What would Irish reunification mean for the queer community?

Sinn Fein on the importance of queer and trans rights for a united Ireland

With Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly in deadlock, the region’s leading political party has renewed calls for Irish unification talks. Sinn Fein came in first in legislative elections on May 5 of this year—the first time the Irish nationalist party has done so in the North. But they didn’t win an outright majority, and pro-British unionist parties have refused to participate in a Sinn Fein-led government. Without their participation, new elections may have to be called this fall. 

In the face of these uncertainties, Sinn Fein continues to call for a referendum on Irish reunification, but wants to make sure any referendum is preceded by public dialogue about what a future united Ireland would look like. In September, Sinn Fein representatives came to North America, urging supporters to bring political pressure to bear on both Britain and Ireland to begin the process of consultation on Irish unity.

Northern Ireland MP Michelle Gildernew visited Newfoundland, as well as P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, during Sinn Fein’s “Cross-Canada Irish Unity Roadshow.” She discussed what Irish reunification could mean for the LGBTQ+ community. 

Gildernew—a Sinn Fein activist for nearly forty years—says her party has always been “ahead of the curve” on queer rights. They were the only party in Northern Ireland to explicitly advocate for trans rights in the 2015 election. They’ve pushed for universal PrEP access and bans on gay and trans conversion therapy, as well as lifting blood donation bans on men who have sex with men.

“Culturally, Ireland has shifted a lot,” she says, citing the referendum on same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland. “It was just life-affirming to see the shift in mindset in the run-up to that referendum. People who were in their seventies and eighties, who maybe didn’t have a lot of understanding but had somebody belonging to them who was part of the LGBTQ+ community, it was just lovely to see that older demographic coming aboard,” she says.

“Now, I know there’s been lots of gay-bashings and lots of people have been killed because they’re gay, and it’s been a hard time getting to that level of acceptance,” she adds. “There’s lots of men and women who did the heavy lifting for years, and they have to be commended.”

For Gildernew, the struggle is personal: her gay nephew is getting married next year (same-sex marriage only became legal in Northern Ireland in 2020), and she’s “absolutely psyched” for it. Before departing for Canada, she spent the weekend at Pride celebrations in the town of Omagh, part of the district she represents.

“It was just so much fun, and there was so much good will, it was a really wonderful event,” she says. “There were thousands of people on the streets, people in the parade, people watching the parade—and on the corner of the main street there was a wee group of people waving placards, the Bible-bashers and so on. Those people are getting fewer and getting older. And I think that’s a snapshot of where we are. We’ll still attract the protestors, but they’re older and fewer. And … those people aren’t holding us back anymore.”


Trans rights are a fraught battleground in the U.K. Earlier this year, Britain’s Conservative government indicated protections for trans people would not be included in a proposed ban on conversion therapy. When Conservatives selected a new prime minister following Boris Johnson’s resignation this summer, leadership candidates sidestepped issues like the energy crisis and instead debates were dominated by attacks on trans people. Transphobic hate groups like the LGB Alliance and Standing for Women have organized public campaigns and rallies in Britain; one event in Brighton this month was attended by neo-Nazis and far-right extremists. While that event (with about 200 participants) was dwarfed by Brighton’s 20,000-strong Trans Pride March in July, transphobic coverage and commentary has been amplified by the U.K.’s right-leaning mainstream press.

Gildernew sees the rise of anti-trans rhetoric as part of a broader attack on equality by the far-right.

“During the past ten years, since Trump was in the White House and Johnson was in Number 10 Downing Street, I think we’ve seen a really backward step in terms of acceptance, tolerance and equality,” she says. “We have a saying: when the U.S. gets a sniffle, we get a cold. That rise in the far-right is really worrying. And none of us are beyond it.”

She says that in Ireland, the intolerance directed toward LGBTQ+ communities is often also directed toward other minority communities, including immigrants and the Irish Travellers. The fact that far-right activists are becoming louder and more open in their hateful rhetoric is a matter of concern, she says.

“There are still plenty of people out there who seem to make it their life’s work to make other people miserable. We need to make sure that they know that there is zero tolerance for their kind of attitudes, and that they won’t get away with intolerance in public. If you decide you want to be a right-wing homophobic creep at home, just know you can’t take it outside.”

She says one of the ways this intolerance manifests is in increased bullying directed at young people. Sinn Fein has been pushing for an overhaul of Northern Ireland’s education system, including mandating a standardized LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum in schools.

