On Thursday 5th July, a public conference was held at the Queen’s University Belfast that brought together supporters of full equal marriage rights in Northern Ireland. The new campaigning group coined ‘Equal Marriage NI’ consists of diverse representative bodies such as The Rainbow Project NI, NUS-USI, GLYNI and the hosts from Queen’s University Belfast LGBT Society.
Intolerance in Northern Ireland is, unfortunately, rising. A survey into social attitudes and discrimination from the equality commission NI found that a quarter of people heartily disapprove to a gay or bisexual neighbour and four in ten would object to a close relative forming a relationship with a gay or bisexual person.
Negativity towards the consultation on Equal Marriage in Scotland, England and Wales has been overemphasised here in Northern Ireland where there is yet to be any progress in considering any similar consultation.
Responding to highly discriminatory comments from various public figures in the past month, the newly established campaign group discussed turning “negativity into positives” with an end goal of lobbying the Northern Ireland assembly to repeal the 2003 Marriage Order that holds legal impediments to the recognition of same-sex marriage.
Strong unambiguous support was heard from a variety of speakers at the event including: John O’Doherty, head of the Rainbow Project; NUS-USI officers Henry Adams (Equality) & Rachel Wallace (LGBT); along with Peter Agnew, the President of QUB LGBT and certain elected representatives from the Alliance Party and Sinn Fein such as Anna Lo and Caitiona Ruane respectively as well as campaign organiser and political activist Gary Spedding.
Reference was made to the fact there is currently no home grown LGBT legislation and that partnerships should not be two tiered (Civil Partnership – Civil Marriage). John O’Doherty stated that opposition to Marriage equality is about trying to put the LGBT community “back in the closet”. He also went on to state that equal marriage does not “diminish or change marriage; multi-divorcee Tom Cruise however does”
Speaking on the society within Northern Ireland, Henry Adams criticised our politicians, asking them to “Do what they say in their manifestos; Work to create a society that all can share.” He continued by saying “Our aim should not be to create an LGBT friendly society; it should be to create a diversity friendly society.” Perhaps one of the most resounding and memorable points made was the statement that “Marriage is a human right and not a heterosexual privilege.”
Giving a student perspective, LGBT officer Rachel Wallace spoke of student roles within the struggle for basic rights, whilst also raising the idea that “As part of the Equal Marriage movement we may experience intimidation; however ‘separate but equal’ is not equal”. She also appealed to the straight community, proclaiming that the “LGBT community do not have to campaign alone, and indeed cannot.”
Caitiona Ruane MLA, paid tribute to the QUB LGBT society, speaking passionately on behalf of her party, congratulating president Peter Agnew on his laudable spearheading of LGBT campaigns within Northern Ireland, stating that people “have to nail their colours to the mast”. She went on to say that “Equality will only be achieved by instating full marriage for Gay and Lesbian couples.” Finishing up, she reiterated that her party is “100% in support of equality and will be leading the way, along with other parties” on this matter. The Sinn Fein MLA has the ability to apply substantial pressure as the Chief Whip to her party and also as Equality Spokesperson and a Policing Board member.
Speaking as an individual due to the fact Alliance are yet to confirm their party policy, Anna Lo MLA gave a moving speech where she asked the straight forward question “If two people love each other, why should they be seen as lesser?”
Organiser of the event Gary Spedding gave a brief talk before opening up the floor to gather ideas. His remarks affirmed that the “campaign is not an attack [especially on religion], it is about equality before the law.” He further warned that “If we accept LGBT partnerships as unequal, we risk accepting further inequalities further down the road”.
Many comments readily flowed in from the floor including from a Presbyterian minister who apologised “for how some in Church have treated the LGBT community” saying that the “Church is full of badly-informed but not necessarily bad people”.
Kyle Boyd from the youth wing of the SDLP apologised that minister Alex Atwood was unable to attend himself and contributed by saying that “Terminology and language is highly important- we must open up space for dialogue & discussion”. He further confirmed that the SDLP would be sitting down within the next week to discuss Equal Marriage.
A noteworthy point was made by a member of the audience who emphatically stated that LGBT is “not just a lifestyle, or an issue; let nobody here forget that fact”.
The event drew a great deal of support with over 40 attendees some coming from as far away as Enniskillen and Derry/Londonderry. Apologies were received from the Ulster Unionist parties Basil McCrea as well as the Green Parties Steven Agnew for their absence but their support was logged with the organisers.
The event was closed by both Peter Agnew and Gary Spedding thanking the audience and ensuring the gathered party that another meeting would be scheduled in the future to further the cause and to continue the good work which had been accomplished so far.