Sunday 31 May 2015

Why I and most LGBT activists are opposed to a NI referendum on marriage equality #MarRef

There is a petition going around demanding that, like the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland should have a referendum to bring about marriage equality.

I and the majority of LGBT+ groups in Northern Ireland are opposed to the idea, which was first muted by Sinn Féin in the run up the the referendum in the republic and here are the reasons why.

1. There is not need for a referendum to bring about marriage equality in any part of the UK. In the Republic of Ireland there had to be a constitution change to recognise marriage equality. The only way to do so, based on that constitution, was to hold a referendum. In Scotland a simply Bill was required in Holyrood and for England and Wales a Bill before Westminster was enough to bring about such change. Such a bill would still need to be brought before the Northern Ireland Assembly to bring about any change.

2. A referendum is not legally binding in the UK.  A referendum does not necessarily have legal binding on UK legislators to bring about change. Admittedly often they do bring about the change or endorse the decision of the referendum but there actually is nothing to prevent the legislative body with responsibility. Indeed if such a referendum were to come about in Northern Ireland there is nothing to prevent a petition of concern being used, by let's say the DUP, the prevent subsequent legislation coming into effect.

3. Public debate is not as mature on this issue in NI as the RoI. Despite legalising homosexuality later than the North the Republic of Ireland is at a far more mature level of debate on this issue than the North. Yes there are some stupid and ridiculous comments made by some of those opposed in the Republic, but the level of the political debate between the politicians, even those who disagreed with their parties stance, was far more civil and factually based than the largest party in Northern Ireland has shown again the recent election and aftermath to be able to carry on over issues of LGBT equality.

4. Both the two biggest parties are viewing LGBT equality as a political football. I'm sorry to say this but since it was first mooted that NI should have equal marriage Sinn Féin's support has become as much of a political football as the DUP's opposition to it has. This is no more evident than the poor timing of the last debate in Stormont and the call for this referendum now. Most LGBT activists were certain that the time to strike next in Stormont to seek marriage equality should have been after the referendum result in the Republic was known. But Sinn Féin decided that the 28th April (ie during the short campaign for Westminster) was the time to put the motion before the Assembly for the fourth time. This timing was poor and could only have come from a party that did not consider Westminster elections to be important. Most LGBT activists with party affiliation outside Sinn Féin were too busy with the election to lobby MLAs and get into a big campaign on this occasion. While the DUP have in the past picked on Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams saying that equality is a Torjan Horse by which to beat the DUP I would say that recent actions overlooking the views of the LGBT community shows they do not really understand the nature of this equality.

The DUP meanwhile use their opposition to LGBT equality as a means to shore up their core vote, although having lost Antrim South to a pro-marriage equality Unionist and seen the Alliance vote pick up a great deal of the UUP vote in East Belfast it would appear it is a tactic that only has limited appeal.

5. Should a socially conservative majority have a say on minority rights? In the Northern Ireland Act we actually have a statutory requirement for the public bodies to allow equality of opportunity for various groups, this includes marital status and sexual orientation. Would such a referendum actually fit within the statutory obligations of our public bodies? I do not feel it does. Even though recent opinion polls are showing that there is now a majority in favour of supporting marriage equality here, there is a danger that the most socially conservative part of the UK could be ground down in a particularly heated campaign to vote no on the day. Also many LGBT people already know the sort of vitriol that some politicians or campaigners already direct towards us when our rights aren't the focus of a campaign, we can only envision it getting ugly if they were the sole focus. Also if the social conservatives were to squeak a narrow majority, it would set back any hope of reform for 10-20 years, when we are only trailing a couple of years behind the rest of the UK and Ireland at present. People's rights for equality should not be placed in the hands who have privilege to determine the extension of those rights.

Thursday 28 May 2015

Thank you Mr Dodds for the encouragement

Yesterday in the House of Commons debate on the Queen's Speech Nigel Dodds said:

"He is certainly proof that if we work at and fight for an issue that we believe in, we will get there in the end, especially if the cause is right."

Now the comment was directed at Sir William Cash and in relation to the EU referendum that has been promised in Queen's speech, but as an LGBT campaigner in Northern Ireland I take this as encouragement. Because also later when responding to his colleague Sammy Wilson he said:

"My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which is one of those that arise out of the Belfast agreement. As he knows, equality provisions under section 75..."

Although he did continue "work against giving our armed forces veterans the same status as those in the rest of the United Kingdom." the fact is that a DUP MP has acknowledged the Northern Ireland Act/Belfast Agreement and knows about section 75 is something.

