‘We constantly find ourselves lagging behind’: Campaigners on standing up for LGBT rights in Northern Ireland

A panel discussed the tough challenges facing LGBT rights in Northern Ireland at an event hosted by PinkNews and Citi.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without same-sex marriage, and UK Prime Minister  Theresa May has faced calls to act on the issue in the UK Parliament due to the ongoing suspension of the region’s devolved power-sharing Assembly.

LGBT campaigners in the region say it is up to the Prime Minister to deliver equal rights in the absence of the devolved government, which broke down more than a year ago and shows little signs of reforming.

YouGov polling commissioned by PinkNews today shows a large amount of support for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of a PinkNews LGBT reception in Stormont set to take place on Thursday (June 28) that will be attended by all the major Northern Irish party leaders, a panel at Citi’s Belfast HQ discussed the pathway to equal marriage in the region.

The panel was attended by John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long MLA, PinkNews CEO Benjamin Cohen, and Peter Holden, Senior ally executive at investment bank Citi.

On LGBT rights in Northern Ireland, Naomi Long said: “We’re a long way behind [the rest of the UK]. At the moment we do not have equal marriage, nor do we have a pathway to get there, thanks to the petition of concern and the way it’s been deployed on the Assembly.”

Naomi Long MLA (Philip Magowan/PressEye for PinkNews)

Long backed proposals for the UK Parliament to intervene on equal marriage in Northern Ireland in the absence of a devolved assembly, but lamented that the issue could not be resolved locally.

The MLA and former MP said: “I was there the day we voted for equal marriage in England and Wales, and I was privileged enough to go through the lobbies and support that, and be one of the people who delivered it – which makes it all the harder to accept that we aren’t able to deliver it here.

“When it comes to LGBT rights, that’s the headline issue for people, but it’s not the only issue for the community here. I think it’s really important that those of us who are not LGBT stand alongside those who are.”

Naomi Long MLA (Philip Magowan/PressEye for PinkNews)

She added: “We don’t have a strategy for homophobic bullying in schools. We have nothing and no serious progess on that. We don’t have a sexual orientation strategy, we don’t have an action plan, most organisations that provide support to the LGBT community do so on a voluntary basis and don’t get the funding they should have.

“We constantly find ourselves lagging behind and dragged kicking and screaming into what is considered normal elsewhere. It bothers me because I don’t think it reflects the community.”

O’Doherty said: “What we need is for someone to take responsibility for what’s happening here, whether that’s a devolved Assembly or direct rule, because we can’t continue down this stalemate.

“Equal marriage will be achieved with a kick and a scream, based on experience, and what we’ve had to do to date.”

John O’Doherty (Philip Magowan/PressEye for PinkNews)

O’Doherty backed legislation in Westminster, noting that private members’ bills on the issue are identical to legislation drawn up for the Assembly prior to its suspension.

He said: “That is Northern Ireland-written legislation being brought to Westminster and asking for change. Even the strongest Republicans that we have in Northern Ireland are calling for Westminster to legislate on marriage equality.

“I’m not just here to change the law, I’m here to change society and change the world, and if we continue constantly having to fight a campaign [on equal marriage], we can’t have the wider conversation that needs to be had around LGBT equality issues – we need to be talking about gender recognition reform, our education system’s failure to meet the needs of LGBT people, and our under-resourced mental health services for LGBT people.

“We’ll will continue to fight this campaign that we have won but are unable to get across the line. Whether you are a UK citizen or an Irish citizen, you deserve equal rights here in Northern Ireland.”

Holden spoke about the implications of being a major employer in a region that does not afford full rights to LGBT employees.

Peter Holden (Philip Magowan/PressEye for PinkNews)

He said: “Being a leader within Citi, and managing some quite big teams of people, what I’ve learned over the years is that to be the best at anything you have to be yourself. You can’t be the best at anything if you’re trying to be something that’s not natural or doesn’t come comfortably for you. We can’t achieve what we’re trying to do if people don’t let people be comfortable with what they are.

“From a business perspective, we’re working around the government’s inability to give us the ability to give equality. The firm spends a lot of money to look after people, we spend more than what we’d have to for simple things.

“If I signed up for my pension, and I fill the paperwork out and don’t put the next of kin in, it automatically defaults to my wife – but it doesn’t if you’re in a same-sex marriage.

“We advertise this, we help people and work around these things, but why should people have to work around it?

“I’ve moved around within Citi, and with my wife, a visa wouldn’t be a problem. If I wanted to work in the US tomorrow, my wife would get a visa and a green card because she comes with me. If I was in a same-sex marriage, would that happen? If it’s marriage, yes, but if it’s a civil partnership, no.

“Citi does a great job of putting in extra process complexity to work around the base we’re given to work with, and I’m really excited by the leadership position we’re going to start taking in trying to influence the policy makers and push that to the next step.”

Cohen said: “It was a strange experience when I landed in Belfast this morning.

John O’Doherty and Benjamin Cohen (Philip Magowan/PressEye for PinkNews)

“I actually got married exactly one month ago, on May 27, but when I landed I realised that I wasn’t married anymore – I was in a civil partnership.

“That was quite strange, having been one of the campaigners for same-sex marriage in England and Wales, I didn’t like the feeling that my marriage that is so important to me isn’t recognised anymore.”

Citi is a sponsor of the PinkNews Belfast summer reception.