Michelle O’Neill speaking at the PinkNews Belfast Summer Reception 2022. (Darren Kidd)
First minister-designate of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill has urged the DUP to form a new executive in a bid to advance LGBTQ+ rights.
Sinn Féin’s vice president reissued her plea during a panel discussion at the PinkNews Summer Reception in Belfast on Wednesday evening (6 July) in Stormont.
O’Neill was joined on the panel by DUP MLA Pam Cameron, Alliance MLA Eóin Tennyson, UUP leader Doug Beattie and SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole.
During the discussion, Michelle O’Neill said the people of Northern Ireland want their elected representatives to “work together”.
“I think we have a huge opportunity here and I urge Pam [Cameron] and her team to come back into the executive and to help the rest of us deliver [on LGBTQ+ rights],” O’Neill said.
I was told that being gay was wrong, don’t have sex before marriage, contraception is a bad thing.
“You’ve made commitments around equality but we need to see that being delivered. You need an executive, you need an assembly sitting.”
Northern Irish MLA was told it was ‘wrong’ to be gay at school
O’Neill made her comments during a wide-ranging panel discussion on the future of LGBTQ+ rights in Northern Ireland, which was hosted by The Rainbow Project’s John O’Doherty.
Elsewhere in the discussion, Alliance MLA Eóin Tennyson opened up about his experience of growing up gay, saying he was told at school that it was “wrong” to be LGBTQ+.
“I was told that being gay was wrong, don’t have sex before marriage, contraception is a bad thing,” Tennyson, who is one of Northern Ireland’s youngest MLAs, said.
He said it was “appalling” that children were hearing anti-LGBTQ+ messages at school until quite recently in Northern Ireland, adding that they wouldn’t tolerate other subjects being outsourced to religious organisations in the way relationships and sex education has been.
It’s not good enough and I’m fully in support of good education including sex education.
There was also cross party support for LGBTQ+ inclusive education in Northern Irish schools. Matthew O’Toole recalled watching a young trans person being bullied “remorselessly” when he went to an all-boys’ Catholic school in the 1990s.
Pam Cameron said “any form of bullying, harassment or intimidation is completely unacceptable”, adding that she “can’t imagine how all-encompassing and claustrophobic” bullying must be with smartphones.
“It’s not good enough and I’m fully in support of good education including sex education,” Cameron said, adding that it should be “age appropriate”.
Trans healthcare in Northern Ireland is ‘on its knees’
Michelle O’Neill said it was “embarrassing” to think LGBTQ+ people are growing up in a region where they feel their rights aren’t being respected. She also joined other party representatives in condemning Northern Ireland’s failure to offer meaningful healthcare to trans people.
“The healthcare system is in crisis and it is on its knees,” O’Neill said.
Doug Beattie said the only way to address the crisis is to get an executive up and running again, while O’Toole said it was a “fraudulent claim” to suggest that Northern Ireland is currently offering any kind of trans healthcare.
“To pretend it does is insulting to be honest,” O’Toole said.
Political leaders also discussed reform to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), with many expressing support for self-identification.
“It’s a question of political will,” Tennyson said, adding: “This has been turned into a culture war issue and it’s absolutely ludicrous. Trans and non-binary people just want to be recognised as their authentic selves – that’s all they’re looking for.”
Closing out the discussion, political leaders reflected on the importance of Pride ahead of Belfast Pride, which is due to take place on 30 July.
I think no matter where you are on this, language is really important and it’s really important that the language used is respectful and that applies to all sides of a debate.
Cameron, whose party has repeatedly come under fire over its anti-LGBTQ+ stances, admitted that she had been “terrified” at the prospect of attending the PinkNews Summer Reception in Belfast.
She said she has “very dear friends” in the LGBTQ+ community but added that she wouldn’t feel welcome at events such as Pride.
“I think no matter where you are on this, language is really important and it’s really important that the language used is respectful and that applies to all sides of a debate,” she said.
Cameron went on to suggest that she couldn’t attend Belfast Pride without seeing banners telling the DUP to “f**k off”.
Sinn Féin won the largest share of seats in Northern Ireland’s last election in May, making it the biggest party in the region for the first time in the history of the state.
However, the DUP has refused to re-enter into power sharing until the UK government pushes through changes to the Northern Irish protocol.
The DUP has a chequered history with the LGBTQ+ community – it was staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage and its members have faced criticism for making inflammatory remarks about gay people.
At the 2021 PinkNews Summer Reception in Belfast, DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley apologised for the “atrocious” comments made about LGBTQ+ people by some of her party colleagues.