Catching up. The struggle for equality in N.Ireland

The speaker at the East London Humanist meeting in October is Boyd Sleator of the recently formed N Ireland Humanists. This article due for publication in the Wanstead Village Directory sets the scene.

‘This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Abortion Act and the Homosexual Law Reform Act. Passed in 1967, they helped create the kinder and more understanding country we live in today. Except there is one part of our Kingdom which in many ways has been left behind.

The speaker at this month’s Humanist meeting is Boyd Sleator, the dynamic Development Officer for the Northern Ireland Humanist group. Formed only last year, the group has already had a huge impact.  Boyd will be in London for a landmark Supreme Court case due to commence the day after the meeting.

Boyd has always been passionate about human rights and equality. The issues became even more important to him when his twin sons were born in 2014. He says ‘I want my kids and future generations to live without bigotry, sectarianism, homophobia and racism in a fair and secular society’.

One early victory came in June when Belfast High Court gave the go-ahead for football star Eunan O’Kane and public speaker and model Laura Lacole to celebrate a Humanist marriage. They married two weeks later. However, the ruling was almost immediately challenged by the Northern Ireland Government and there are ongoing Court of Appeal proceedings.

This is just one example of the struggle against the forces of extreme religious conservatism. It is disquieting that Theresa May has entered into an alliance with the DUP, a party at the forefront of fighting the movement for greater equality. One mechanism the DUP use to veto progress is the so-called ‘Petition of Concern.’  It was introduced by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to ensure that contentious legislation is not passed without cross-community support.  Designed to avoid discrimination, it has been repeatedly used to block reforms that we have long enjoyed on the mainland.

Another battleground is gay rights. Northern Ireland is the last corner of the British Isles where gay marriage is not permitted. Despite approval from a majority of NI Assembly members the DUP used their veto to block it. A challenge by two couples was rejected by the NI Court of Appeal in August.

Northern Ireland also has some of the harshest laws on abortion in the world. It remains illegal in all but the most extreme cases. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.  One recent prosecution concerns a mother who obtained medication for her 15 year old daughter pregnant from an abusive relationship. Boyd will be at the Supreme Court with Humanists UK to argue that Northern Ireland’s law does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. ‘

Paul Kaufman
Chair East London Humanists

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