Northern Ireland’s first openly gay legislator ‘will be a symbol’ to young LGBT people

Northern Ireland’s first openly gay assembly member speaks to PinkNews about what his appointment means.

The Alliance Party this week selected councillor and long-time activist John Blair to take a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly, after David Ford retired from his position as MLA for South Antrim.

Ahead of the PinkNews summer reception in Stormont on Thursday, Blair and Alliance leader Naomi Long spoke about the appointment.

Naomi Long, John Blair, and David Ford (Alliance)

Blair, who has been out for many years, said he had been taken aback by the “hundreds” of positive messages of well wishes he had received after the appointment.

He told PinkNews: “In my political party, these simply aren’t issues, and all people, whatever their background, are encouraged to develop, run for public office and do whatever they want to do.

“Today has been a reminder to me that at a national level, an issue such as this would be a news item in the 21st century… I’m very keen today to concentrate on the positives.

“Literally hundreds of people across this province, from right across the political spectrum, have been in touch with me today to say they think this is a good thing, to wish me well and offer assistance in their experience as politicians.

“I think we should take something from the positive that so many people have been in touch to congratulate me and send good wishes.”

Party leader Naomi Long told PinkNews: “Alliance has a history because of our history of liberal and progressive policies of attracting high numbers of LGBT activists and members.

“That’s something we welcome because it allows people to have a voice.

“John has been a councillor now on Newtonabbey Council and has also served as Deputy Lord Mayor – and when he went for selection, his sexuality wasn’t even an issue for the party. It was his activism on behalf of the entire community that meant he was selected.”

Naomi Long MLA (Philip Magowan/PressEye for PinkNews)

She added: “Obviously, we are delighted that it also means that by selecting him, the LGBT community will have an openly gay person in the Assembly who will be able to represent their views in a very real way, and hopefully inspire other people, regardless of their political views, to feel confident to come forward in politics.

“My other party colleague Andrew Muir was the first openly gay Mayor in Northern Ireland – that was again an opportunity to say to people from the LGBT community who often feel marginalised in Northern Ireland, that actually society can be more accepting if you find the right support network, and show people they can go out and represent the entire community regardless of their sexuality or background.

“I think that’s a really strong statement we’ve been able to make.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended due to the collapse of power-sharing between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.

Asked if he would use the position to speak up for LGBT rights, Blair told PinkNews : “It is the Alliance Party policy already that the equal marriage legislation should apply in this country, and I’ve supported previous attempts to have that introduced.

“I will be working to ensure all citizens in Northern Ireland will be afforded the same rights and entitlements as their neighbours in GB and the rest of the island of Ireland.”

He added: “These are conversations that have to be had, and I will not shying away from any such conversations.”

Blair added that his sexuality had not been a barrier in local politics – even when dealing with people with strong traditional views.

The newly-appointed politician said “I’ve had very good working relationships with members of all political parties, and there are very few exceptions to that.

“There have been one or two individual persons who have been exceptions over the years, but I take a very deliberate approach not to dwell on the actions of one or two negative individuals who are seeking to drag me and other people down.

“I will focus on the people who have always been supportive and with whom I’ve always had very good working relationships delivering on local issues with members of all parties.

“The vast majority of people [in politics] had no issue with my status as a gay man whatsoever.”

His appointment comes ahead of DUP leader Arlene Foster’s attendance at the PinkNews reception in Stormont this evening, where she will attempt to reach out to the LGBT community despite her party’s traditionally anti-LGBT views.

Blair told PinkNews: “I welcome it, I think it’s a small step but a significant step, and I’m not going to criticise anybody for doing the type of thing that I and others have been calling for them to do now for some time.

“It would be wrong and churlish to do that. However, words or gestures by themselves are not enough to change where we’re at.

“Those gestures, as important as they are, need to be followed up by actions to actually change the position that means citizens of Northern Ireland have less rights than those in GB or the rest of Ireland.”