LGBT rights in Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland in the UK and Europe.svg
Northern Ireland (dark green) within the United Kingdom (light green)
StatusAlways legal for women; decriminalised for men in 1982
Age of consent equalised in 2001 (and reduced to 16 for all in 2009)
Gender identityRight to change legal gender since 2005 (UK-wide)
MilitaryLGBT people allowed to serve openly since 2000 (UK-wide)
Discrimination protectionsSexual orientation and gender reassignment protections
Family rights
Recognition of relationshipsCivil partnerships since 2005 (UK-wide)
RestrictionsSame-sex marriages are not recognised or performed in Northern Ireland
AdoptionJoint and stepchild adoption since 2013

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights in Northern Ireland are the most limited in the United Kingdom, lagging behind England, Scotland, and Wales. They are also more limited than in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland decriminalised homosexuality a decade earlier and introduced civil partnerships six years before the Republic of Ireland, but has since been overtaken in the introduction of same-sex marriage.[1][2][3] Northern Ireland was the last part of the United Kingdom to legalise same-sex sexual activity and the last to end a lifetime ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men.[4] Progress on LGBT rights has mainly been achieved during direct rule by the Government of the United Kingdom or through court action rather than local legislative reform, due to the veto power wielded by the anti-LGBT Democratic Unionist Party and its allies under Northern Ireland's power-sharing system.[5][6][7] ILGA rates Northern Ireland as the worst place in the United Kingdom for LGBT people, with 74% equality of rights compared to 86% LGBT equality in the United Kingdom overall and 92% equality in Scotland.[1] LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell describes Northern Ireland as "the most homophobic place in Western Europe".[8]

Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1982 and the age of consent was equalised for all forms of sexual activity in 2001. Civil partnerships have been available for same-sex couples since 2005. Same-sex marriage has been voted on five times by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and although it was passed by a slim majority on the fifth attempt, it has been consistently vetoed by the Democratic Unionist Party using the petition of concern.[9] Same-sex marriages performed outside Northern Ireland are recognised as civil partnerships within its borders.[10][11] Same-sex couples were granted full adoption rights in 2013. Despite same-sex marriage not been legal, recent opinion polls have found high levels of support for its legalisation. A 2018 Sky Data survey found that 76% of Northern Irish supported the introduction of same-sex marriage.[12]

Laws regarding same-sex sexual activity[edit]

Historical criminalisation and persecution[edit]

Northern Ireland's homosexuality laws have historically reflected the English position, given the history of English dominance over Ireland since the 12th century, culminating in official union under the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.[13] Following the partition of Ireland, Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom, with the remainder of Ireland forming the independent Republic of Ireland.[13]

Homosexuality was a matter for the ecclesiastical law of the Roman Catholic Church until the reign of King Henry VIII.[14] During his rule, the act of buggery was criminalised by the Buggery Act 1533 as part of increasing the State's role in public life at the expense of the Catholic Church.[13] This prohibited anal sex with "mankind or beast" anywhere in England, Wales or Ireland on pain of death, with the death penalty retained until 1861.[13][15] In 1885, the Labouchere Amendment introduced the offence of gross indecency in the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which applied throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.[13] This broadened the scope of the criminal law to outlaw any form of male homosexual activity.[13] By contrast, adult lesbianism was never criminalised.[13]

The Victorian era laws criminalising male homosexual acts throughout Great Britain and Ireland, the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, remained in effect well into the 20th century.[16][17]

Campaigns for and against change[edit]

In 1967, the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted to pass the Sexual Offences Act 1967 for the limited decriminalisation of homosexual acts,[18] but this applied only to England and Wales.[19] Same-sex sexual activities were legalised in Scotland on the same basis as in the 1967 Act, by section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, which came into force on 1 February 1981.[20]

The British Government's failure to extend the 1967 reforms to Northern Ireland led to the establishment of organisations such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the Gay Liberation Front.[21][20] During the 1970s, Northern Ireland was under direct rule from Westminster, so the organisations tried to bypass the Northern Ireland parties which were hostile to their cause and petition the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland directly.[22] Initially, this appeared fruitful, with the Secretary referring homosexual reform to the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights for Northern Ireland.[22] In 1976, the Committee recommended extending the 1967 reforms to Northern Ireland but warned that public support for the change in Northern Ireland was limited.[22] In 1978, the British Government published a draft Order in Council to decriminalise homosexual conduct in Northern Ireland between men over 21 years of age, in line with the 1967 reforms in England and Wales.[22] However, it failed without the support of any of the 12 Northern Ireland politicians in the Westminster Parliament and the open opposition expressed by the Democratic Unionist Party representatives.[22]

