The impact last month’s successful gay marriage referendum in the 26 Counties has spilled over into the 6 Counties, with 10,000 attending a demonstration in Belfast. The fact that the ‘South’ can act as a beacon for the ‘North’ highlights the reactionary nature of the local UK state set-up, which is a barrier to progress in these islands. This article was first posted on the Socialist Democracy (Ireland) blog.
On Saturday, 13th June, over ten thousand people gathered in Belfast city to show their support for marriage equality. This demonstration, which was organised by Amnesty International, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the Rainbow Project, saw people marching from the Arts College to the City Hall where they were addressed by a number of speakers.
The first person to speak was novelist Glen Patterson who was also acting as compère. In his introduction he spoke of how the sight of a DeLorean car parked on the lawn of the City Hall for some other event had sparked a ‘Back to the Future’ moment for him. This was a reference to the Ulster Says No rallies of the mid 80’s. Adapting Ian Paisley’s famous speech to one of these he told the crowd that: “We will never forsake the blue skies of Ulster for the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet skies of the Irish Republic”. Instead “We are going to bring them here.”
Among the speakers to follow was ICTU LGBT committee chairman Daire Toner, who claimed that his dreams of of getting married one day had been “shattered by the laws that govern this state.” He said that while he could get married elsewhere on his return home it would be made invalid. Rainbow Project director John O’Doherty said he was overwhelmed by the level of support for the demonstration which he believed could not be ignored by politicians. He urged LGBT people to make their voices heard, to tell their story, and to play their part in the creation of “a new Northern Ireland”.
In her address Claire Moore of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) pointed out that Northern Ireland once led the way in terms of rights for same-sex partners. In 2005 it became the first place in the UK to hold a civil partnership. But ten years later, with every other region of Ireland and Britain recognising marriage equality, “citizens in Northern Ireland have effectively been left behind.” Claire also highlighted the “leading role” the trade union movement played in campaigning for a Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum in the south.
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said that marriage equality was clearly a human rights issue. To support this assertion he cited the section of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. He said that it was “simply unacceptable” for the state to discriminate against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. For him all people were equal and “the state should protect all people equally.”
As well as these speakers the demonstration also heard from a number of gay and lesbian couples about the practical problems that the denial of equal marriage presents for them; and from representatives of two school based groups which had been set up to support LGBT pupils, and also from a couple of liberal clergymen.
In terms of numbers the demonstration (which was probably the biggest public show of support for LGBT rights there has ever been in the north) was very impressive. It certainly reveals the degree to which attitudes towards sexuality have shifted and also the success of activists in moving gay rights from the margins to the mainstream.
However the potential for this movement, and the similar mobilisations that have recently taken place around issues of race and gender, is severely limited by the political perspective being pushed by the forces that take the lead in these situations. That is the proposition, put forward primarily by Sinn Fein and the trade unions, that the northern state can be reformed by lobbying the institutions brought into existence by the political settlement.
But this perspective is completely baseless. The reality is that since the restoration of local institutions the cause of equality has actually gone backwards, whether that is in relation to abortion, adoption, blood donation and a range of other issues related to sexuality and gender This reaction has advanced to such a degree that we now have the prospect of the enactment of a “conscience clause” that would provide legal cover for wholesale discrimination.
This is not the dynamic of political system that is reforming and liberalising. But it is what happens in a system that is based on accommodating and empowering the most reactionary elements of society as represented by the DUP. More fundamentally it is what happens within a state that is explicitly founded upon inequality. While this is still primarily sectarian in nature it also finds expression in race, gender and sexuality.
The northern state is not a liberal democracy and there is no mechanism for reform. That is not to say that that things aren’t changing – the support for marriage equality shows that they are – but such changes are unlikely to be reflected at an institutional level. A movement for equality must be in opposition to these institutions (the Assembly & the Executive) rather than support of them and their imaginary reforming potential.
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