In a Belfast alleyway, a poignant graffiti mural makes a promise to Northern Ireland’s LGBT youth: “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.”
The words are a quote from Lyra McKee — a young gay journalist shot dead by dissident republicans during clashes with police in April.
McKee’s death has put new pressure on bickering politicians in Northern Ireland to get their power-sharing government up and running again and allow same-sex marriage and abortion rights in their troubled province.
British MPs added their support this week by voting to extend these rights to Northern Ireland from October 21 unless the local administration is re-formed.
“It is incredibly sad that she’s not here to see the progress that’s been made,” said Fergal McFerran, a friend of McKee and campaigner with LGBT rights group Stonewall.
McFerran spoke in front of the mural, which is peppered with candles and flowers as well as badges promoting “Love Equality” and the abortion rights campaign.
“I do think actually the power of her personal story and the love that her and Sara shared has brought home to bear for many people actually what this debate has been about.”
McKee’s partner Sara Canning has taken a leading role in protests to liberalise Northern Ireland’s laws.
The province has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, with a ban on terminations in all cases except when the life of the mother is in danger.
– ‘Live and let live’ –
According to opinion polls, both abortion and same-sex marriage enjoy popular support in Northern Ireland.
A 2018 survey by Amnesty International found 65 per cent of adults believe abortion should not be a crime.
In the streets of central Belfast, residents were broadly supportive of changes to the legislation.
“Everyone wants abortion — go ahead and have it. It’s none of my business,” 67-year-old Margot Channing told AFP.
“What have I to do with two gay men or two women who want to marry? I couldn’t care less — live and let live.”
Alex Mayer, a 22-year-old finance worker said Northern Ireland was “lagging behind” the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, which last year voted in a landslide referendum to overturn a constitutional ban on abortion.
– ‘Many hurdles’ –
In contrast, the case of a mother facing prosecution for allegedly buying abortion pills online for her 15-year-old daughter has dominated headlines in Northern Ireland.
Campaigners have hailed the proposed legal changes but are aware of the political hurdles still to overcome.
“We definitely celebrated when the news came through, but it was certainly a muted celebration because we’re quite cautious about what comes next,” said Kellie Turtle, a co-founder of the Belfast Feminist Network.
“Given the political state of chaos that Westminster is in at the minute, we know there are many hurdles that still need to be overcome before this big political move will actually guarantee people their rights here in Northern Ireland,” Turtle told AFP.
– Not ‘out of the woods’ –
Northern Ireland’s government has now been shut down for two and a half years.
The region’s main political forces — the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein — have been locked in a stalemate on a range of issues including same-sex marriage.
In the British parliament, the right-wing Christian DUP is the province’s loudest voice and roundly objected to vote by MPs.
“These are difficult issues, but they’re issues upon which we are involved in talks at Stormont House,” MP Gavin Robinson told AFP in reference to the local parliament.
“To have Westminster legislate on these two issues in the absence of agreement locally is very regrettable. It’s regressive.”
Irish republican party Sinn Fein has also called for the matter to be dealt with locally.
Although the party supports gay marriage and abortion, Sinn Fein lawmakers did not vote this week because their MPs have long abstained from the British parliament.
Campaigners say the tug-of-war of party politics leaves civil rights uniquely vulnerable in Northern Ireland.
“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” Canning warned in an editorial Wednesday.
“The LGBT+ community has seen marriage rights used as a political pawn before.”
© Agence France-Presse