Gay men continued to face harassment from the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA) recording instances of harassment and continuing to lobby for decriminalisation.[23] NIGRA members also faced arrests, forced medical examinations and house raids, ostensibly for other issues such as drug searches, but also had correspondence regarding the decriminalisation campaign confiscated by police.[23]

NIGRA were opposed by a vociferous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign led by Ian Paisley, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and the Democratic Unionist Party, both of which were established by him.[24][25] Initially, Paisley's campaign succeeded, with the British Government announcing in 1979 that it would not proceed with changes to Northern Ireland's anti-homosexuality laws.[26] Although the Government promised that the laws would not be enforced against gay men, police harassment and arrests continued on the pretence of other misdemeanours.[26] The arrest of one activist, NIGRA secretary Jeffrey Dudgeon, proved instrumental in the ultimate success of the decriminalisation campaign.[26]

European Court of Human Rights ruling[edit]

Jeffrey Dudgeon was a shipping clerk in Belfast, who was a gay activist and secretary of NIGRA.[20][27] On 21 January 1976, he was arrested by the Royal Ulster Constabulary drugs squad after they found marijuana and personal correspondence describing homosexual acts performed by him.[26] He was interrogated for over four hours about his sex life and made to sign a statement about his sexual activities.[28][20] The police forwarded the material to prosecutors to have Dudgeon charged with gross indecency, but the Director of Prosecutions decided not to proceed on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest.[29] Dudgeon was informed in February 1977 of the decision and his private papers, which had been annotated by the police, were returned to him.[20]

Both NIGRA and the Irish gay rights groups financially supported Dudgeon filing a complaint with the European Commission of Human Rights against Northern Ireland's anti-homosexuality laws in 1975.[29][30] Dudgeon alleged that the laws were invalid on two grounds. Firstly, he claimed that the laws and resulting police investigation interfered with his right to respect for private life in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Secondly, Dudgeon alleged that he had suffered discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexuality and residence in accordance with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite having previously rejected similar earlier complaints as "manifestly inadmissible", the Commission declared the complaint to be admissible on 3 March 1978. On 13 March 1980, the Commission issued a report stating that "the legal prohibition of [homosexual] acts between male persons over 21 years of age breached the applicant's right to respect for his private life". It referred the case to the European Court of Human Rights for judgment on 18 July 1980.[20]

On 22 October 1981, the European Court of Human Rights ruled by a 15-4 majority in Dudgeon v United Kingdom that no member nation had the right to impose a total ban on homosexual activity.[31][27][30] More specifically, the Court held that the criminalisation of male homosexual acts for men above 21 years old in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights by interfering with his right to private life, regardless of whether he was actually charged or prosecuted under the law.[29][17][32] The case determined that countries no longer had a margin of appreciation to regulate adult private consensual homosexual acts in the name of morality, recognising that homosexuality was an immutable characteristic of human nature.[33]

Legalisation by UK Parliament[edit]

The 1981 ECHR decision led the United Kingdom Parliament to extend the 1967 decriminalisation of male homosexual acts to Northern Ireland the following year with an Order in Council, the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982,[34][35] which came into force on 8 December 1982.[30]

Anti-LGBT provisions of the criminal law were removed completely throughout Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with section 9 abolishing the discriminatory offences of buggery and gross indecency.[36][37] Private gay sex between more than two people was legalised, but cottaging remains illegal.[37]

Age of consent equalisation[edit]

The homosexual age of consent fixed by the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982 was 21 years, higher than the heterosexual age of consent in Northern Ireland of 17. The ages of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts in Northern Ireland were eventually equalised at 17 by the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the passage of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, which went into effect in 2001.[38]

To bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, the British Parliament passed the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008,[39] reducing the age of consent to 16, despite the opposition of the Northern Ireland Assembly.[40][41]

Pardons for historical convictions[edit]

