In his third visit to Belfast as House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow told the audience of Amnesty’s annual Belfast Pride lecture that although Northern Ireland is “considerably behind” when it comes to LGBT rights, “if it’s won through in the rest of the Kingdom it will prevail in Northern Ireland”.
Introducing Mr Bercow, Amnesty’s Grainne Teggart described the speaker as having “been a positive voice at the heart of UK politics in speaking out against discrimination and the persecution of LGB and T people around the world.”
Mr Bercow was warmly received by an audience of over a hundred as he spoke of his personal journey to recognising the lack of equality in society today. Progressing further he discussed why he personally felt the Speaker of the House should take up the role of being a champion for equality and human rights.
He acknowledged that this was a departure from traditional role of Speaker, but that he “believed with conviction” that a Speaker’s support for human rights was both “legitimate and essential”.
Tactfully remaining impartial about party politics he said that he was however “not obliged to be impartial about people who serve parliament” continuing on to praise East Belfast MP Naomi Long – who was among the audience – as being “courageous, principled and dedicated” adding that she was a “superb parliamentarian”.
Admitting to being “no expert on Northern Ireland” Mr Bercow said that in preparing for his lecture he had spoken to people who indisputably are and he continued his presentation by sharing “some sobering figures” which he said were surely not insignificant;
- 63% of young people experience harassment at school in Northern Ireland due to their sexual orientation;
- 57% of LGBT workers conceal their sexual orientation to some extent at work;
- 29% of LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
“LGBT people can find themselves isolated when they come out, not just in a geographical sense in rural areas but in being isolated from their own friends and communities”
He added that those who know the situation in Northern Ireland say that understanding, acceptance or even tolerance of LGBT people lags behind that of other parts of the United Kingdom.
He added that, he himself “as a human being and as a straight ally” must say that “prejudice, intolerance and isolation on the basis of sexuality are a denial of humanity.”
“Such treatment is sentencing people to a life of fear, self-doubt and self-loathing. It is the theft of one of our most fundamental instincts – to love and to be loved – this issue is so much more than politics, religion or diplomacy. It is about the subjugation of a fellow human beings freedom; it is painful, it is demeaning, it is dehumanizing, it is wrong,” he continued.
Later, during the question and answer session, Bercow was careful to respect and not criticise local devolved institutions as he addressed LGBT specific issues in Northern Ireland.
He dismissed a statement that there are “two types of equality”– made by the DUP’s David McIlveen at another pride event earlier in the week and brought up by an audience member – as “nonsense on stilts”.
The claim was made at Pride Talks Back – an annual panel discussion involving politicians invited from all Northern Ireland’s mainstream parties where members of the LGBT community get to ask tough questions to elected representatives.
After the event concluded one audience guest who spoke to me stated that it was rare for him to sing the praises of a politician but that John Bercow was passionate, engaging, eloquent, funny and charming.
The annual pride lecture from Amnesty Northern Ireland is one of the more serious parts of Belfast Pride week. You can listen to a full audio recording of this year’s lecture by clicking here – with thanks to Northern Irish blogger Alan Meban.