The TUC must oppose the Tory-DUP alliance and defend our equalities legislation, writes MARIA EXALL
ON JULY 1 trade unionists, human rights campaigners, LGBT+ activists and their families and friends marched for equal love in Belfast. Northern Ireland remains the only part of Britain and Ireland where marriage between people of the same sex is not allowed.
This is due directly to the reactionary position of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on LGBT+ rights.
The DUP has vetoed the democratic will of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has organised a “petition of concern” and is committed to prevent equality legislation from being passed.
In the motion to Congress from our conference earlier this year, the TUC LGBT+ workers’ committee calls on the TUC and all affiliated unions to oppose the alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP, and to work with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to defend existing equalities legislation across the UK and further their expansion, including equal marriage in Northern Ireland.
The reactionary position of the DUP is driven by a connection between the party and a particularly deeply embedded socially conservative strand within Protestantism in Ulster.
Unionism, in its religious conservatism, is not only anti-LGBT rights but also supportive of literalist interpretations of the Bible, such as creationism.
This is the place where Ashers Bakery refused to provide a cake for a gay celebration and, with the support of the Christian Institute, tried to drive a cart and horses through hard-won legislation on equal access to goods and services in the whole of the UK.
Some — including the occasional LGBT activist — failed to see the significance of the case as a principle of equality rather a matter of religious freedom.
The reality is the Ashers Bakery case challenge was a dog whistle in preparation for a defence against equal marriage and any promotion of LGBT+ rights in the six counties.
Northern Ireland is the most religious part of the UK — as measured by church attendance and commitment to religious affiliation.
It has a history of certain Christian denominations having a massive influence in its politics — something it shares with the Republic of Ireland.
But secularists and progressive people of faith there have emerged from the shadow of a crumbling theocracy to vote for change.
Just as south of the border, the demand for equal rights in Northern Ireland is mainly driven by young people who are forcing the pace of change.
By no means do all members of the Protestant communities in Northern Ireland oppose progressive social change, and many young people from those communities are speaking out.
Indeed it is clear that the issue of LGBT+ rights is causing serious soulsearching among sections of the Unionist-supporting communities.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is currently in suspended animation but even if direct rule was in place, it is not clear that things would progress.
The alliance between the DUP and the Conservative Party means that support from Westminster for change is unlikely. The Tories will not want to annoy the party that keeps them in power.
The Conservatives are compromised in any initiatives they put forward on equality by their deal with the DUP. There is, however, another reason why we should not expect change in Northern Ireland under a Conservative government, and that is the voting record of the Tories themselves.
Despite David Cameron’s championing of same-sex marriage as leader of the coalition government, the majority of Conservative MPs in the last parliament failed to support the Bill. It was Labour votes that won it.
The issue is not only the deal with the homophobic DUP but the persistence of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia within the ruling party in the UK.
It is worth remembering that support for retaining Section 28 — the law which banned local authorities from portraying homosexuality in a positive light — and opposing positive LGBT equality legislation was the official position of the Conservative Party until 2009.
Until then it opposed all the progressive legislation brought in by Labour in the parliaments since 1997.
This Tory government cannot be trusted with our hard-won rights. It is up to us to keep fighting for our equality. The struggle for equal marriage in Northern Ireland is a top priority for all LGBT+ trade unionists in the UK.
Maria Exall is the chair of the TUC LGBT+ committee and a member of the CWU.