In November 2016, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a Legislative Consent Motion to extend the operation of United Kingdom's Policing and Crime Act 2017, including its Alan Turing Law, to Northern Ireland.[42][43] That law enables anyone convicted of anti-homosexuality offences to obtain a pardon.[44] The only opponent in the Assembly was Traditional Unionist Voice's Jim Allister, whose private member's motion to remove historical pardons from the Legislative Consent Motion failed on a voice vote.[45][44]

Recognition of same-sex relationships[edit]

Civil partnerships[edit]

Civil partnerships have been available to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland since 2005, when the UK Parliament passed the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The Act gives same-sex couples most, but not all, of the same rights and responsibilities as civil marriage.[46] Civil partners are entitled to the same property rights as married opposite-sex couples, the same exemption as married couples on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits, and also the ability to get parental responsibility for a partner's children,[47] as well as responsibility for reasonable maintenance of one's partner and their children, tenancy rights, full life insurance recognition, next of kin rights in hospitals, and others. There is a formal process for dissolving partnerships akin to divorce. Civil partnerships can be conducted by religious organisations in England, Wales and Scotland but not in Northern Ireland.[5]

Same-sex marriage[edit]

Same-sex marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland despite five attempts to introduce it in the Northern Ireland Assembly, with a majority supporting legalisation in 2015 but the Democratic Unionist Party exercising its veto powers by filing a petition of concern.[9] Around the time of the successful Irish same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, an Ipsos Mori poll carried out between 20 May and 8 June 2015 found that 68% of people in Northern Ireland supported same-sex marriage.[48][49]

On 1 October 2012, the first Northern Ireland Assembly motion regarding same-sex marriage was introduced by Sinn Féin and the Greens.[50] The motion was defeated 50-45.[51][52][53]

On 29 April 2013, the second attempt to introduce same-sex marriage was defeated by the Northern Ireland Assembly 53-42, with the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party voting against and Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Alliance and the Green Party voting in favour.[54][55][56][57]

The third attempt on 29 April 2014 was defeated 51-43, with all nationalist MLAs (Sinn Féin and SDLP), most Alliance MPs and four unionists (two from NI21 and two from UUP) in favour. The remaining unionists (DUP, UUP, UKIP and Traditional Unionist Voice) and two Alliance MLAs voted against.[58][59][60]

A fourth attempt on 27 April 2015 also failed, 49-47. Again, Sinn Féin, SDLP and five Alliance members voted in favour, while the DUP and all but four of the UUP members (who were granted a conscience vote) voted against.[61][62]

On 2 November 2015, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted for a fifth time on the question of legalising same-sex marriage. Of the 105 legislators who voted, 53 were in favour and 51 against, the first time a majority of the Assembly had ever voted in favour of same-sex marriage. However, the DUP again tabled a petition of concern signed by 32 members, preventing the motion from having any legal effect.[63][64][65]

In February 2016, local LGBT publication The Gay Say started an online petition calling on the DUP to stop abusing the petition of concern against same-sex marriage legislation. On 20 September 2016, MLA Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit) presented the petition of 20,000 signatures to the Northern Ireland Assembly.[66][67]

A December 2016 LucidTalk poll of 1,080 found that 65.2% of people surveyed supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.[68] However, a majority of Unionist respondents was opposed to same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, with only 37.04% in favour (with support rising to 71% for Unionists aged between 18 and 24 years of age).[68] By contrast, 92.92% of Nationalist/Republican respondents and 95.75% of Alliance/Green/PBP voters were in favour.[68]

Legal challenges to same-sex marriage ban[edit]

Citing the Assembly's constant refusal to approve a marriage bill and the law that recognises marriages from other parts of the United Kingdom as civil partnerships, Amnesty International and local LGBT rights group Rainbow Project announced that a court challenge against Northern Ireland's same-sex marriage ban was likely to proceed on human rights grounds.[69][70]

In January 2015, a same-sex couple married in England and residing in Northern Ireland filed a lawsuit to have their marriage locally recognised.[71] In August 2017, the High Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a matter of social policy for the Parliament to decide rather than the judiciary.[72][73] An appeal was filed with the Court of Appeal, and a ruling is expected sometime in 2019.[74]

Adoption and parenting rights[edit]

