Friday, August 7, 2015

Support marriage equality

Following the hugely successful referendum vote in May in support of marriage equality in the south the denial of this basic human right for citizens in the six counties has now taken on an added significance.

Last week I spoke at a packed meeting in the Ulster Hall. It was a panel discussion looking back at the challenges faced by the LGBT community in Belfast over the last 25 years. It was also an opportunity for the hundreds of LGBT activists to ask questions of the panel of political representatives about their support for LGBT rights. I was there for Sinn Féin and there were representatives also from the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Union Party. The DUP did not send a representative. It was an excellent discussion with spirited contributions from the floor.

The growing public awareness of and support for the LGBT community was equally evident in Belfast on Saturday when tens of thousands of citizens took part in the colourful 25th annual Gay Pride parade. The huge turnout included Belfast Mayor, Arder Carson, who along with other councillors carried a banner calling for marriage equality. The Belfast Gay Pride parade has come a long way from its small beginnings in 1990 when only a couple of hundred participated.

Sinn Féin has a long and proud track record in defence of equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens. As Irish republicans our starting point on all issues of human and civil rights, and equality is the 1916 Proclamation. It enshrines the republican belief in civil and religious rights and our commitment to cherishing all the children of the nation – whatever their sexual orientation or gender or colour or race or age – equally. There can be no exceptions. Nothing less can be tolerated in a modern, progressive and inclusive society.
The issue of LGBT rights was debated by republican prisoners writing in their own magazine - An Glór Gafa/The Captive Voice, in 1991. Before that and following the brutal murder of Declan Flynn in a homophobic attack in Fairview Park in in Dublin in 1984, local Sinn Féin members marched with others to the park in an act of solidarity. The issue was generally shunned by the political establishment at that time.
At our Ard Fheis in 1986 Sinn Féin adopted a policy to end the criminalisation of homosexual acts and for gay rights. Sinn then significant strides have been made in Ireland, north and south, in tackling political, societal and legal obstacles and discrimination facing LGBT citizens.
But significant challenges remain. Consequently Sinn Féin is committed to working in solidarity with the LGBT community to build public and political support north and south. The party has had a formal policy on promoting LGBT equality for over three decades, and an official presence at LGBT Pride events for many years. We are also committed to ensuring that the party itself is a welcome place for LGBT republicans.

To this end, we have appointed an LGBT officer to work together with other interested activists to further develop party policy, raise internal awareness of and publicly campaign on issues affecting the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families.
As part of our political activism republicans are advocating a number of key measures that we believe can promote LGBT equality. These include:
Eliminating legalised homophobic and transphobic discrimination against LGBT education and healthcare workers in the 26 Counties, by amending Section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011.
Amending the 1937 Constitution to include expressed equality protections for LGBT citizens and equal treatment for all family forms.
Introducing equality protections for LGBT citizens and prohibitions on homophobic and transphobic discrimination in a Bill of Rights for the north.
Progressing the northern Sexual Orientation Strategy, including legislation to provide for same-sex civil marriage.
Legislating north and south for equal treatment of prospective LGBT parents in reproductive and adoptive services, and in related social and other public services.
Ensuring the law treats all children equally regardless of family status or the sexual orientation or gender identity of their parents.
Introducing into criminal law a provision that makes committing an offence with a homophobic or transphobic motivation or aim an aggravating circumstance allowing for a more severe penalty and updating the incitement to hatred laws to address the use of the internet and social media to promote homophobic and transphobic messages.
These are just some of the measures we believe are necessary to ensure equality for LGBT citizens. But crucially, and at this defining point in our history, we support the right to marriage equality across the island of Ireland.
Why can’t two people who love each other be recognised and valued and accepted in the same way as all other citizens?
Why should our family members, our friends and work colleagues, our neighbours who are gay and lesbian or transgender be denied the same right to marriage that the rest of us have?
There can be no fudging or dodging this important societal issue. It is a fundamental human right and it must be pursued. To that end Sinn Féin has brought this issue before the Assembly four times where it has been blocked by a DUP petition of concern. We are determined to secure its passage and intend bringing it forward again.
If you really believe in equality and in treating others as you would expect or want to be treated yourself than you should support the right of LGBT citizens to marriage equality.
The process of transforming and modernising society on the island of Ireland was given a huge boost with the success of the May referendum. Citizens in the north now have the opportunity to take all of that one step further.
So, write to your elected representatives. Make your voice heard on this issue. Support the campaign for marriage equality in the north and help ensure that we create a better more compassionate and equal society now and for our children.

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