But back to that first comment in relation to William Cash. The wave of rightness is on the side of those supporting Equal Marriage. Yesterday Greenland became the latest state to legislate for it in a unanimous vote. Since the referendum result in Ireland was announced Austrialian Prime Minister Tonny Abbott said he wouldn't stand in the way of a conscience vote. Also Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is about to fast-track the civil union legislation that has been stalled for a number of months.

Only Germany of the list of Western countries that Peter Lynas listed on Nolan as not having marriage equality the other day has not announced any plans to move forward on this issue since the referendum. Although there have been calls from the opposition Green/Alliance 90 leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt for Germany to move on this, Angela Merkel is remaining adamant it is not the goal of her CDU/CSU party (the only one in Germany opposed) in this Government.

Therefore the LGBT community should take encouragement that even Nigel Dodds that "if we work at and fight for an issue that we believe in, we will get there in the end".

Sunday 24 May 2015

Presbyterian Church in Ireland seek to redefine victimhood

I am saddened to read the statement of the PCI in light of the decision made by over 62% of those who voted in Marriage Referendum in Ireland. So much so that I feel it needs a few comments from me.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has issued the following statement on the result of the Marriage Referendum.
Commenting on the result the Very Rev. Dr. Norman Hamilton, Convener of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Council for Church in Society said, "We are deeply disappointed and saddened that the Constitution will no longer reflect the historic – and Christian – view of marriage that it is exclusively between one man and one woman; the position the Presbyterian Church in Ireland upholds and maintains. The Constitution of Ireland only came into effect on 29 December 1937. On the 17th June 1996 the referendum on the 15th Amendment allowed for Divorce in that constitution and indeed "Divorce does not prevent you from getting married in the Presbyterian Church" - Getting Married in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
"The issue before voters was an intensely emotive one and to express the historic view of marriage during the referendum campaign often brought hostility and rejection yes and indeed some of the comments from Very. Rev. Dr. Norman Hamilton appear to have not been following the Pastoral Guidelines on Same Sex Attraction. We hope that those who continue to uphold this view will not be marginalised or demeaned. We would also encourage all Christians to love their neighbours – as the Bible calls us to do – particularly those with whom we might disagree and if demeaned, to turn the other cheek, for Jesus' sake. Wow! In recent days I have received a number of comments from "Christians" that demean me, as have straight friends who have supported the cause. I called on Christian groups to stand up against these so called Christians pouring oil on the flames with their words and have heard nothing from that end, this line appears to ignore the demeaning that has been going on from the side of the Churches in recent days and it is bit late to call on loving of neighbours, without clearer instruction,
"While the result is a significant change for Irish Society, as a Church we will continue to reach out to all people, whatever their situation, as all are equally welcome. I have written previously that currently my past experiences over this very issue have made me feel less than welcome. If anyone from the PCI wants to actually enable a safe space to talk about these things with Presbyterians who are LGBT I would welcome that action point being followed through from the pastoral guidelines and would be willing to contribute.
"Whilst reaffirming our understanding of marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman, we pray for wisdom for the Government and urge it to consult faith groups over the coming months as it formulates the necessary subsequent legislation." I trust that the Irish Government will do the same as those of Scotland, England and Wales and leave the option for Faith Groups to come to their own decision on whether they carry out same sex marriages. While the PCI may currently be that way minded other faith groups should have the same freedom of religious expression that they themselves want. Because here is the thing LGBT groups are not trying to force churches to marry them, they want them to choose to marry them, but they only want the barriers to be taken down to allow civil marriage and truly welcoming faith groups to carry them out.

42 is a number I like #MarRef

When Roscommon - South Leitrim voted no to the Irish referendum on marriage equality I was a little upset that it wouldn't be unanimous. However, I was not too concerned as this was only by a margin of 1,029 votes and barely nibbled into the overall trend of the votes that were being announced.

I had to leave for a Eurovision party before the three Cork county seats declared, but in the end this left Roscommon - South Leitrim as the sole red mark on the map. The other forty-two constituencies had all by either a small (only 33 votes in Donegal South West) to a large (27,959 in Dublin South) margin voted yes. Overall  1,201,607 people voted Yes/Tá to 734,300 voting No/Níl 62.1% to 37.9%.

But as a gay Irish and British Douglas Adams fan I was most chuffed by the result of this question:

How many of the Irish constituencies voted Yes to marriage equality?