Adoption by unmarried and same-sex couples was legalised after rulings by the High Court in 2012,[75][76] and the Court of Appeal in 2013 that Northern Ireland's ban on same-sex couple adoption was discriminatory and a breach of human rights.[77][78][79] The ban had been defended by the Northern Ireland Department of Health and its minister, Edwin Poots.[79] A further appeal by Poots to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom was rejected in 2013, bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom on LGBT adoption.[80][81] In December 2018, nearly 5 years after the change of adoption laws, it was reported that out of 30 same-sex couples who had applied to adopt, only 2 couples had had a child placed with them - a success rate of 1 in 15. The lower rate in Northern Ireland could be due to the fact that adoption processes can take several years to be completed, meaning some adopters are still in the process and may have been approved, but not had a child placed with them yet, and that because unlike in England and Wales where same-sex adoption was introduced in 2005 and in Scotland in 2009 by their respective parliaments, Northern Ireland only did so in 2013 after a lengthy legal battle.[82]

The legal position regarding co-parenting arrangements where a gay man/couple donates sperm to a lesbian couple is complex. Following the changes implemented by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, lesbian couples who conceive with donated sperm are likely to be treated as both being the parents of their child. If the lesbian couple a man is donating to are civil partners/married, the father's status will be automatically excluded. If the lesbian couple he is donating to are not civil partners/married, the mothers may be able to choose whether they wish the child's second parent to be the father or the non-birth mother.[83]

Altruistic surrogacy is legal in the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.[84] The law supports gay fathers conceiving through surrogacy in the UK in the same way as it does heterosexual couples and allows for applications to the relevant court, for such parents who wish to be named on their child's birth certificate as the legal parents/guardians of the child.[85]

Gender identity and expression[edit]

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 of the United Kingdom, which provides for a person's change of gender to be officially recognised, applies to Northern Ireland.[86] The legislation was introduced after the 2002 case of Goodwin v United Kingdom, in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the United Kingdom's earlier failure to do so was a violation of articles 8 and 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[86] To change gender, a person must demonstrate gender dysphoria and have lived in the relevant gender for two years before applying for a gender recognition certificate.[87] A person cannot be in a marriage or civil partnership at the time of applying to change gender, given that same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnership is not allowed in Northern Ireland.[86][87]

Discrimination protections[edit]

Equality framework[edit]

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Government of the United Kingdom agreed that it would create:

a statutory duty on public authorities in Northern Ireland to carry out all their functions with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in relation to religion and political opinion; gender... and sexual orientation.[88]

This is reflected in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which requires public authorities in Northern Ireland to have due regard to promoting equality of opportunity between persons of different sexual orientation, among other things.[88] In practice, this requires each authority to create an Equality Scheme to demonstrate how they will achieve this.[88] The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland monitors compliance by public authorities with their section 75 duties.[88]

Anti-discrimination laws[edit]

Northern Ireland is the only jurisdiction in the United Kingdom where the British Equality Act 2010 has limited application.[89][90] There are two main sources of anti-discrimination law on the grounds of sexual orientation.[91] The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2003 prohibit discrimination and harassment in employment, higher education and vocational training, and went into effect on 2 December 2003.[89][91] The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods and services, premises, education and public functions, and went into effect on 1 January 2007.[89][91] The laws were opposed by conservative religious activists and groups.[92]

The Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999 provides a degree of protection for transgender people who are undergoing "gender reassignment" in employment and vocational training.[93][94]

Ashers Bakery case[edit]

In what became known as the "gay cake case", the Ashers Bakery, which is operated by evangelical Christians, was ordered by the County Court in 2015 to pay £500 in damages for breaching anti-discrimination laws by refusing to bake a cake featuring the slogan "Support Gay Marriage".[95][96] The proposed cake also featured Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie,[97][98] who had been subject to debunked speculation that the two were gay.[99][100] The decision against the bakery was upheld by the Court of Appeal.[101][102]

The case led to opposing demonstrations for and against the decision,[96] with LGBT activist Peter Tatchell supporting the bakery's refusal to produce a message they disagreed with on the grounds of freedom of conscience and belief.[103] In 2014, Democratic Unionist Party MLA Paul Givan proposed introducing a "conscience clause" into Northern Ireland's equality laws to allow anti-LGBT discrimination by people and businesses on the basis of their religious beliefs.[104] The proposal was supported by the then First Minister Peter Robinson and his Democratic Unionist Party colleagues but opposed by other parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.[105] His successor Arlene Foster threatened to limit the powers of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, alleging that it was not protecting the interests of faith communities.[106]

