Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Andrew Muir: Rocks were thrown at me in the street because I'm gay

The Alliance councillor and Northern Ireland's first openly gay mayor, talks to Chris Kilpatrick

Trail-blazer: Andrew Muir is mayor in North Down

Q Your grandmother was a proud Orangewoman, a grandfather a devout Catholic. How did that shape your political views and your affiliations growing up?

A It didn't really. Because I'm the product of a mixed marriage I've been in both Catholic and Presbyterian churches, depending on which grandparents I was with. I think the thing for me growing up in Northern Ireland and seeing the division was something I found wrong and the only way to resolve our problems was through dialogue and discussion.

Another thing which influences my politics is my sexuality. I'm openly gay, I came out in 1996 and I have experienced quite a significant amount of discrimination, harassment and violence as a result of that.

It's important to include minorities regardless of their background because I know what it's like to feel when you're not included. I know far too many people who have left Northern Ireland and I had a couple of friends who unfortunately committed suicide. That's a motivator for change in politics and change in society. That should not be accepted or normal in any society.

Q You had friends who committed suicide because of homophobic abuse?

A Because of prejudice, because of their sexual orientation. A number of issues came together and unfortunately some saw it as a way to resolve their issues. It saddens me some people are still fixated in regard to sexual orientation.

It's a matter that should be celebrated, not shunned or something not to be welcomed.

Q You said you have been on the receiving end of abuse and violently attacked in the past because of your sexuality?

A I came out in 1996 and Northern Ireland is a dramatically changed society now from what it was at that time.

In 1996 there was very little equality legislation for lesbian and gay people and I can remember walking through the streets of Derry and having rocks thrown at me and homophobic abuse hurled at me.

I remember homophobic graffiti being scrawled outside my house and reporting that to police.

My response was to try and change that, promote inclusiveness. Society in Northern Ireland is still not devoid of division and intolerance. We still have situations in which people think it's OK to make snide homophobic jokes.

If those same jokes were made about somebody from a different race they wouldn't be accepted and maybe that's the challenge, we've got to have a zero tolerance on prejudice towards anybody from a background

Q In 2013 you became Northern Ireland's first openly gay mayor. Would that have been possible back in 1996?

A I don't think it would have. It was an issue I debated internally with myself, with others before I came out publicly, and was told there was a number of characters in British politics who were openly gay and it was possible. I had it in my mind it wasn't possible and I would have to pursue a life outside Northern Ireland. The fact my sexuality is not an issue for my electorate and neither was it for the councillors who voted for me to become mayor is a massive sign of progress and change.

But we need to go much, much further where the fact we are having this conversation wouldn't be required because unfortunately we still have the situation where an individual is judged not as themselves but the background they come from.

You go to any of the other European regions there is a number of openly gay mayors and it's widely accepted.

Q Have you encountered any prejudice in your time as mayor?

A I've been warmly welcomed in the vast majority of the constituency and groups.

It saddens me there have been a very few, isolated incidents.

There has been no overt homophobia but there have been comments made, jokes made, behind my back at one or two different events.

Q Who by? Other councillors?

A Not other councillors, no. It wasn't intended I would hear those comments but I did.

What level of tolerance do we have in Northern Ireland towards homophobia and towards racism? It's not a subject for jokes, I don't think.

Maybe we have moved on in that people are not overtly homophobic to your face but perhaps sometimes people need to mature in terms of their attitudes towards others.

Q You're held in high regard by many for being open. Why do you think in Northern Ireland in 2014 there are many public figures reluctant to be open about their sexuality?

A People are fearful of the response they are going to get from others. I'm lucky to have a very supportive family and circle of friends.

People maybe feel the circle around them would not be fully supportive and it would be difficult for them to come forward.

You need to have a strong level of confidence about yourself. I'm very comfortable and my focus is building equality for everyone.

It doesn't defy me, it motivates me to ensure that for example the stigma around homeless people is ended. All those types of prejudice need to stop.

Q We have 108 MLAs at Stormont, none of whom is openly gay. Is there a concern there of representation? We've seen issues recently around equal marriage and blood donation, for example.

A We have an issue with the Assembly of not being generally representative of society in terms of gender, ethnic minorities and so on.

