A Sinn Féin victory in Northern Ireland could spell much-needed change for the LGBTQ+ community

Michelle O'Neill arrives at the polling station set in St Patricks primary school, in Clonoe, in Co Tyrone, on May 5, 2022.

For the first time ever, Sinn Féin is projected to become the biggest party at Stormont, meaning the DUP could lose the first minister post.

If those projections come to pass, it would be a history-making moment in Northern Ireland. If Sinn Féin emerges as the country’s biggest party, it will be the first time in a century that a nationalist party has had majority support.

In simple terms, that means Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill will take the first minister post for the first time. Notably, it would also mean that Northern Ireland would have its first ever pro-LGBTQ+ first minister.

The DUP’s decline probably doesn’t have much to do with the party’s staunch opposition to LGBTQ+ rights – it’s likely more to do with the Northern Irish protocol and Brexit – but the result could still have a positive impact on queer people.

The DUP has blocked progress on LGBTQ+ rights in Northern Ireland

Ever since it was founded by Ian Paisley in 1971, the DUP has been fiercely opposed to any advancement in LGBTQ+ rights. That started with Paisley’s “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign in the 1970s, which argued that homosexuality should continue to be criminalised because the Bible said it was a sin.

In the decades since, the DUP has done little to win support from the LGBTQ+ community. Numerous MLAs and MPs have come under fire for making barbed comments about queer people – Ian Paisley Jr said in 2005 that he was “repulsed” by homosexuality, while Sammy Wilson said people with AIDS were sick because of their “lifestyle choices”.

In Stormont, the DUP has done everything in its power to stop LGBTQ+ people from winning equality. The party repeatedly blocked same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland using a mechanism agreed upon under the Good Friday Agreement known as the “petition of concern”. Same-sex marriage eventually came to Northern Ireland when power sharing collapsed, paving the way for Westminster to vote in its favour instead – but that victory still didn’t lead to the DUP abandoning its anti-LGBTQ+ agenda.

There was a small glimmer of hope that the DUP could be open to change in 2021 when Paula Bradley, the DUP’s deputy leader, apologised for past remarks made by her party colleagues about LGBTQ+ people.

Paula Bradley DUP

DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley apologised for comments made by her party colleagues about the LGBT+ community. (PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty)

Speaking at a PinkNews reception, Bradley admitted that some of the comments made by DUP representatives had been “absolutely atrocious” and that they had “fed into the hatred” endured by LGBTQ+ people.

The apology was warmly welcomed by LGBTQ+ campaigners, but the community has little reason to believe that the DUP has any intention of seriously reckoning with its past and changing the course of its future. Many of the party’s representatives continue to speak out against advancements in LGBTQ+ rights, with conversion therapy becoming a sticking point for some MLAs and MPs.

Sinn Féin has adapted – and its leaders are strong supporters of LGBTQ+ rights

While the DUP continues to linger in the past, Sinn Féin has been quick to adapt when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. The party, which has been in operation for more than a century, has gradually moved towards strong support for the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2012, Sinn Féin formally supported same-sex marriage and, in 2015, it was the only party in Northern Ireland to support for trans people in its party manifesto.

In 2021, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald told the PinkNews Belfast Summer Reception that trans people deserve proper healthcare all across the island of Ireland. She also used her platform to criticise the UK’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA), saying it “others people in a way that is cruel”.

That’s not to say Sinn Féin is totally in the clear when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights – in 2020, there was some controversy in the Republic of Ireland when it emerged that elected representative Brian Stanley had tweeted “insensitive” remarks about Leo Varadkar, who is gay.

One Sinn Féin member, Iósaf Ó Muirí, told the Belfast Telegraph at the time that he had left the party because it had “failed to take robust action on racism, homophobia and bigotry”.

Still, the prospect of a Sinn Féin first minister is a much better one for LGBTQ+ people. Sinn Féin is much more likely to support the community and to aid and assist in championing advancements in LGBTQ+ rights.

That’s important because there is still a great deal of work to be done in Northern Ireland to make life better for LGBTQ+ people. Trans healthcare is in a state of disarray in the region, and conversion therapy is still being practiced legally – although the Stormont government has promised to outlaw the practice and legislation is currently being drafted.

It’s not yet entirely clear just how significant a Sinn Féin victory would be for Northern Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community, but at the very least, it would show queer people that they have a leader who supports their right to equality.