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom sat in Belfast to hear a further appeal over four days commencing on 30 April 2018.[107] On 10 October 2018, the five justices comprising the Court unanimously ruled that because the bakery's objection related to the proposed message on the cake rather than the customer's personal attributes, there was no discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.[nb 1][108][109][97][110]

After the judgement was handed down Perfocal, the photography company hired by the Christian Institute to take photos outside of the Supreme Court, decided to refund the client and not hand over images in a "stand against discrimination".[111] In a media statement, company founder Tony Xu said "This isn’t just about standing up against discrimination, I hope our stance serves as an example of exactly where this kind of judgement could lead us. Where does it end?"[112]

Blood donation[edit]

In 1981, the United Kingdom banned blood donations from any men who had engaged in sex with other men indefinitely.[4] In 2011, this was reduced to a one-year deferral system in England, Wales and Scotland.[4] The Health Minister of Northern Ireland at the time, Edwin Poots, announced that Northern Ireland would not follow suit and would retain its permanent ban.[113] Poots was criticised by political rivals Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin for his decision as reflecting the anti-gay prejudice of his Democratic Unionist Party rather than any legitimate public safety concerns.[113] The permanent ban also failed to address the inconsistency of Northern Ireland accepting blood from other parts of the UK, which allow blood donations from gay men who have been celibate for at least one year.[114]

The permanent blood ban was challenged in court, with the challenge initially succeeding at first instance before Justice Treacy in the High Court on the basis that the permanent gay blood ban was irrational and legally defective.[115][116] However, in a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeal reinstated the ban, finding no evidence of apparent bias by Poots and leaving the blood donation policy a matter for the Health Minister of Northern Ireland.[117][118]

In 2016, new Health Minister Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Féin announced that Northern Ireland would move to a one-year deferral system in line with the rest of the United Kingdom with effect from 1 September 2016.[4]

Social conditions[edit]

A news report on the 2011 Belfast Gay Pride parade

According to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, reports of homophobic attacks have increased every year since data collection began, from 196 incidents in 2004-2005 to 334 in 2014-2015.[48][119] Researchers from Ulster University and Queen's University Belfast suggest that, although rising figures reflect the continuing challenges experienced by LGBT people, they may also indicate a growing confidence among LGBT people in the police's ability to handle homophobic crimes.[119]

A 2013 survey of Northern Ireland's LGBT community found that "47% had considered suicide, 25% had attempted it, 35% had self-harmed and 71% had suffered depression".[120]

Public attitudes[edit]

Participants at Belfast City Hall during Belfast Pride 2018
Belfast Pride 2013

Data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey between 1989 and 2012 indicated that public acceptance of homosexuality in Northern Ireland had increased markedly, with those believing that same-sex relations are "always wrong" falling from 76% to 28% over that time.[121] Support for same-sex marriage had also increased, rising from 35% in 2005 to 58% in 2012.[121] In the 2013 survey, support for same-sex marriage was recorded as 59%.[119] Although support for equality was strongest among Catholics and irreligious respondents, the 2013 survey also found a plurality of Protestants (46% vs 42%) supported same-sex marriage.[119] The 2013 survey findings also suggest that awareness of LGBT inequality had risen over time, with increasing support for teaching equality in schools and allowing same-sex marriage.[119]

A comparison of attitudes between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland demonstrated that social attitudes in the former were more strongly opposed to homosexuality, while noting a substantial decline in opposition over time.[122] In the Republic to the south, the power of religious conservatism waned in the aftermath of Church scandals in relation to Magdalene Laundries and child sexual abuse, coupled with a growing perception that the Church held too much power in Irish politics.[123] By contrast, Northern Ireland has more traditionalist Protestants and Catholics, who may agree on anti-LGBT issues on occasion despite sectarian differences.[123] To some extent, the conservative religious attitudes are a legacy of the Troubles, when religion offered solace from pervasive violence while limiting the growth of secular or socially liberal attitudes.[124]