Yes the interconnectiveness of all things would have delighted Douglas with that result.

But the other question is where does that leave Northern Ireland, which is now the largest region of the British Isles that does not have equal marriage in any shape of form allowing people of the same-sex to marry?

Firstly I turn to the Northern Ireland Act, which recognises that the people of Northern Ireland can identify as British or Irish or both. This is key now to moving forward. Then I also note that

Section 75 and Schedule 9 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 came into force on the 01 January 2000 and placed a statutory obligation on public authorities in carrying out their various functions relating to Northern Ireland, to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity –
  • between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation;
  • between men and women generally;
  • between persons with a disability and persons without; and
  • between persons with dependants and persons without.
In addition, without prejudice to this obligation, Public Authorities are also required to have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, and racial group.
Bearing in mind that people can identify as Irish or British in order to promote equality of opportunity for those LGBT people who identify as either or both they must also have the same promotion of equality for their marriages as anyone else. We cannot carry on not recognising all GB or RoI marriages and downgrading them as civil partnerships, that is not promoting equality of opportunity on marital status, nor sexual orientation.

If unionism do not live up to their statutory obligations on this now there is legal case to take this higher to the UK Supreme Court or Europe.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Manning the barricades

Picture credit via Richard Morris
Apparently now it is not enough to merely obey the law to be tolerated by the Tories.

Speaking at the National Security Council today David Cameron said:

"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'. 
"It's often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that's helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance."

Now my values are different from those of Tories and I have no doubt I will have grievances with them as they set about their own agenda. Indeed I already have over the Human Rights Act, snooper's charter and our role in Europe.

I like living in a passively tolerant society. It allows me to be a gay man for a start, what goes on behind my closed bedroom door is my own concern. Of course the Tories want to do away with that an keep my internet browsing history. As any fan of Avenue Q  knows the internet is really, really great...for porn. So  by keeping our internet browser history the Government would know that we find really, really great on t'Internet. So maybe what I get up to in my bedroom (or anyone else's bedroom) or other rooms for that matter may not be quite so much my own business as I would expect in a tolerant society.

We are celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta aka Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of the Liberties). The Tories seem to want to celebrate by taking away more of our liberties.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

All for coalitions but not campaigning for one

As someone who believes we should have a proportional voting system it makes sense that I am in favour of coalitions. These are the most likely outcome after all if the votes cast more closely reflect the number of seats won in any multi-party system.

However, what I hope I never end up doing again is campaigning for a coalition and to be part of one. In 2010 the Liberal Democrats stood on our liberal values, we stood on our ideals, we stood on the policies that had been decided democratically by conference. The people liked what they saw and gave us a higher percentage of the vote than at any point since the merger.

This time we spent it seems the Liberal Democrats spent more time angling for a coalition and not selling our good liberal policies.

We didn't sell our justice and prison reform policies which had a radical focus on cutting re-offending, only giving custodial sentences to the most dangerous prisoners and reinstating local accountability through police and justice boards instead of elected PPCs.

We did often mention our radical take on mental health being treated the same as physical health. But this got lost in our calling out one other party for not providing costs to match our £8bn a year commitment to the NHS and the other for failing to even promise this. We were leading on health and we should have been shouting it from the rooftops.

We had as always green issues at the heart of our manifesto with out five green laws. Laws that didn't restrict business from aiding the economic recovery but had radical ideas for housing, for infrastructure, our countryside and so much more.

Our call for greater civil liberties, an online Bill of Rights and media "first amendment" and protection the Human Rights Act all got lost in the scrum. All things that are vital to every person. But not just what we would do but why we consider such things important.

We and the nation lost some of the strongest voices on LGB & T rights. Julian Huppert got the issue of the spousal veto and need for humanists to be be treated equally with other faiths in respect to marriage (just as they can in Scotland). Lynne Featherstone who got marriage equality unto the agenda at all.

The Fightback that the Liberal Democrats are already getting involved in, has to place our values to the forefront. What we want to do in Government, what values we have that would direct how we act if given the chance to serve, how we would make society fairer and the economy stronger. If others want to copy our ideas there is no shame in that, they have done for years anyway and even take credit for things that only we were prepared to do.

But we need to shout about what we want to do. We also need stand up against the things we would never do. We will stand on our record, stand on our believes, stand on our values.

But one thing we must do is we must stand at Liberal Democrats first and foremost not as someone else's lapdog.