“Bullying is a big thing. And now with social media, it doesn’t stop when you get off the bus. We know that there are still unacceptable suicide rates [among LGBTQ+ youth], and we have to do more to try and ensure that those conversations are being had, that they’re open and decent and respectful, and that young people don’t feel that they can’t talk to anyone.”

The fight for LGBTQ+ and other minority rights speaks to the heart of Sinn Fein’s historic struggle for self-determination against colonialism, she says, and should never play second fiddle to other political priorities. She cited Mairéad Farrell, an Irish Republican Army combatant who was shot dead while unarmed and surrendering by British soldiers in Gibraltar in 1988 when she was 31 years old.

“Mairéad had said at an event years ago in Belfast, that we can’t wait for Irish unity to fight for women’s rights. The two have to go hand in hand. And if you take that now, twenty or thirty years later, it’s the same thing for trans rights. We can’t fix our constitutional problem and then fix everything else. It has to be concurrent. It has to happen now,” she says.

“And we have to fix it. Because if we don’t, what we’re going to do is we’re going to end up with another generation of young people who are fleeing the kind of intolerance that they have at home. Or they’re going to [fall prey to] self-harm and mental ill-health and suicide and all of that. I have three children myself, and I want them to know that wherever they are in life that they’ve got a supportive environment.”

In addition to the broader fight for rights, there are practical matters affecting queer and trans residents in Northern Ireland. The U.K.’s beleaguered public health service is buckling under enormous wait-lists; the estimated wait time for accessing gender-affirming care in the U.K. is four years, and many experience much longer waits.

“The only gender identity clinic in the North of Ireland is the Brackenburn Clinic,” Gildernew explains. Sinn Fein spoke out against delays in service at the Belfast clinic earlier this year, revealing the clinic had a backlogged wait-list of 566 patients.

“That’s unacceptable,” she says. “If we had a bill of rights and a rights-based society, then it would be inclusive of those issues. We don’t want to see the trans community facing practical and institutional barriers when it comes to the right to express their gender identity.

“It has to be resourced. We have to make sure that we are training health professionals who are able to carry out these procedures. We still have people I know who are going to Britain for surgery, so we need to see young professionals coming forward who want to specialize in that area of work, and who want to stay at home to work.”

Out-migration—residents leaving home for employment or other opportunities—hits home for Gildernew, who comes from a mostly rural district. Sectarian and religious violence were behind some of that out-migration, she says, but so was discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Sometimes it drove them to London, but it drove the braver of them to Derry,” she says. The second-largest city in Northern Ireland is known to many these days through the popular show Derry Girls, but it has also become a focal point for queer culture in the North.

“I suppose it was like the San Francisco of the 1980s. It was somewhere in the North of Ireland where a lot of [queer] people found their home. So people find each other and they find support and friendship and understanding. But we want people to be happy at home. We can’t afford to have that brain drain. And if we’re going to be an inclusive society, it takes all of us to make sure this place is fully inclusive.”

Northern Ireland’s past has been marked by violence, but Gildernew feels the region is uniquely positioned to show what it takes to build an inclusive society. The demographics of her district mean that in order for her to have been elected, Protestant unionists had to have voted for her as well, despite the fact she represents a traditionally Catholic nationalist party. She credits that to “the ability to listen” and the ability to treat people the way we would like to be treated ourselves.”

Gildernew pointed out that migrants from outside the U.K. now outnumber British-descended settlers in the North, yet are excluded from the power-sharing arrangements that protect British settlers. She dreams of a unified country whose legislature represents the diversity of modern Ireland: Catholic and Protestant, queer and migrant, working-class and gender-diverse.

“Traditionally, [Ireland] has been seen as quite conservative and traditional,” she admits. “It’s been a journey. I wouldn’t have known anybody from the trans community until the last fifteen years. Now we’re trying to make sure we’re on the right side of history, and that nobody feels like they’re being left behind. 

“It saddens me that I remember the discrimination gay men and women had to face, and what trans communities have had to face. But I’m hoping that the next generation won’t remember any of that and it’ll be completely alien to them.”

Rhea Rollmann (she/her) is a journalist, writer and radio/podcast producer based in St. John’s, NL. She has a background in labour organizing and queer and trans activism, and is Program Director at CHMR-FM, a community radio station in St. John’s, NL. A winner of three Atlantic Journalism Awards, her first book, A Queer History of Newfoundland, is due out next year. She speaks English, French, and some German, Spanish and Japanese.

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