In Northern Ireland, negative attitudes towards LGBT rights were more common among people who were older, Protestant or who attended church regularly.[121] Pro-LGBT views were more likely among those who knew a gay or lesbian person and those who did not perceive homosexuality as a "choice".[121]

LGBT culture[edit]

Belfast Pride is a significant LGBT event in Northern Ireland, growing from 50 participants singing gay anthems at its first parade or "dander" in 1991 to over 6,500 participants with 12 carnival floats in 2006.[125][126] An organiser noted that it had taken eight years since the decriminalisation of male homosexuality before such a march could be organised at all.[126] The pride parade was noted for its ability to at least temporarily unite historically divided communities - Unionist and Nationalist, Protestant and Catholic.[126] Overall however, Belfast has very little visible gay space.[127]


Attitudes towards LGBT rights tend to be polarised along sectarian lines in Northern Ireland politics.[128] Nationalist and Republican parties such as Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party generally support LGBT rights as part of an equality and minority rights agenda.[129][130] By contrast, Unionist parties such as the Democratic Unionist Party, Traditional Unionist Voice and elements of the Ulster Unionist Party have been the strongest opponents of pro-LGBT policies such as same-sex marriage.[129][131] The non-sectarian liberal Alliance Party of Northern Ireland's position has evolved in favour of same-sex marriage.[129]

The Democratic Unionist Party has faced criticism for abusing the petition of concern, originally intended to protect Northern Ireland's Nationalists and Unionists from legislation discriminating against either community by requiring cross-community support if submitted by 30 members of either side - as a "tool of LGBTQ oppression".[5][132][133] A petition of concern can be presented to the Speaker of the Assembly if it is signed by at least 30 Assembly members. Once presented it triggers a 60% weighted majority requirement, needing at least 40% support from each of the Nationalist and Unionist members to pass the proposed measure.[134]

Because the DUP held more than 50% of Unionist seats in the Assembly before the 2017 Northern Ireland election, the party could single-handedly veto any legislation if its members presented a petition of concern.[5] After the 2017 election, the DUP lost its blocking numbers but could still veto measures such as same-sex marriage with the support of fellow Unionists Jim Allister from Traditional Unionist Voice and Roy Beggs of the Ulster Unionist Party, who both offered to join a future petition of concern on the issue.[131] The practical effect of the sectarian divisions on LGBT issues is that the Northern Ireland Assembly is at an impasse, with mutual vetoes from each side ensuring that LGBT rights can neither be advanced nor rolled back through new Assembly laws.[135]

Northern Ireland has had no functioning legislative or executive institutions following the collapse of power sharing arrangements in the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and inconclusive 2017 Assembly elections.[136] The disagreement between the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, over same-sex marriage is one of the issues preventing a new power-sharing government being formed.[136]


Democratic Unionist Party[edit]

The DUP has been strongly associated with opposition to LGBT rights since its establishment in 1971 by Ian Paisley, who also founded the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.[6] Paisley and the DUP spearheaded the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign during the 1970s to oppose efforts to decriminalise homosexuality in Northern Ireland.[137] The influence of the Free Presbyterian Church over DUP policies has been described as leading to a theocratic regime in Northern Ireland.[6] 30.6% of DUP members are Free Presybyterians compared to 0.6% of the overall Northern Ireland population.[6] In 2016, DUP leader Arlene Foster promised the DUP would use the petition of concern to veto same-sex marriage for the next five years.[138] The party's use of the petition of concern for this purpose was described as "a mean-spirited abuse" of power-sharing arrangements by The New York Times and contrary to the Good Friday Agreement by Amnesty International.[139]

DUP figures have long attracted media attention for a variety of homophobic remarks.[140] Health Minister Jim Wells was widely criticised after claiming children brought up in same-sex relationships were more likely to be abused or neglected;[141] he was forced to resign shortly thereafter.[142] Paisley's son Ian Paisley Jr stated he was "repulsed" by homosexuality.[6] In 2008, Iris Robinson, the wife of then-First Minister Peter Robinson, recommended conversion therapy,[143] and called homosexuality "disgusting, loathsome, nauseating, wicked, and vile."[144] She also implied that homosexuality was worse than child abuse.[142] As First Minister, her husband Peter Robinson defended the views of those who thought homosexuality should be illegal and stated that if homosexuality were recriminalised, he would expect people to obey the law.[142]

Ulster Unionist Party[edit]