Monday 11 May 2015

Lib Dem Fightback is for everyone

It is great news that there are over 8,000 (and rising) new members of the Liberal Democrats since election night they are just a part of the fightback. I hope that all local parties will get in touch with these new people as soon as possible to welcome them to the party. Then hold a social gathering so that they can meet the existing members and then find out what they feel they can do to help the party fightback, then enable and encourage them to do just that.

But it isn't just the new members that are invigorated.

Many of us who were candidates instead of being morose are upbeat. Already looking forward to 2020 and making plans to stand again. I wrote a blog post about moving forward to 2020 on Friday after 40 hours with no sleep. But it was optimistic and as a result got picked up by Radio Tees as someone they wanted to talk about the leadership contest but also the path ahead.

Our fight back is important because our core values are important to the general public. I believe they will soon realise this as the Tories start to dismantle freedoms, undo fairness and take people for granted. The very people that Liberal Democrats feel should not be enslaved by ignorance, poverty or conformity.

I've also seen activists being upbeat. A meeting of Scottish Liberal Democrats at the weekend was positive not judgemental for example and with about three times the number that were expected turning up.

We now have a timetable to elect a new leader, and know that all those eager new members will also be able to get a vote in who leads us forward. But we are all going forward, we are all part of the fightback and our liberal values will be declared in the doorsteps, indeed many of us already want to get back to doing that very soon.

Friday 8 May 2015

2015 General Election round up and the way ahead #GE2015 #LibDems #GE2020

The last 40 hours have been tough and indeed I have yet to sleep (note to self never travel all day following a General Election ever again).

Firstly I'd like to thank the 1370 people in the Sedgefield constituency who put their trust in me yesterday to vote for me to serve as their MP, sadly we needed many more to think the same way. Especially the one individual who said that me responding to a tweet from them on eve of poll was enough to secure their vote.

I'd like to also thank my agent Ian Barnes for all the work he has done in sorting out the paperwork, nominations and deposit and the members of the Sedgefield and Darlington Liberal Democrats for the opportunity to stand as their candidate. I'd also like to thank Ian Jones the North East England regional chair for all his support as well as my fellow candidates and those providing candidate support in party HQ. This has certainly be a fun, interactive and supportive election for all the Liberal Democrat candidates who put themselves forward this time. Many new friendships have been formed between those of us who stood there last night as the tsunami of rejection poured over us as MPs lost seats, candidates lost hard fought fights and many, many of us lost the deposit.

One thing none of us as candidates lost as a result of last night is our core beliefs and values is a liberal vision of the world, where we seek to give everyone an opportunity to get on in life. Although the electorate didn't see the value that Liberal Democrats have provided in the past and could have provided in this next parliament to ensure those values are maintained it is something that is still worth fighting for.

Therefore I am determined that within the next few months I will secure a full time job in either England, Scotland or Wales. Once this has been done I will be seeking selection for a seat somewhere in that area early on in this General Election cycle. I hope that both the job and selection will have been sorted within the year. Then I will be knocking on doors, putting good things that we do on pieces of paper and through letter boxes and telling the locals about those values and what spurs me on to continue to be a Liberal Democrat. I can envision that many of my fellow candidates are feeling dejected this morning, I can also envision that many of them like me are more determined than even to carry out the fight.

I believe last night we faced the sound of gunfire and many of us fell on the battlefield. But now is the time to entrench, bring in the reinforcements to fill the ranks and prepare for the next offensive in 2020. We have a fight on our hands to get back to the strong voice we have gained in recent years, but it is a fight back that I sure is worth the effort.

This is me stating that I am ready to return to the fray (after a little sleep that is), stand up for liberal values, get back unto the doorsteps facing the people who think erroneously that we have lost our values to show that far from it we know that those core values are what ground us. From which we base our priorities of fairness and freedom. We, as a party, must return to those values and proclaim them on the doorsteps, write about them on bits of paper and regroup around them and put them front and centre once more.

I remain Lib Dem to the core

You follow a political party because you agree with its policies. You become an activist for that party because you share in its vision. You put yourself on the line standing to represent that party because you want to enthuse the core values of that party into the lives of everyone.

Thus is was that 630 fellow Liberal Democrats and I lay it all on the line yesterday in the 2015 General Election. Some like Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy had given years of service to get those values into their constituencies, improving their constituents lives and when they could into legislation. But yesterday they like many of the rest of us were judged not so much on our values but on one decision we made collectively about five years ago.

