Gay blood ban: Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster backs move to end ban
'Michelle came with the new evidence to us and I was quite happy to endorse the decision'
Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster has backed ending the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.
The DUP leader said she was presented with medical evidence by new Sinn Fein Health Minister Michelle O'Neill and concluded that the decision was supported by science.
Mrs Foster told BBC News NI: "It has never been about equality or morality, it was about the safety of people receiving the blood. Michelle came with the new evidence to us and I was quite happy to endorse the decision she suggested.
"In fact, if Simon Hamilton had had the chance to deal with it before the election he would have. We indicated that we want to get on with the job of governing. I hope this week has shown that we are confident in our decisions."
The move by Ms O'Neill, which brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, has been heralded as a "historic move towards equality" by campaigners.
It was the first major announcement by the minister a week after being appointed to the health portfolio
The one-year deferral system operated in the rest of the UK will now become law in Northern Ireland.
It allows gay men who have not had sex with another man for a year or more to make blood donations.
The new policy will come into effect on September 1 to allow time for the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service to prepare for the change.
The gay blood ban was introduced during the 1980s Aids crisis but was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in November 2011.
Former DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots maintained the ban in Northern Ireland on the basis of ensuring public safety.
Following a lengthy court battle over the ban, the Court of Appeal ruled that the decision rests solely with the minister.
Making the announcement at LGBT advocacy group The Rainbow Project, the Sinn Fein Minister said: "My decision is based solely on the evidence regarding the safety of donated blood."
The minister went on to stress the importance of donors' compliance with the deferral rules: "The safety of donated blood depends on two things: donor selection and the testing of blood. Every blood donation is tested for HIV and a number of other organisms. Not even the most advanced tests are 100% reliable, so it is vitally important for every donor to comply with any deferral rules that apply to them."
Welcoming the move, Rainbow Project director John O'Doherty said: "Today is historic, it is the first time the NI Assembly has made a move that would address the inequalities expressed by the LGBT people.
"It is a historic day and hopefully one of many to come. I personally have been working against the ban for 12 years. We saw the ban removed five years ago in England, Scotland and Wales.
"So within that time we have seen multiple pieces of evidence and a lot of media attention and a lot of public arguments, but I think today has been a positive move in terms of public safety and in terms of assuring that everyone who is in a position to donate blood can."
SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan, greeting the move, said: "This news is to be welcomed, not only for the life-saving support it will give to people here, but also for the impact it will have on the LGBT community which has long had the support of the SDLP in overturning the ban. Today is a victory for common sense and for equality."
Jacquie Richardson, CEO of Positive Life, said: "This ban has only perpetuated inequality which, in turn, has done nothing to reduce the stigma that is attached to men who have sex with men and who want to donate blood for the good of others."
Last month, a Department of Health spokeswoman said it had received advice from Westminster's Advisory Committee on the safety of blood, tissue and organs.
This is the basis for the medical determination in England, Wales and Scotland and the spokeswoman said the department has been "considering this evidence alongside the Court of Appeal judgment".
The committee found no reason to introduce a ban on gay men donating blood.