Representatives from Northern Ireland’s six biggest political parties have committed to outlawing conversion therapy and improving access to trans healthcare.
Political figures convened virtually on Thursday evening (1 July) for the PinkNews Virtual Summer Reception in Belfast, which was hosted in partnership with Citi and The Rainbow Project.
Leaders from across the political spectrum were questioned on their commitment to LGBT+ rights at the event by John O’Doherty, director of The Rainbow Project.
Kicking off the discussion, O’Doherty asked political leaders how much longer trans people in Northern Ireland will have to wait to access healthcare at home, referencing ongoing issues with the Brackenburn Clinic in Belfast.
Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, said the trans community needs a service “that actually meets their needs, and that currently isn’t the case”.
Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), drew attention to the high rates of depression and suicidal ideation experienced by trans people – but he pointed out that much of these issues are caused by lack of access to vital healthcare.
He also acknowledged that an ongoing review of trans healthcare in the region is taking too long.
“The trans community need to see light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, adding that he will encourage health minister Robin Swann to accelerate work on introducing a “fit for service” healthcare system.
Cllr Malachai O’Hara, deputy leader of the Green Party Northern Ireland, said trans youth are spending so long on waiting lists that they often become adults in the interim, meaning they then have to join a new waiting list.
He said the provision of trans healthcare in Northern Ireland has “gotten worse” in recent years and said the current service is “not fit for purpose”. O’Hara went on to criticise the parties in Northern Ireland’s Executive, saying they have given “years of platitudes” on trans healthcare but there has been “very little action”.
O’Hara went on to note that there are trans and non-binary people who are no longer alive because of a “failure to act” on healthcare.
Paula Bradley, deputy leader of the DUP, said the issue of trans healthcare comes up “time and time again”, but admitted that the problem has only “steadily gotten worse”.
“I absolutely agree with other people here that this is an issue of equality, absolutely it is,” Bradley said. She went on to tell the reception that people are “entitled to healthcare”, adding that Northern Ireland has “never done enough” to support trans people.
Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP and a sitting MP, said he has seen “a change in tone” in Westminster on LGBT+ rights in recent years. He went on to describe the current lack of trans healthcare in Northern Ireland as a “scandal”, saying trans people are being sent abroad or to the internet to access vital services.
He called for “a massive injection of money” into trans healthcare in Northern Ireland, noting that it needs to be “dealt with now”.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, who is a sitting TD in the Republic of Ireland, reflected on “the great strides” that have been made south of the border on LGBT+ rights in recent years.
“I remain incredibly proud that we are at a place where we voted for marriage equality,” she said, referring to Ireland’s 2015 referendum. McDonald noted that progress has also been made on trans and non-binary rights in the Republic, but said healthcare in the country has been described as “invasive”.
McDonald said progress has been “more substantial south of the border”, but added: “We’re not there yet anywhere on the island.”
She went on to criticise the notion that trans healthcare is an “extra” and reiterated that it needs to be seen as “fundamentally basic healthcare” that citizens are entitled to.
The political party representatives also criticised the UK’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which was introduced in 2004 and has not yet been reformed or modernised.
McDonald said the GRA is “deeply flawed legislation” and criticised its requirement for trans people to describe themselves as suffering from a “disorder”. She said the legislation “others people in a way that is cruel”, adding that it is “not acceptable for any citizen”.
Bradley agreed, saying the use of the word “disorder” is “absolutely shocking” to her. She committed to working with other political leaders to pave the way for change for trans people.
DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley described conversion therapy as ‘barbaric’
The panellists also discussed conversion therapy in Northern Ireland. Communities minister Deirdre Hargey is currently drafting legislation to outlaw the practice.
Eastwood said the practice should already have been banned, adding that he’s “not really sure what’s taking the minister so long”. He said people are “preying” on LGBT+ youth because there is no legislation to protect them.
Bradley was asked by O’Doherty about her party’s recent controversy surrounding conversion therapy. In April, the DUP tried to amend Doug Beattie’s motion on conversion therapy, calling for a line to be removed which said it is “fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure”.
“I actually didn’t support the motion. I abstained on our party’s motion as well as the main motion,” Bradley said.
“I think on reflection it was wrong to remove that out of there. As a party we absolutely agree that conversion therapy should be banned, absolutely, 100 per cent, albeit as a party we still do believe that there should be certain protections for religious freedom, whether that is prayer or whatever that might look like, but certainly not conversion therapy.
“I have spoken to people who have been through that journey and that journey affected them greatly throughout their life, just the mental health and the affects of going through that type of therapy. It’s absolutely wrong, it’s barbaric.”
She went on to say that she expects some movement on a conversion therapy ban by autumn, adding that they will then have a chance to “look more closely at it”.
Every other panelist expressed their support for a full ban on conversion therapy in Northern Ireland. Doug Beattie reiterated his view that LGBT+ people don’t need “a fix or a cure” and said it is “wrong for anybody to say they do”.
He went on to say that he brought the motion forward to the Assembly in April because it was “the right thing to do”, noting that he wasn’t alone in his view as almost all parties in the Assembly were supportive of the move.