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The LGBT Campaigners Trying to Push Homophobia Out of Northern Ireland

It's the only place in the UK where people can't marry whoever they want, regardless of gender, and one movement's fighting the law by playing politicians at their own game.

David Gilmour

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

In 1970, an anal sex-fearing fundamentalist preacher set the cogs in motion that would hold back Northern Ireland's progress on LGBT rights for decades to come. Dr. Ian Paisley, of the infamous "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign, moved from the church to politics, establishing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 1970—now Northern Ireland's biggest political party.

Fast forward to 2016, before the Assembly election on May 5, and "it's accurate to say that the Democratic Unionist Party have been the main obstacle to moving the marriage equality debate forward in Northern Ireland," gay rights activist Stephen Donnan tells VICE.

This month Donnan launched the #VoteProudly2016 campaign, aiming to "empower LGBT+ people and our allies to find the information they need on which candidates in their constituencies support marriage equality," Stephen says. Basically, Vote Proudly is setting out to use tactical voting to squeeze out the DUP and a veto loophole that the party's used for years to boost moralistic conservatism—but more on those specifics in a bit.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is against the law, and Love Proudly, the organization behind #VoteProudly, is just one part of a broader marriage equality movement that's been mobilizing for some time. The motion on same-sex marriage had been brought before the Northern Ireland Assembly five times, repeatedly defeated by chamber vote alone. That was until November of last year.

Just six months after the Republic of Ireland's May vote on marriage equality by referendum, Northern Ireland's Assembly voted through same-sex marriage in majority for the first time. But because the DUP controversially deployed what's known as a "petition of concern," they were able to veto the democratically approved proposal.

Now for that loophole. The petition of concern is one part of more complicated political scaffolding that has helped Northern Ireland emerge from its conflict. It was included as part of the peace deal in 1998, known as the Good Friday Agreement. The aim was to lay out a way for the new power-sharing Assembly to do government that would allow for the fair representation of both British unionists and Irish nationalists.

To make sure that one political group wouldn't rule discriminatorily against the other, all votes made by the Assembly would depend on cross-community support. A petition of concern could be used to veto a vote that didn't have the mutual approval of both communities—a sort of emergency brake for legislation. The problem has been the vague conditions for the petition's use, leading to what critics have called misuse.

"Instead of enhancing and protecting human rights the veto has become a tool of LGBTQ oppression," says Danny Toner, editor of The Gay Say, a local LGBT news blog that's taken a prominent role in the Vote Proudly movement. "Marriage and human rights do not fall under the underlying rationale for the veto's existence." Dr Alex Schwartz, a lecturer from the School of Law at Belfast's Queen's University, wrote an article last May outlining practical reforms that he believes would improve the veto. He seems to agree with Danny.

"I think the DUP's use of the veto to block marriage equality is definitely an abuse of the procedure," he says." As I understand it, the rationale for having the veto in the context of a place like Northern Ireland is to protect the two main communities' particular group interests qua unionists and nationalists. There is nothing inherently unionist or nationalist about the question of marriage equality."

The use of the veto as a last line of opposition indicates a change in the Assembly chamber that more closely reflects the attitudes of the actual electorate, particularly younger voters. An Ipsos/MORI survey in July 2015 showed that 68 percent of adults in Northern Ireland and just under half of DUP's electorate supported same-sex marriage. The data indicated that massive 89 percent of young adults, aged between 16 and 24, were in favor. The shift in perspective picks up speed as Northern Ireland's peacetime generation come of voting age, forcing new accountability from parties whose electoral monopoly previously relied on the tribal ethno-nationalistic politics of the old conflict.

In a BBC televised election debate for first-time voters last week, the young audience demanded clarity around policies relating to employment, education as well as abortion and marriage rights. Questions about the future left the panel visibly unsettled, leading veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie to tweet that "young [people]... are clearly leaving the politicians behind."

Some of the campaigners out leafletting for marriage equality. Photo courtesy of Love Proudly

Other parties, including the Greens and nationalists Sinn Fein, have voiced total support to marriage equality (though they haven't been immune to abusing the petition themselves). As the second largest party in the Assembly, Sinn Fein launched their election manifesto on Thursday, April 28, pledging commitment to bringing forward marriage equality legislation again.

And the DUP? Here's what they had to say in a statement to VICE. "The DUP does not believe marriage should be redefined for same sex couples. Civil partnership is available in Northern Ireland for homosexual couples and brings with it all the same rights as marriage does for heterosexual couples. The petition of concern is a mechanism which was democratically voted for in 1998. It has been used by all parties on various issues."

So much for that, then. We're yet to see whether Northern Ireland's current constitutional set-up can deliver the kind of society that the peacetime generation want, and whether a tactical LGBT voting bloc will be able to enact the change they want on May 5. Until then, preacher Paisley's legacy lives on.

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