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Stormont minister lifts lifetime ban on gay men donating blood

Published 02/06/2016

Under fire: Health Minister Michelle O’Neill
Under fire: Health Minister Michelle O’Neill
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill with John O'Doherty from The Rainbow Project at the organisation's offices in Belfast
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill announced the move

A controversial lifetime ban on gay men donating blood in Northern Ireland is to be lifted.

The decision by Stormont Health Minister Michelle O'Neill comes after a long campaign by gay-rights activists in the region and a series of court battles over the contentious prohibition.

A similar ban was ended in England, Scotland and Wales in 2011 and replaced with rules that allowed gay men to give blood 12 months after their last sexual encounter with another man.

The lifetime ban had been retained in Northern Ireland by successive Democratic Unionist health ministers, who cited blood safety concerns.

The announcement comes only eight days after Sinn Fein assumed the health ministry in the wake of May's Assembly election.

While Ms O'Neill made the decision, it was not opposed by her DUP colleagues in the Stormont Executive.

"I think it is a good news story for the Executive to have taken this position," the minister said as she announced the move in Belfast at LGBT health organisation the Rainbow Project.

"I think it is a good news story for the LGBT community. It is a decision I have taken based on medical evidence that was put before me, which clearly shows that this was the right decision to take."

Ms O'Neill said evidence from the rest of the UK showed the risks around blood safety reduced with the introduction of the one-year deferral policy.

The lifetime ban will officially be removed in September.

John O'Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project, described the announcement as "absolutely fantastic".

"We knew when minister O'Neill was appointed she was going to remove the blood ban, we didn't necessarily expect it so soon, but we very much welcome it," he said.

The blood ban was one of a number of LGBT issues that have stirred controversy at Stormont.

The most high profile remaining dispute is over the ongoing ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Mr O'Doherty said he hoped progress could be made on that issue and others in the new Assembly term.

"This is a new opportunity with a new executive," he said.

"We are taking nothing as read, we look forward to engaging with all ministers as we have done with the health minister today."

In the most recent court judgement on the gay blood ban, the Court of Appeal decided the decision on whether to lift the ban rested with Stormont, not the UK Health Secretary.

A previous ruling that had found former DUP health minister Edwin Poots had acted with pre-determined bias, based on his Christian beliefs, in retaining the ban was overturned.

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