It has been two years since the demonstration in Belfast which brought 20,000 people to the streets in support of marriage equality. Prior to this point, the issue had been brought up a number of times in Stormont, but was repeatedly rejected by elected representatives.
After the march, the tremendous pressure from below was enough to sway a number of politicians who had previously voted against legalisation to a favourable position, including representatives from the UUP and Alliance. In November 2015, a majority of MLAs voted in favour of marriage equality for the first time, only for it to be blocked by the DUP’s abuse of the petition of concern mechanism.
The march in Belfast came shortly after the tremendously successful referendum in the South, where 62% voted in favour of marriage equality. Young people enthusiastically campaigned across the country in favour of social progress, showing how ordinary people can affect real change through collective struggle. The highest ‘Yes’’ votes were delivered in working class communities. In the North, it was public outcry and protest which forced DUP Health Minister Jim Wells to resign after he made vile, homophobic remarks.
While some parties in Stormont support marriage equality, many of them actively implement or support policies which have a profoundly negative effect on the LGBT community in general. Young LGBT people in particular are disproportionately affected by poverty, homelessness, disability and mental illness. It is not acceptable for politicians to boast of their ‘pro-equality’ credentials while backing harsh austerity measures and cuts to vital services which vulnerable LGBT people rely on. Any party which earnestly seeks to improve the lives of oppressed sections of the population must necessarily oppose all policies which would detrimentally affect those sections. This requires vigorous opposition to the austerity agenda and a refusal to implement cuts budgets.
The politicians in Stormont have failed time and time again to deliver on the issue of equal marriage. It is abundantly clear that the Stormont establishment is incredibly out of touch with the aspirations of the majority of people. Numerous polls have shown that the vast majority of the population support legalisation, including the majority of Unionists and at least half of DUP supporters. In order to mobilise this support, it is essential that attempts to sectarianise the fight for equality are resisted. Marriage equality demonstrations should not become a platform for right-wing, nationalist parties to extoll their ‘progressive’ credentials as they do so cynically and to the detriment of the movement.
The gains made over the last few years, both North and South, show what can be achieved when we stand up and make our demands known. Progress has come about as the direct result of organised, mass campaigns involving ordinary people. The lesson to be learned is that rights will not be granted from on high without significant pressure from below. If we wish to see equality for LGBT people in the North, we must be prepared to fight for it by building a formidable movement and making our voices heard.
By Andrew Farley