Northern Ireland secretary tells LGBTQ+ community that decisions should be made locally not in Westminster

Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris speaking at the PinkNews reception in Stormont.

Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has called for more decisions to be made by “locally elected representatives” – not Westminster – and once again called for a return to power sharing at the PinkNews Belfast reception in Stormont.

There has been no functioning government in Northern Ireland since the 2022 assembly elections, with the DUP – now the second biggest party in the state – refusing to form an executive due to issues around the Northern Irish protocol.

Speaking at Stormont on Wednesday (28 June), Chris Heaton-Harris spoke of his efforts to introduce LGBTQ+ inclusive education for children in Northern Ireland – however, he emphasised that such decisions are better made by local politicians. 

“It’s hard not to address the fact that the executive and the assembly are not functioning,” Heaton-Harris said.

“I remain firmly of the belief that these sorts of decisions are best made by your own locally elected representatives. It should not be left to Westminster to do these things.”

Heaton-Harris said he would do everything in his power to see “devolved government restored” in Northern Ireland. 

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Alliance MLA Eóin Tennyson pictured in the centre with UUP leader Doug Beattie on his left and Karen McShane, trustee at the Rainbow Project, on his right.
Alliance MLA Eóin Tennyson pictured in the centre with UUP leader Doug Beattie on his left and Karen McShane, trustee at the Rainbow Project, on his right. (Kelvin Boyes)

Immediately before his speech, Heaton-Harris engaged in a heated exchange with SDLP councillor Séamas de Faoite about cuts made to youth services. 

During the exchange, Heaton-Harris dismissed de Faoite’s comments, telling him that he was talking “bollocks”.

“I tried to raise some of the issues that I find in my constituency and the whole of Belfast in terms of cuts being made to youth services and services for children, particularly vulnerable children and young people,” de Faoite told PinkNews.

“I have to say I was appalled the secretary of state decided to say I was talking bollocks in response to that.” 

The exchange came during the annual PinkNews summer reception in Belfast, where politicians from all major political parties are invited to take part in a panel discussion on the future of LGBTQ+ rights.

DUP MLA Pam Cameron was due to take part in the discussion but cancelled shortly before the event citing ill-health. PinkNews asked the DUP to send another representative on Cameron’s behalf, but nobody was made available.

Much of the panel discussion focused on the lack of an executive and how there can be no movement on devolved issues such as conversion therapy and gender recognition without a government. 

Séamas de Faoite, SDLP councillor, with Doug Beattie on his right.
Séamas de Faoite, SDLP councillor, with Doug Beattie on his right. (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye)

Sinn Féin MLA and equality spokesperson Emma Sheerin, Alliance MLA Eóin Tennyson, UUP leader Doug Beattie and SDLP councillor Séamas de Faoite took part in the panel discussion, which was moderated by Karen McShane, a trustee at Belfast-based LGBTQ+ group The Rainbow Project. 

Opening the discussion, McShane expressed surprise that there were only four seats instead of five at the event before asking Cameron to come up on stage to sit on the panel.

“Oh sorry, that’s the seat that’s not here,” McShane said.

The panel repeatedly turned to the lack of DUP representation on the panel and the party’s ongoing refusal to form an executive throughout the discussions. 

“If we’re all honest I don’t think we’ve delivered as much as we would like for the LGBTQ community over the last year,” said Alliance MLA Eóin Tennyson.

He said people are “suffering” as a result of the assembly not functioning, adding that “even when it is up and running” some parties still stand in the way of progress. 

Politicians also spoke about the need for more robust hate crime protections, gender recognition reform, and the continued need for a conversion therapy ban. 

“This othering and dehumanisation, particularly of the trans community at the minute, giving it air and giving it any sort of lifeblood is incredibly dangerous and we know it’s dangerous particularly because of the impact on young people and their mental health,” said Sinn Féin’s Emma Sheerin.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie spoke about the need to pass a comprehensive conversion therapy ban and referenced his successful 2021 motion to outlaw the practice. 

There was also discussion about hate crime, with Tennyson arguing there needs to be a greater focus on preventing hate crimes from happening in the first place. 

The discussion was held as part of the PinkNews summer reception in Belfast, an annual event where parties from Northern Ireland’s political spectrum convene to discuss the future of LGBTQ+ rights. 

The event comes amid ongoing turbulence in Northern Ireland. The DUP has refused to form an executive since the 2022 elections, leaving Westminster to govern on their behalf. 

At that election, Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party in Northern Ireland, marking the first time a nationalist party has commanded a majority in the history of the state.