LGBT community.

If you look at our reflection of society, there’s not enough women, not enough young people, not enough people from ethnic minority background. It isn’t as diverse as society, and we all as political parties have an obligation to ensure we correct that picture, and make sure people feel they can put their name forward as elected representatives.

We need to encourage people from all different backgrounds to go forward.

We do have elected representatives, not on the Assembly, who are out and proud about who they are and do tremendous work on all the issues that need to be resolved and perhaps aren’t being dealt with. If you look at the North, we don’t have a proper sexual health strategy, we don’t have quite a number of things that need to be done.

Q. In the UK there are currently plans to update the Gender Recognition Act, which gives transgender people legal recognition. There’s been quite a lot of opposition from some feminist campaigners, but it’s interesting from an Irish perspective, because the Republic has already adopted a progressive Gender Recognition law that was supported cross-party a few years ago, and there’s been no issues whatsoever. Do you support bringing that system to the North?

Yes. I’ve been quite active on it. I’m meeting with trans activists from TENI [Transgender Equality Network Ireland] over the next few weeks where we’re going to talk about what we need to be doing, and how we can bring more attention to that.

Q. Last month a Church in Belfast hosted a screening of a film about ‘curing’ people of being gay, which has been an ongoing issue. Do you think more needs to be done in Northern Ireland to engage with faith communities on LGBT issues?

Absolutely. That is absolutely disgusting, that anybody would host that kind of event, and that people would want to go through something like that, to be cured of who they are.

It’s unreal, and churches have a responsibility – it’s not just people in politics, it’s society as a whole – to challenge stigma and nonsense like that. We can’t have people who lead communities behaving that way.

So yes – but how do you do that? You do that with communication, I think – some people will maybe never change. It doesn’t mean you don’t do it or give up.

You have to keep going back and actually having those conversations, trying to get people to think differently. But people in leadership should show leadership, and they should be very mindful of the fact they have a position of responsibility or authority. We have a way to go to get to the point where we have no events such as that.