Green Party Northern Ireland’s first gay leader on LGBTQ+ rights and nationalising energy
Mal O’Hara, Northern Ireland’s first openly gay political party leader, is determined to bring queer liberation and climate justice to the country.
Now, he’s raring to make change, to tackle the climate crisis and to help the marginalised groups being impacted by the energy crisis by bringing energy into public ownership.
The climate crisis is of course a driving factor of O’Hara’s politics, and he is hopeful that the summer’s alarming weather, from record-breaking heatwaves to flash flooding, will wake people up to the reality of it.
“I think in previous years, people always thought it was elsewhere – you know, ice caps, and the ozone later,” he tells PinkNews. “Now, people are seeing a real tangible version of climate change in their lives.
“I think the challenge for me as an incoming leader is how we amplify the message around the climate crisis so that it translates to people in their day to day lives – we’re talking better transport, warm homes and good jobs – and really connect the policy solutions around addressing climate biodiversity to… make people’s lives better day to day.”
O’Hara adds that “on any shock, or any crisis, it’s always the most vulnerable groups who are disproportionately affected”. As a councillor, he fought to make sure marginalised groups were given targeted support, something he wants to see “right across all sectors in Northern Ireland, so that we can better meet vulnerable people’s needs”.
People are struggling to pay for energy while oil & gas enjoy record profit margins.
Fossil fuel companies are killing us all – in more ways than one.
— Green Party NI (@GreenPartyNI) August 17, 2022
The cost of living crisis – which is “part of the climate crisis”, O’Hara says – is already impacting those marginalised groups hard. O’Hara believes the answer is community-owned and managed energy.
“We are a rainy, windswept island, we’re beside another rainy, windswept island, there is no reason why we are not energy self-sufficient.
“For us, that should be models of community-owned energy, rather that big oil, big gas and despots profiteering from people who are forced to choose whether to eat or heat.
“Energy should be produced, owned and managed by local communities… we could prevent this exploitation and the cost of living crisis.”
Activism and social justice has always been in Mal O’Hara’s blood
Recently, O’Hara was clearing out his old room at his parents’ house, when he found a school book “from when [he] was 11 or 12”.
“I’d written a piece in there about Nelson Mandela being released from prison, so I think there was always something in the psyche, or the consciousness, that I was globally or socially aware,” he says.
After growing up in Belfast, and finishing his A-Levels the summer the Good Friday Agreement was signed, in 1998, O’Hara went to study in England where he campaigned against the Iraq war and tuition fees.
By the time he returned to Northern Ireland in the mid-2000s, he was out as a gay man and ready to involve himself in LGBTQ+ rights activism.
He worked Northern Ireland’s largest LGBTQ+ organisation, The Rainbow Project, for seven years, and served as vice chair of an equal marriage campaign group.
He began to plot a career in politics as he approached 30, but felt Northern Ireland’s “narrative was still too dominated by constitutional questions, or community background, those kinds of issues”.
“And having lived in England for seven years, I wanted to talk more about bread and butter issues – social justice, equality, poverty, those kinds of things,” he adds.
It was the Green Party Northern Ireland’s fight for equal marriage that helped him find his place. The party brought equal marriage to the Assembly in 2012, and O’Hara recalls: “I thought, other parties say they support us, but they’ve never actually brought a motion or tried to legislate. They [Greens] were always ahead of all other parties on the issue of abortion as well.
“So, a number of years later, I joined them because it felt right in my heart, in my gut, in my soul, and I believed that the party genuinely believed in equality and liberation for queer people.”
From that point onwards, the party has continued to make good on its commitment to LGBTQ+ rights, standing Northern Ireland’s first openly trans candidate in 2016, and, to date, having stood more LGBTQ+ candidates that all other parties combined.
New Green Party Northern Ireland leader would address trans healthcare crisis
On his plans to advance LGBTQ+ equality in Northern Ireland, O’Hara says one of his top priorities is delivering the Sexual Orientation Strategy, first promised in 2007, which would aim to “address barriers and inequalities in society faced by the LGBTQI+ communities”.
According to the Department for Communities, “work on the drafting of the strategy is ongoing”. It has not been allocated any central funding, and so ministers are left to decide whether they want to put money into the elements of the strategy they would be responsible for.
“To me, that feels like we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” says O’Hara.
His other priority is addressing the “crisis in trans healthcare”.
“It’s not new, we’ve known about it for many years, that people are waiting years and years for access to adult or children’s services. It’s the same across the UK, there’s well-established evidence of how much of a risk people are at during that period while they’re waiting for support.
“The brutal reality is that people are dying. So we need to immediately review trans healthcare and put significant resources into it, because the resource that we currently have is the resource from 10 years ago, before larger numbers of people started coming out as trans.”
Being the first openly gay leader of a political party in Northern Ireland is “important”, says Mal O’Hara, but for him, there’s a long way to go yet.
“I’m a cis gay man, so I’m the most privileged of our community,” he says.
“I’m excited about the future, when a trans or non-binary person leads a party and nobody bats an eyelid. I don’t think that eyelids will not be batted, but that would be the ideal.
“You can’t be what you can’t see, and hopefully, for the coming generation of queer people, they will see somebody who’s elected and out and queer, someone who’s leading a party who’s out and queer, and they will think: ‘I can do the same’.”
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