When you look at opinion polls the majority of society is supportive of equal marriage but the Assembly doesn't reflect that. You then have an increasing frustration with the Assembly. If we continue to fall behind, my concern is that Northern Ireland will be governed not by the Assembly but by courts. Some of the decisions and some of the commentaries are deeply hurtful to minorities.

The role of a legislator is to ensure people feel welcomed within a society, if we're going to grow our economy we need to do that.

Q You previously said you believed equal marriage rights will be brought in in Northern Ireland within 10 years. How realistic is that?

A I think the best way to resolve it is through the Assembly, through discussion and debate. Currently the Assembly has not supported it. We need to take a step back, engage and understand why this is important to a significant section of society and understand how we can fully include gay and lesbian people.

Q Is it something you'd like to do at some point perhaps, get married in Northern Ireland?

A I would like to have the right to do that.

I think it is hurtful to say to someone that because of their sexuality they are not allowed to get married. That leaves that person feeling excluded and undervalued and is something we need to consider.

Q North Down has been caught up in the controversy surrounding the flags protests over the past year-and-a-half. A number of your Alliance colleagues were targeted by loyalists – MP Naomi Long received a death threat, homes and offices were attacked. Were you fearful at that time?

A I was concerned around my own safety, yes, and the safety of my colleagues. I was also concerned about the need to uphold the law and democracy. There were comments circulated on social media in relation to my sexuality and in relation to me being an Alliance member. There was talk of protests and I found it regrettable that for some peculiar reason people would want to unite my party membership with my sexuality as some sort of reason to have a protest.

Q Homophobic abuse was directed at you over the decision to lower the flag at City Hall?

A I was referred to as a gay campaigner. It was a slight against me. The issue for me is that if Northern Ireland is to move forward there is a basis on which we have to do that, upholding the rule of law and democracy. I'm thankful the levels of street disturbances has dropped in relation to the decision taken at City Hall.

Q With hindsight and given the outcry the move caused, was the decision taken over the flying of the Union flag at City Hall the correct one? Do you stand by it?

A I'm fully supportive of that. It's a balanced position which recognises Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom and the Union flag as our sovereign emblem.

But also we are living in a divided society and we have got to balance that. It was the correct decision and I strongly support my colleagues on Belfast City Council for taking that decision. It was regrettable others did not replicate that.

We need calm thoughts not people exploiting that for political reasons.

Q What did you make of Anna Lo's comments regarding a united Ireland recently? Are they damaging to your party?

A Anna Lo represents her own personal opinion in regard to that. We as the Alliance party are strengthened by the fact we can include people from different backgrounds and different opinions. As Anna stated herself, the fundamental principle is one of consent and that's something the party believes that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority so wish.

I don't wake up every morning and neither does Anna focused on that issue. We're focused on building a united Northern Ireland.

Q You became a councillor in North Down in 2010, a relative latecomer. What brought you into politics?

A I was attracted to politics since I was a child. Maybe it was a desire to be try to improve things for everyone and that is something I take great satisfaction from, trying to make Northern Ireland a great place for everyone to live and work. It's a great honour and privilege for which I'm grateful.

Q Why did you join the Alliance Party?

A I look at Northern Ireland and I see a place very strong and vibrant. I also see quite a lot of division and prejudice. We need to tackle that. I see other regions across Europe and see them as inclusive and as a result, prosperous.

I feel we should be able to do that and I see Alliance as the only vehicle for that because it recognises the key issues, the founding principles of the party are to tackle those issues.

We can't build a stronger economy without dealing with those issues and I feel at home with the Alliance Party.

Q You were the first mayor of North Down to attend a GAA function.

A I've had great delight in welcoming both the GAA and Orange Order in my time as mayor.

It's about showing leadership that through practical and positive actions we can change.

You have a civic responsibility to do that and you are there to represent the entire borough. Anywhere in the world that is inclusive and accepting are prosperous because people want to invest, they want to be there.

I think my election as mayor has shown there are no glass ceilings in politics now.

Q When you became mayor you spoke of wanting to create a legacy of inclusiveness and diversity, have you achieved that?

A Hopefully I've redefined the role of mayor and what it's about. It should be about civic leadership and rising above the old politics.

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