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LGBTQIA rights and The Good Friday Agreement

Updated Wednesday, 19 April 2023
"There has never been a better time to be LGBTQIA+ in
Northern Ireland," argues John O'Doherty in this essay.

There has never been a better time to be LGBTQIA+ in Northern Ireland. The rights and protections afforded to LGBTQIA+ people in 2023 go beyond what I believe we could have envisioned in 1998 – not because they weren’t needed, but because the political will and societal acceptance needed for such change didn’t seem to be present. 


The Northern Ireland LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement struggled to gain traction and attention during the difficult years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In 1982 decriminalisation of same-sex relationships was achieved following a successful challenge through the European Court of Human Rights by Jeff Dudgeon, 15 years after decriminalisation in England and Wales and 11 years before the Republic of Ireland. While this momentous change afforded LGBTQIA+ people freedom from criminalisation the wider inequalities experienced by this community remained largely invisible.


In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement raised the possibility of a new inclusive Northern Ireland that was progressive and celebrated diversity, and to the surprise of many this included people of different sexual orientations and put responsibility on designated public authorities to promote equality of opportunity for our community. Indeed, this was one of only a few peace agreements that included LGBTQIA+ people. Unfortunately, this possibility has not yet been realised and the continued politics of division has done little, if anything, to address the inequalities experienced by LGBTQIA+ people.


At the turn of the millennium, LGBTQIA+ rights across the United Kingdom were front and centre of the political agenda, particularly at Westminster. New Labour under Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced a raft of new legislation addressing a number of inequalities experienced by LGBTQIA+ people. This included equalising the age of consent for consensual sexual activity in 2000. New legislation was introduced in 2003 providing protections in employment meaning a person could not lose their job or be refused promotion or other opportunities based on their sexual orientation. With this protection in place LGBTQIA+ people were able to open about their sexual orientation and relationships within their workplaces increasing their visibility.


In 2004, new legislation was introduced recognising hate crimes, or crimes motivated by hate, allowing increased sentencing for perpetrators of these crimes at the discretion of the judiciary. Importantly, this meant that crimes motivated by hate were recorded and investigated giving us a better picture of the violence and crime experienced by LGBTQIA+ people. In 2004 legislation was introduced recognising transgender people and enabling them to legally change their gender and affording protections in employment for those undergoing gender-reassignment.


In 2005, new legislation was introduced legalising civil partnerships among same-sex couples, a change that again increased the visibility of LGBTQIA+ people and afforded legal protections similar to those afforded to married heterosexual couples, with the first civil partnerships in the UK being held in Belfast. In 2006, new legislation as introduced to protect LGBTQIA+ people when accessing goods, facilities and services and ensuring we cannot be denied service based on our sexual orientation.


In addition to being protections introduced to address inequalities experienced by LGBTQIA+, all of these changes have something else in common, their introduction in Northern Ireland was passed through Westminster and not through the Northern Ireland Assembly. In fact, there are only two actions taken by the Northern Ireland Assembly in relation to LGBTQIA+ equality – the extension of the Turing law in 2016, named after Alan Turing, to Northern Ireland allowing those, particularly gay and bisexual men, who had been convicted of a crime that would no longer be unlawful such as consensual sex among adults, to have this conviction expunged from their record – and the removal of the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood and the introduction of the FAIR system for blood donations in 2022.

One of the key achievements of the LGBTQIA+ community over the last 25 years has been the passing of equal marriage – ensuring equal recognition of marriages between same sex and heterosexual couples in 2020, 7 years after England and Wales and 5 years after the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly voted 5 times on the issue of equal marriage, and 4/5 times a majority of Assembly Members opposed this move. On the fifth occasion a majority voted in support, however this move was blocked by use of the petition of concern – a mechanism introduced to protect minority communities.


Over the life of the campaign for equal marriage, the LGBTQIA+ community were relentlessly positive, outlining the vision of the Northern Ireland they wanted to see and the important role LGBTQIA+ people play in our society. Partnerships between campaigning organisations were developed, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and wrote letters, and countless LGBTQIA+ people, couples and allies shared their stories and those of their families. Multiple court cases were taken by couples seeking legal recognition and businesses, charities, politicians and businesses stood shoulder to shoulder with our community demanding change. Unfortunately, like so many times before, this change was not achieved through the Northern Ireland Assembly, but rather was introduced and passed through Westminster with cross party support from MPs and peers.


Across the UK, Ireland and the world we are seeing increased hostility towards LGBTQIA+ people and particularly trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. The Northern Ireland Assembly has again failed to develop an LGBTQI+ strategy in the last mandate despite this being a commitment since 2007. We do not have adequate protections for LGBTQIA+ young people within schools. Research published by the Department for Education in 2017 found that 45% of LGBTQIA+ young people don’t feel safe within our schools, 48% had experienced homophobic or transphobic bullying, and 66.5% reported not feeling welcomed or valued within their school. The most recent statistics reported by the PSNI show the highest levels of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes in Northern Ireland to date.


There has never been a better time to be LGBTQIA+ in Northern Ireland, but true equality and equity has not yet been achieved. 1991 saw the first Belfast Pride parade where an estimated 100 people participated in what has been described to me as a fast-paced walk across Belfast city centre. In 2022, over 70,000 people participated in the parade and festival. More people. businesses and organisations are committing to ensuring equality for LGBTQIA+ people and our families than ever before. Our community has legal protections beyond what could be imagined in 1991 and is more widely visible and celebrated than at any time in our history – but there is much more to achieve and without forward momentum, we risk going backwards. 

American author Ernest J.Gaines once asked, “why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?”. Ask yourself, when was the last time, if ever, you saw two men or two women holding hands in public? How often do you see same sex couples engage in public displays of affection? We must focus, not only on changing the law, but changing hearts and minds. Our movement has the ability and responsibility to change the world. And we have. And we will.  

“Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”
Barbara Gittings – American LGBTQIA+ Activist 


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