With the recent Love Equality march and the biggest ever Belfast Pride parade, it is apparent that the general attitude of people in Northern Ireland is that it is time for equal marriage, yet time after time it has been shot down in Stormont. This is now the only part of Ireland and Britain where same-sex couples cannot marry.
Arlene Foster apparently took great offence at being called a homophobe but she is the leader of the party that has constantly abused the ‘petition of concern’ to bulldoze demands for marriage equality. However, a majority of DUP voters now support equal marriage. The DUP’s support is not primarily based on support for their fundamentalist agenda but – like Sinn Féin – upon being seen as the strongest voice for ‘their’ community. They are not impervious to pressure from below, as was reflected in the sacking of Jim Wells as Health Minister after making outrageous homophobic comments.
In 2015, Belfast saw a march of 20,000 strong calling for marriage equality. This is what forced a number of MLAs to change their stance on the issue and delivered the first majority vote for equality. This shows that it is people power that changes society, that grassroots campaigning works. An active campaign can force the DUP to stop using the petition of concern to block marriage equality, but it must be genuinely cross-community and not connected to the nationalist parties, which would be used to create suspicion amongst ordinary Protestants.
The right to marry is just the next step in the fight for LGBTQ equality. LGBTQ people are disproportionately impacted by austerity. For example, 40% of young people forced into homelessness identify as LGBTQ, due to the stigma which still exists in society. Religious domination and influence in our schools stigmatises LGBTQ youth, legitimising bullying and causing mental health problems. What we need is the separation of church and state so that people can be free to express their sexuality and their love for one another. We need to take the fight against homophobia and hatred into every arena of life in Northern Ireland.
By Sarah Campton