I have lived here my whole life and therefore am well used to hearing the occasional spicy take from English people on our history, politics and people. However, since the day of the referendum result, what had previously been a steady trickle of uninformed eejitry became a torrential downpour. Suddenly journalists from all over the world came to stand on roads and straddle the invisible border and Conservative politicians came to tell us everything will be fine, while remaining curiously removed from the border communities who will be the hardest hit by any change to the market and customs arrangements of our island. If only a fraction of this attention had been paid before the referendum.
Unfortunately, while opinions on Northern Ireland are ten a penny, solutions are harder to come by. It has become quite evident over the past number of weeks that neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet have an agreed plan for how they will square the circle of the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring no hard border on the island of Ireland with her red line of leaving the Customs Union and Single Market. With fewer than 70 days until the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal, the people of Northern Ireland are rightly concerned for what our future holds.
The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly collapsed within eight months of the referendum result; primarily over a scandalously mismanaged renewable heating programme, but all in the shadow of Brexit, which has given the good people of Northern Ireland something new to argue over. As if we really needed that.
The one silver lining that many LGBT+ people in Northern Ireland took from the collapse of the Assembly was that we might now finally get movement on outstanding LGBT+ equality issues, such as marriage equality. The Love Equality campaign has been an incredibly successful one. We have won the support of the people and our campaigning led to the election of a majority of Assembly members voting in favour of marriage equality. However, the Assembly’s largest party, the DUP, were still able to deploy the petition of concern (a Good Friday Agreement tool designed to protect minority rights) and block the democratic majority of the Assembly.
Without reform of the petition of concern, the DUP will always be able to block equality for LGBT+ people and so, while we all want to have a local administration delivering government for the people of Northern Ireland, there were many LGBT+ people content to see the Assembly, which had never delivered for our community, go into hibernation.
We know that there is overwhelming support within Westminster to extend equal marriage legislation, as evidenced by Conor McGinn’s private members bill. However, due to parliamentary process it has not been possible for this private members bill to progress without the backing of the UK Government. The Love Equality campaign has met with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State who has stated that while she supports our campaign, this is a decision that must be taken by the Northern Ireland Assembly, in full knowledge of the fact that there is no government and no indication that there will be any time in near future. We can only imagine that while the Conservative Party relies on the DUP for their House of Commons majority, there will be no marriage equality for Northern Ireland.
As we begin 2019, it is hard to be hopeful. It is hard to see how any decisions, or indeed, discussions, about the inequalities experienced by people in Northern Ireland will be progressed before a final agreement is reached on Brexit. With no talks or elections planned it is also hard to see how a return to the Northern Ireland Assembly will come about, and it’s harder to know how long an Assembly will last if it is incapable of legislating for what the majority of the people want. Education, equality issues, homelessness and health have all taken a back seat to Brexit and division - don’t know who is driving the car but the signs all say bumpy roads ahead.