Historically, the UUP has opposed LGBT rights such as same-sex marriage. LGBT rights activist Jeff Dudgeon was urged to renounce his UUP membership over the party's continued opposition to same-sex marriage, but refused to do so, stating he was happy with civil partnerships for same-sex couples.[145] In its 2015 election manifesto, the UUP promised it would respect people from all sexualities.[146]

Then-UUP member Ken Maginnis created a media controversy after he equated homosexuality with bestiality in an interview on BBC Northern Ireland's Stephen Nolan show in June 2012. His comments prompted the party leader, Mike Nesbitt, to state that Maginnis expressed his views in a personal capacity and did not reflect party policy.[147] Later that month, Maginnis was demoted as UUP party whip over his comments at the behest of Nesbitt; he subsequently resigned from the UUP on 28 August 2012.[148]

Traditional Unionist Voice[edit]

TUV's sole member Jim Allister is a hardline opponent of LGBT rights, having opposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1980s, and was the only Northern Ireland Assembly member to oppose an Alan Turing Law to pardon people convicted or cautioned under earlier anti-LGBT laws.[131][149]


Sinn Féin[edit]

Sinn Féin's position on LGBT rights has evolved to one of strong support,[130] including support for same-sex marriage.[128] The party's 2015 manifesto was the only one in Northern Ireland to expressly mention support for the rights of transgender people.[146]

Social Democratic and Labour Party[edit]

The Social Democratic and Labour Party has expressed its support for LGBT rights including same-sex marriage. It was the first political party to put a motion to the Northern Ireland Assembly in favour of same-sex marriage.[6][128]


Alliance Party[edit]

The non-sectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has expressed its support for LGBT rights including same-sex marriage.[6] The party amended its platform to support same-sex marriage in 2012.[150]

Green Party[edit]

The Green Party in Northern Ireland was the first party to come out in support of same-sex marriage in 2012 and drafted Northern Ireland's first LGBT-specific manifesto for the 2016 Assembly elections.[151][152] The party also made history by running Northern Ireland's first ever transgender candidate for an election.[153]

People Before Profit[edit]

People Before Profit has expressed its support for LGBT rights.[154]

Summary table[edit]

Same-sex sexual activity legal Yes (Since 1982)
Equal age of consent Yes (Since 2001; reduced to 16 in line with rest of the UK in 2009)
Anti-discrimination laws in employment Yes (Since 2003)
Anti-discrimination laws in the provision of goods and services Yes (Since 2007)
Anti-discrimination laws concerning gender identity Yes/No (Protection for "gender reassignment" only in education or vocational training since 1999)
Hate crime law includes sexual orientation Yes (Since 2004)
Hate speech law includes sexual orientation Yes (Since 2004)
Same-sex marriage(s) No
Recognition of same-sex couples (e.g. civil partnership) Yes (Since 2005, UK-wide)
Stepchild adoption by same-sex couples Yes (Since 2013)
Joint adoption by same-sex couples Yes (Since 2013)
LGBT people allowed to serve in the military Yes (Since 2000, UK-wide)
Right to change legal gender Yes (Since 2004, UK-wide)
Access to IVF for lesbians Yes (Since 2009)
Automatic parenthood on birth certificates for children of same-sex couples Yes (Since 2009)
Conversion therapy on minors outlawed No
Expungement scheme or pardon law implemented Yes (Since 2018)
Commercial surrogacy for gay male couples No
MSMs allowed to donate blood Yes/No (Since 2016, one year deferral)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The president of the Supreme Court, Lady Brenda Hale, said "It is deeply humiliating and an affront to human dignity to deny someone the service because of that person's race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or belief. But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favors to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope."



  1. ^ a b Haydn Jones, Aled. "Is Belfast the worst place to be gay in the UK?". BBC Guides. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  2. ^ Tatchell, Peter (26 June 2015). "Time to End the Gay Bans in Northern Ireland". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  3. ^ McDonald, Henry (24 May 2015). "Northern Ireland under pressure after Irish gay marriage referendum win". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 September 2017. The Rainbow Project has stated that the result of the Irish referendum on equal marriage would leave Northern Ireland as the only region in western Europe “where marriage equality is not a reality.” It does not include countries such as Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland in its definition of western Europe.
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External links[edit]