The North was ‘Last’. For a long time.
It was the last place in the UK to decriminalise homosexuality in 1983, requiring an individual, Jeffrey Dudgeon, to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights. Many LGBT+ people believed the North would never be ‘Next’, rather, it was ‘Never in My Lifetime.’ Then the North was ‘First’ in 2005. It wasn’t supposed to be. If the North had been ruling itself, rather than under the direct rule of Westminster because Stormont had collapsed, then civil partnership legislation would not have passed, despite years and years of activism. An administrative loophole meant paperwork processing times were shorter in the North, and voilá - Gráinne and I had the UK’s first public civil partnership in Belfast, followed by Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane.
Many activists in NI believed, if only for a sweet fleeting moment, that the North could maintain ‘First’, for once.
That momentum continued in 2006, when was one of a handful of queer activists who wanted a queer arts festival. We secured an Awards for All grant and support from a number of venues, LGBT+ organisations and businesses, and in 2007, OUTBURST was born in a flurry of excitement, potential and edgy style that only queer arts expression can bring. Change was happening in the DIY-style of the North.
But over the following years, progress in the North was ‘Negated’. In 2014, almost ten years after civil partnership, the UK legalised same-sex marriage, but not in the North. In 2015, the grassroots marriage equality campaign in the South came to glorious fruition. will always remember the great diaspora of Irish young people arriving at the airport to vote, to create change, to know that they could do so.
‘Have a referendum’, everyone shouted to the Neglected North, not understanding that the governmental structure is different; in the South, there was no entry point to bring in marriage equality legislation, while in the North, the legislation was sitting there from the UK, but the entry point was repeatedly blocked locally by the DUP, abusing the Good Friday Agreement’s Petition of Concern, which was designed to protect minorities, not oppress us further.
Now the North is ‘Last’ again. The first place in the UK to have a public civil partnership remains to be the last place in the UK and the island of Ireland where someone can have same-sex civil marriage.
Over the years, many people felt legal action was the only way forward. In 2015, Chris and Henry, and Grainne and I, were persuaded to take the judicial review to bring same-sex civil marriage to the North. In August 2017, the judge rejected our challenge, and in 2018, we appealed. We continue to wait for judgement. Again. A ruling in our favour would bring same-sex marriage to all couples in the North, and could not be overturned by politicians.
A 2017 ILGA poll named the North as the worst place in the UK for LGBT+ people.
‘Where is the North?’ many people in England asked during the Brexit vote, not knowing where the North was on a map. ‘Who is the DUP?’
The North is Nebulous.
I am told by friends that live in the land where the tarmac changes colour, the road signs change their units of measurement, and accents change timbre, that the North, though Neighbouring, though Next Door, was ‘none of our concern’. What a thrill this is changing, that momentum is rippling upwards.
I hope The North is Next. But there is amnesia—passive, sometimes for sanity’s sake - and there is the act of forgetting—deliberate, sometimes insidious, often shaking down along familiar power hierarchies of privilege, erasing people who have gotten us this far.
A movement is a multi-lane highway; it must be seen in its entirety. Too often we forget the greater goal of what we’re actually doing, beyond the next meeting, the next protest, the media coverage. Too often an oppressed community oppresses others within it. We stand on each other’s shoulders to break each other’s necks. Too often we forget that while we sacrifice our individual vulnerability, trouble, finances, stress, free time, and privacy, it is not about us as composites of a whole. It is about all of us, as a composite whole.
If the North is to be Next, then commit solidarity – if Stormont is restored in October, it is unlikely same-sex marriage will come in. If Stormont is not restored and same-sex marriage is extended as per the NI Executive Formation Bill, we must remember the Bill allows a future NI government to overturn same-sex marriage If the North is to be Next, the North needs long-lasting support, wholehearted and unwavering, so the denial of human rights in the North is not ‘Nearly’, but ‘Never Again’.
Shannon and Grainne, alongside Henry and Chris Flanagan-Kane, took a judicial review against the NI Government to bring same-sex civil marriage to Northern Ireland. They are currently awaiting judgement from the High Court and anticipate having to go to the Supreme Court in London.
Their legal fees have not been covered by any organisation or campaign; they are bearing the financial cost of potentially £30,000 themselves. You can pledge your support to their CrowdJustice campaign.
This piece originally appeared as part of the e-zine ‘The North Is Next’, created by GCN, Dublin Fringe Festival and OUTBURST Queer Arts Festival. It was launched with a live event in Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. A further live event will take place during OUTBURST in November. Visit
for further details.