Northern Ireland politicians unite for LGBT+ rights at PinkNews Belfast event

Colum Eastwood and Robin Swann speaking

Politicians from across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum united on Thursday (June 20) to call for marriage equality, anti-bullying legislation and gender recognition reform.

Leaders and members of the legislative assembly (MLAs)  from four of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties attended the PinkNews Belfast Summer Reception, supported by Citi, Ulster Bank and charity partner The Rainbow Project. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only party not in attendance.

Speaking in Stormont’s Great Hall, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Robin Swann said he found it “disappointing” that the building remained without a functioning government a year on from the last Belfast reception.

He acknowledged that for the LGBT+ community, “it’s not as if there was an avalanche of legislation that benefitted you passing through this place in the past 10 years.”

“If and when we restore devolution Stormont must offer a platform and bring representation and legislation for our LGBT+ community,” he said.

“Stormont must offer a platform and bring representation and legislation for our LGBT+ community.”

—Robin Swann, UUP leader

Turning his attention to Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ youth, he called on politicians to “grasp the mettle and experience of those in our schools.”

“When I spoke here last year I reflected on the horrific statistics on LGBT+ youth in Northern Ireland,” he continued, “where two out of three do not feel that school is a welcoming environment. Where three out of five say they have had suicidal thoughts because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Colum Eastwood calls for veto reform

Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), echoed Swann’s words and called the fight for LGBT+ rights “this generation’s civil rights movement.”

Announcing that the power-sharing talks should yield a result in the “next few days,” he said: “If we walk out of Stormont next week and we have not resolved these issues then we are letting down all of our young people.”

Colum Eastwood speaking at a podium

Colum Eastwood (SDLP) at the PinkNews Belfast Summer Reception. (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PinkNews)

Eastwood said that the “obvious issue” of marriage equality could be delivered through Westminster as soon as tomorrow, “but if we want to deal with all of the outstanding issues that face young LGBT+ people, we need this place back.”

He added that “the number one issue” in the talks process is reform of the petition of concern—the mechanism by which the DUP has blocked equal marriage legislation.

“We can’t allow this veto to exist,” he said. “It has to be fixed and it has to be fixed now.”

Michelle O’Neill ‘determined’ to deliver LGBT+ rights

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland added that the “political blockade” could not be allowed to continue.

“Sinn Féinn will play no part in state sponsored discrimination,” she said.

Michelle O'Neill speaking at a podium

Michelle O’Neill at the PinkNews Belfast Summer Reception. (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PinkNews)

“I’m determined to ensure that you can enjoy the same rights, the same benefits that everybody else does. That’s not a privilege, that’s just your right.

“There’s absolutely no room for second class citizenship in our society.”

John Blair calls out Arlene Foster

Alliance’s John Blair—the first openly gay MLA in Northern Ireland—said that his party “remains absolutely committed to making this assembly work.”

Taking a shot at DUP leader Arlene Foster, who elected not to attend the PinkNews Belfast summit, he said: “You and I and the LGBT+ community in general, we know who stands with us and we know who doesn’t. We know that actions speak louder than words.”

John Blair (Alliance) at the PinkNews Belfast Summer Reception. (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PinkNews)

John Blair (Alliance) at the PinkNews Belfast Summer Reception. (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PinkNews)

Following his speech, Blair announced the nominees for Community Group of the Year award at the PinkNews Awards 2019.

Politicians pay tribute to Lyra McKee

Throughout the night many paid tribute to Lyra McKee, the gay journalist who was killed while observing riots in Derry on April 18.

Paula Bradshaw, Alliance MLA for South Belfast, opened the event by saying that McKee and other “absent friends’” contributions to LGBT+ rights were “immeasurable.”

Many also congratulated LGBT+ charity The Rainbow Project on its 25th anniversary.

The charity’s director John O’Doherty recalled some of its successes, but warned: “There has never been a better time to be LGBT+ in Northern Ireland, but we cannot afford to be complacent.”