Dáil Contribution on LGBTI+ Equality

Dáil Contribution on LGBTI+ Equality

Full Transcript: I start this contribution by saying that I fully agree with the points raised by Deputy Ó Ríordáin on the need to tackle this issue within our schools and in respect of employment equality. I have known teaching colleagues during my career who have not felt that that they could be open about their own identity. This is certainly something that needs to be addressed.

I join with everybody else in the House in wishing people a happy Pride week. If Deputy Donnelly suggests that the weather may not play ball and that the dress code may be raincoats and wellies, well at least there may be rainbows.

We have had a little bit of happy history made in Waterford where we have had the Pride of the Déise Festival in Waterford for many years. The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, met with members of the committee last year. We had our first ever Pride event in Dungarvan in west Waterford just last weekend. That is a happy bit of history to have.

On reflecting and in preparing today’s speech, I thought back on another bit of happy history which was the general election of February 2020. The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, who has left the Chamber, and I were elected just a couple of hours apart. We both responded in almost exactly the same way. We did not do any of the whooping and hollering and there was no hoisting on shoulders or anything like that. We did, however, what came naturally to us as a response. We turned to the person who had most supported and had walked the long road with us, that is, we turned to our partners and we kissed them. It was the most natural thing in the world to do at a time of great happiness. In my case, it was completely unremarkable or unremarked upon. In the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman’s case, it was much remarked on because I turned and kissed a woman and the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, turned and kissed a man.

As we hear statements on LGBTQI+ and equality today and during Pride month, we should remember that while Pride has become much more mainstream now, it is a protest. It is a protest that reminds us that despite all of the progress made, there is still much more to do. If I walk down the street and I reach out to take my wife’s hand, I do not have to think about it as that is just a simple act of affection. It is not a statement or a protest. Until people within our LGBTQI+ community feel that same freedom, it means that we still have a road to travel.

It also reminds us that progress cannot be taken for granted and it has to be protected. While we have made significant progress in our lifetimes, in the last decade even, and we are rightly proud of those steps, of all those conversations and of that empathy that culminated in our historical result in the marriage equality referendum, both history and the international context show us that freedoms won can be freedoms lost unless they are protected and defended. We have talked about the regression and the retrograde steps that we have seen both in Poland and Hungary on LGBTQI+ rights in recent times and we have already commented on the violence we have seen against people in that community, which seems to be on the rise everywhere. This is happening in the US, the UK and in many countries across Europe and we are not immune to it ourselves as witnessed in the vicious murder of two men in Sligo just earlier this year.

Something which worries and concerns me is that we are also beginning to see an importation of culture wars that are being waged elsewhere where debates around these issues are becoming weaponised and are being used to stoke fears and to sow division.

The debate around trans rights has become increasingly heated in Ireland over the past number of weeks and, as many of the previous contributors said, it is a debate around somebody’s basic right to exist. We always have to be conscious of that. It seems that the highly divisive and destructive battle lines drawn in the UK on this issue have been imported to Ireland despite the fact the laws on trans rights have been in place for seven years now and, to my mind, have had no ill effects on anybody.

Trans people are like everybody else, including myself. They just want to live their lives and to be left alone. They do not need to hear their right to exist debated in divisive terms. Let us not go down that very divisive and needlessly cruel path, as we have seen in the UK. Let us remain focused on facts over panic and let us never forget that there are real people at the heart of these debates. There are real people listening to the radio or watching the television and are having the way that they live their lives discussed and picked apart. If these conversations need to be had and if there are genuine concerns that people need to express, then this should be done at all times with empathy and with understanding.

The Government has been very active in this space and the Minister spoke about many of the initiatives being undertaken and I will mention just some of them. The Government will be bringing forward a new hate crime Bill. Ireland will also opt in to the proposed EU hate speech ban. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Martin, is bringing forward an Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 which aims to tackle online abuses. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, has also enacted laws which make the sharing of intimate images with intent to cause harm a criminal offence. These protections, of course, protect us all but we must recognise the need to protect members of our LGBTQI+ community who experience many forms of discrimination, institutionalised prejudice, social exclusion, related harassments, bullying, violence and health issues, including mental health issues.

A key pillar of the LGBTQI+ inclusion strategy referred to by the Minister is to ensure that the members of the LGBTQI+ community feel safe and supported within Irish society. That is what we need, which that all members of our society feel safe and supported in the same way.

The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and his Department continue to do tremendous work. A major review of the equality legislation is under way to specifically outlaw discrimination based on gender identity. His Department is working on operating policy to guide the experience of LGBTQI+ refugees going through the process of the international protection application. Earlier this year his Department commissioned an extensive study of older members of that community in Ireland to help identify the needs, strengths and challenges which they still experience. This will help inform ongoing implementation of the current and future national LGBTQI+ inclusion strategy.

This week’s announcement of LGBTQI+ community services funding by the Minister is very welcome. Some €900,000 has been made available to groups operating at local and national levels to support the community and non-governmental organisations with the aim of promoting inclusion, protecting the rights and improving the well-being of LGBTQI+ people all over Ireland.

There is a new additional element in the funding round that will enable LGBTI+ NGOs to plan to undertake longer-term initiatives to help maintain their support. This is the core support feature to which the Minister referred in his opening statement.

I very much welcome the work being undertaken by An Garda Síochána to deepen awareness of this issue among its front-line officers. Actions in the national LGBTI+ strategy also aim to increase the capacity of An Garda Síochána to respond to the needs of victims of hate crime and to improve understanding of the community within the force. A new organisational approach to Garda diversity training is in the final stages of development and will be delivered throughout 2022. It includes online hate crime training and online diversity and cultural awareness. The training programme was developed in conjunction with community representatives, including LGBT Ireland and Transgender Equality Network Ireland. It has provided a very welcome opportunity for diverse and minority groups to have meaningful engagement with Garda training to ensure the policing we have in our communities answers the needs of all people in our communities. Garda diversity officers are now located in every Garda division throughout the country. They are trained, developed and supported to actively work with diverse and minority communities. Last year there was a full review of the Garda diversity officer network that resulted in revising the role to include responsibility for facilitating the reporting, recording, investigation and prosecuting of hate crime. It also included support for victims of hate crime by identifying their particular needs and responsibility for acting as a liaison with the necessary external support services.

This is a flavour of some of the work that is happening. The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, outlined much more that is happening. All of this is necessary and important work. The Government is ambitious and committed to this agenda and LGBTI+ rights. The fact there is a need for this work to be done shows there is a need for Pride. The need for the Pride festival is not only as the moment of joy throughout our communities that it has certainly become. It is most welcome that it has developed to become a joyous occasion but we must also remember that Pride is a protest. It is still important that members of the community make their voices heard and keep the pressure on the Government and all Members of the House to deliver on what we want in our Republic, with all members of the Republic experiencing the same freedoms.

I have never had to consider these issues. I am cis male. It is part of my identity but it is not something I have to fight for. It is not something I ever need to overly consider. I am straight. This is also part of my identity. I do not have to think about it. It is not something that crosses my mind as I reach out to take my wife’s hand as we walk down the street. Until every member of our society feels that same freedom to do as I do and feels that same comfort in their own identity and skin, regardless of race, ethnicity, orientation or identity, Pride is necessary. It is an agenda we have to push forward. We should absolutely be donning the raincoats and the wellies if that is what the weekend weather will require as a dress code. All of us should be coming out and supporting those who are marching and who have marched for many years to make those necessary changes in our society that will make it a better place.