Our manifesto this time as in 2005 and 2010 was full of wonderful stuff about how to bring about fairness to society. It also laid out how we could strengthen the economy, fund additional NHS investment etc. But that one decision and not our core values were what the people judged us on.

We are a party that believes in proportional representation. Therefore we are a party that expects that we might be called upon to form coalitions to work with others under a fair voting system. Here's the thing with 5% less of the national vote than UKIP our party shouldn't deserve to have (at time of writing) eight times as many MPs. The only reason we do is that my party was Fire Fighting putting up fire breaks around places we occupied, while UKIP were riding a wave and thought they could do everything.

Maybe we should have said more about what our values were that made us want to do things rather than saying that we weren't like one lot in one way and another lot over something different. I believe in those values and I feel that others appreciate them to.

And, here is the thing. Despite all the pain, all the heartache and all the suffering that last night caused standing at my own count, getting feedback form elsewhere and then watching it all come crashing down, I'm still a Liberal Democrat to the core.

I still see no other party that believes that no other party exists to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society in which they seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, in which nobody shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

If there were I would stand for them, work for them and vote for them. But none of the other parties fulfil even this small extract from the constitution of the Liberal Democrats.

That is why today, as much as ever, and indeed more so that 26 years ago I know that I am the very model of modern Liberal Democrat. I know our party will come back strong again because the essence of what we believe in does bring about fairness and opportunity for everyone. It may be a few election cycles, a few years or even a few months before voters realise this. David Cameron and his unfettered Conservatives could well be the ideal recruiter of people to the Liberal Democrat's way of thinking.

Sunday 3 May 2015

We Will Remember Them: Thomas Alexander Mills d. 3 May 1915

The first person that this series will be remembering is the second cousin of my step-great grandmother, the attached chart shows how we are related. Although at the time of Private T.A. Mills death she was a widow who was yet to marry my recently widowed great grandfather.

Thomas Mills was the son of a military man, his father Alexander had fought during the Boer War with the 1st Inniskillings being awarded the King's Medal with two clasp, Queen's Medal with five clasps and Distinguished Service Medal. Unlike many of the young men who will be featured in this series he was a member of His Majesty's Forces before the declaration of war having signed up two weeks earlier.

The Helles Memorial, Turkey where he is remembered
He joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry (Plymouth Division) and it was with them that he formed part of the 29th Division that engaged in the initial landings in the Dardanelles on 25th April 1915. The campaign is better known today by the name of the peninsula where the Allied Forces got pinned down for months without advancing; Gallipoli.

Just over a week after the initial landings he was declared missing, his father sought further information, but as too many soldiers from the naval division of the army were listed as missing at the time there was a just a standard response.

On Friday 4th August 1916 in First Derry Presbyterian Church his name was among those read out in an act of remembrance for the young men of the City who had already given their lives during the first 2 years of this War. The location of this service means that it was very possible that many of my family on both my father's and mother's sides could have been present as both their father's families worshiped in that church around this time.

The tragedy for the family didn't end with the end of the war abroad. On 23 June 1920 while walking through the streets on the city side of Londonderry his mother Margaret Mills (née Mowbray) was shot in the chest and died as a result of the wounds there had been gunfire in the area around Bishop Street all day and the inquest had asked if the bullet could have come from the predominantly unionist Waterside area across the River Foyle, but found that it probably had come from the republicans on the Cityside. She was an unfortunate victim of the civil war that still saw many members of my family living surrounded by the republicans on the west bank around the Fountain and Abercorn Road. The Mills at this time were living on Orchard Row just off Foyle Road.

Pvt. Thomas Alexander Mills, Royal Marine Light Infantry, Plymouth Bttn. Royal Naval Division
Born Londonderry City, Ireland 1 Mar 1897
Died Gallipoli, Ottoman Empire (Turkey) 3 May 1915

We will remember him

The Royal Marine Light Infantry during the War

The Royal Marines had been founded in 1664 and men had been billeted in Plymouth, the Division in which Thomas was attached, since the formation. In 1855 the marine infantry forces had been renamed the Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI) and from that time they were set up to lead on landings on foreign and hostile shores to act as the initial wave as skirmishers.

Friday 1 May 2015

Blogging light and hustings event

Sorry that blogging has been light. It is because the level of emails is up quite considerably on even five years ago. May well be normal service after Thursday.

In the meantime that has been a hastily arranged soap box style hustings in the town centre of Newton Aycliffe in the morning at 11:30.