In the last few days the Northern Ireland Government has effectively ceased to exist, brought down over furore surrounding a renewable energy scheme and a widening gulf between the two governing parties which has been exacerbated by claims and counter claims from Ministerial colleagues in the press. The refusal of the First Minister to step aside to allow an independent investigation into corruption claims has prompted the Deputy First Minister to resign, effectively collapsing the Northern Irish parliament and triggering elections barely seven months after the last.
But what does this mean for the LGBT+ community living here? Well quite a bit, actually.
Without a functioning Government and the inability of the NI Assembly to vote on proposed Bills on things like domestic violence protections, marriage equality and abortion those things will remain in legislative limbo and if the prospective MLAs that proposed them are not re-elected they will be dead in the water. The Sexual Orientation Strategy which has been promised since sometime in 2006 still not implemented, any hope of it being done so within the next twelve months is also a pipe dream. I am not, of course, saying that had the Government remained in place throughout the current crisis that any of those Bills would have become law. The prospect of the main coalition partner, the DUP, agreeing to equal marriage is a non-starter but it would have been useful to allow that debate to be had in the Assembly chamber in the first place.
Organisations within the LGBT+ sector that depend on funding allocations from Government departments will now be in a position of uncertainty. The prospect of an election followed by prolonged talks and, according to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the possibility of then another election if the impasse is not resolved will mean that we could be in for a period of Direct Rule (The mechanism by which the NI Assembly is suspended completely and governance of the country is left to the Secretary of State and his Junior Ministers in Westminster). That is not preferable to the majority of people that understand what it would mean for the community and voluntary sector here. The British Prime Minister is pressing ahead with her desire to trigger Article 50 and remove the United Kingdom from the European Union. With no Northern Ireland Executive at the helm to negotiate on behalf of the people here, we will likely have no voice when that happens sometime in March of this year.
The rights of LGBT+ people were mentioned by the Deputy First Minister in his resignation letter, noting that the lack of progress on equality issues was also a factor in his resignation and the withdrawal of Sinn Fein from Government. That has never happened before. In its short tenure the current Northern Ireland Executive legislated to remove the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood and passed a Bill that would retroactively pardon gay men that had been convicted for consensual gay sex before the repeal of the anti-gay ordnance in 1982. Those are huge milestones for our community here but that goodwill and co-operation that was promised at the start of the Government's mandate has evaporated and we are left in limbo.
Currently equal marriage is not recognised nor officiated in Northern Ireland, we have a woefully substandard Gender Recognition Act and the LGBT+ sector is underfunded and there is no obligation on schools to tackle homophobic or transphobic bullying with any uniform approach. New legislation proposed by the outgoing Justice Minister that would have strengthened laws to tackle domestic abuse and violence will also remain on indefinite pause. A 2009 report indicated that one in four LGBT+ people in Northern Ireland were the victims of domestic abuse and violence. Without a Government we may be unable to advance those crucial safeguards, mechanisms and instruments of recognition and respect.
It remains to be seen what will happen next but Northern Ireland looks to be in for a very rocky road and a long period of uncertainty.
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