KaleidoScot’s Mathew Hulbert talks exclusively to, Stephen Donnan, the outgoing Chair of the LGBT group in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland about his time in the role, the ongoing fight for Equal Marriage in the province and what our communities in Scotland can do to support them.
KaleidoScot: So, Stephen, you’re stepping down as Convenor of the LGBT group in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. What led to that decision?
Stephen: I’ve been in the role 23 months now and I feel that now is the right time to call it a day. I am very happy with what I have achieved and I think it’s important to acknowledge when you are no longer the most capable person for the job.
There is a lot of talent within the party and I want to help foster and develop those bright minds and give them the opportunity to take over and do a better job than I ever could.
KaleidoScot: What is your proudest achievement in the role?
Stephen: I think my proudest achievement would be my first Belfast Pride as Chair. Between the LGBT committee and myself we had a turnout of over 40 Alliance members. More than ever before and I think it helped cement us as a serious movement within the community and the party.
KaleidoScot: And what’s been your biggest disappointment in terms of lack of progress, etc?
Stephen: I wouldn’t say that I have any regrets. Anything that I have done within the role has only served to further the profile of LGBT rights within the party but I am disappointed that NI has not moved further on equal marriage in 2 years.
KaleidoScot: Yes, that’s what I meant really. How far off do you think progress on that is?
Stephen: It’s very hard to say. I have no faith that the devolved Assembly will deliver anything progressive for us and that isn’t just restricted to LGBT rights. I believe that it will be a matter for the courts but it could be 5 years or 5 months away.
KaleidoScot: When you see the progress that has been made in England, Wales and Scotland do you feel LGBT people in Northern Ireland are somewhat forgotten on these issues by the main UK parties?
Stephen: 100%. I’ve yet to see anything substantial from the current coalition or indeed Labour that would give me any hope that the 3 main parties have us at the front of their mind when they talk about Britain’s future. That being said, the Labour Governments under Blair delivered a raft of changes and improvements for LGBT people here during Direct Rule.
KaleidoScot: Are you hopeful that will change under a new Government after next May or not?
Stephen: I think political leaders in NI need to stop relying on the Governments of the UK, US and even Ireland to referee our politics and to resolve our problems for us and realise that they have been given that job by us, the voters, and it’s time to do the job.
My main concern however is the possibility of a Conservative/UKIP coalition in Government. With parties on the right having major influence over national policy (including the DUP) then I am concerned that we will see equality legislation being picked apart.
KaleidoScot: Is it true to say that whilst Alliance is the most progressive party on these issues in the province, even some of your elected representatives aren’t always sound on things like Equal Marriage?
Stephen: It’s important and responsible as liberals to accept that not everyone thinks the same way as you or I. I have to accept that some of our reps aren’t on board with equal marriage but I can assure you that it is a small number. They have their place in Alliance just like me and we see eye to eye on many other things.
That hasn’t stopped me speaking to them on the issue and indeed some have changed their minds. It’s about respectful dialogue and debate, not harassment or barracking elected reps that will win them round. People need to realise that there is a time for the megaphone but there is equally also time for the friendly chat.
KaleidoScot: I entirely agree Stephen. What other issues have been on your agenda as Chair? Tackling homophobic bullying? The Gay blood ban?
Stephen: All of the above but one of the main issues I have wanted to tackle is homophobic bullying. It is something that I have wanted to work on and feel I could have done more.
KaleidoScot: What will be the biggest issue for your successor?
Stephen: That’s a good question. We are heading into Westminster election season and I would expect that everything will be focused in that direction but whoever succeeds me I will work closely with them and help them forge their own way in the role. I may have been the first Chair of the group but I was always adamant that the group was bigger than one person and I am confident that whoever takes on the role will do a better job.
KaleidoScot: How have you found it personally being in such a prominent and public role as a leading LGBT figure in your province?
Stephen: I wouldn’t say I’m a leading LGBT figure in NI but I do what I can. I have found the role to be Very challenging buy a real honour. I have been humbled by the support I’ve gotten from my party leader, David Ford who has made personal sacrifices to stand up for LGBT rights and also Naomi Long MP who continues to be an inspiration.
I could not have done it without people like Micky Murray, Keith McGrellis, Cllrs John Blair, Andrew Muir, Laura McNamee, Emmet McDonough-Brown to name but a few.
KaleidoScot: Awesome. And what’s next for you, then? As a friend of yours, I can say that you’ve been an inspiration, in terms of your leadership, your vision and your aspirations for the communities your represent. Will you carry on in public service in one form or another?
Stephen: Thank you Mathew that is very kind! my next job will be to endure that Naomi Long is returned to Westminster in May 2015 and that we have a greater Alliance representation on the Green benches. After that I don’t know, I will of course keep rattling cages for LGBT rights here and further afield.
I will be joining my colleagues in the Republic of Ireland to help campaign for the equal marriage referendum next year also. Such an important moment in the history of civil.rights on this island and I’ll be dammed if I’m going to miss out!
KaleidoScot: Good man. And, finally, what would be your message to LGBT people in Scotland about how they can best support their cousins in NI?
Stephen: Keep setting the standard for the rest of us. Keep showing the rest of the UK what a devolved government can deliver without forcing us to resort to the courts to win our rights. Campaign for us here to get equal marriage. Keep us in your thoughts and mention us in your campaigns. Don’t leave us behind.
KaleidoScot: Thanks for all of your work, Stephen, and very best wishes for the future!
Stephen: Thank you Mathew. Same to you too.