As the situation for LGBTQ people in the United States steadily worsens with increasingly oppressive legislation being passed by state governments, across the Atlantic Ocean in Northern Ireland, a historic shift in the political landscape marks a new era for the country’s LGBTQ community.
In a recent election, the political party Sinn Fein came out on top, winning the most legislative seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
A “nationalist party,” Sinn Fein was once the “political arm” of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a militant organization dedicated to breaking away from the United Kingdom and the “reunification” of Ireland. What makes such a victory historic is that a nationalist party in support of a unified Ireland hasn’t held a majority of seats in Northern Ireland’s parliamentary government in nearly 100 years.
More than just a shattering of the old political landscape — where those who wish to see Northern Ireland remain within the UK — Sinn Fein’s victory could potentially bring about significant progress for the country’s LGBTQ community.
For the past few decades, Northern Ireland has typically been governed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). A passionately anti-LGBTQ political group, the DUP has not only refused to pass legislation to expand the political rights of LGBTQ individuals in Northern Ireland, but some of its most prominent figures have made nasty or biting comments about homosexuality, calling it an “abomination,” or expressing disgust at LGBTQ people’s existence.
The party, which bases much of its identity around religious conservatism, has sought religious exemptions or “opt-outs” that would allow individuals to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals or same-sex couple based on their personal beliefs.
According to Pink News, founder of the DUP Ian Pasley launched a “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign in the 1970s, arguing for the criminalization of homosexuality on the basis of it being a sin in the bible.
And grotesque anti-LGBTQ attitudes are not a thing of the past for the DUP either. Paisley’s son, Ian Paisley Jr. (an active political political figure) has previously stated that he is “pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and – without caring about it – harm society.”
Although the DUP apologized last year for “absolutely atrocious” remarks that some of its leaders or more prominent members have made over the past 50 years, the party has not wavered on its stance of opposing the expansion of LGBTQ rights or non-traditional family structures.
While Sinn Fein has not always had a flawless record when it comes to LGBTQ rights — or for that matter, LGBTQ acceptance — it has, more recently, evolved to a point of embracing more pro-LGBTQ attitudes.
The nationalist party has supported gay marriage since 2012 and generally voiced support for pro-LGBTQ legislation. In 2021, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald recently issued a statement stating that healthcare for transgender people is “fundamentally basic healthcare” to which everyone should have access.
While nothing is certain, the Sinn Fein victory means that rapid political change is underway. And if Sinn Fein remains committed to expanding the rights of LGBTQ people, then the LGBTQ community in Northern Island could see some positive change of its own.
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