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Why I'll Sacrifice My Place In The UK For Hope, Progress And Equality For All In Northern Ireland

08/03/2017 12:34
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The 2017 Assembly Election in Northern Ireland was needed for a number of reasons. On the surface, it was needed to right an economic scandal. But for many young people it was also needed to prompt social change. To this end, young voters like me have, for the first time, been voting above tribal lines to secure progress in Northern Ireland.

In the snap election for Northern Ireland's devolved government, many young unionists - myself included - voted nationalist for the first time in the name of equality. In a preferential vote, I voted for the Alliance Party, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, three parties without unionist agendas. As a unionist, it's unconventional that I've aligned myself with parties which do not defend Northern Ireland's union with the UK. But this is not because I've lost faith in the United Kingdom, far from it. But because I feel that unionism is now the price of progress in my country.

For many young people this election has been an opportunity to challenge the iron fist of the country's leading party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP's draconian views on same-sex marriage, abortion rights and as Eurosceptics has pitted them firmly against the tide of young opinion. However, as the DUP are strongest arm of unionism in Northern Ireland, many voters have been forced to make a choice between their position as unionists (to an extent a question of nationality) and their desire for social progress. For me, it has to be the latter.

Equal marriage is the core issue for many of us. The DUP have for years acted as an obstruction to equal marriage through the use of the Petition of Concern - a political veto. The Petition of Concern can be used to block policies when it has a backing of at least 30 MLAs and has been used consistently by the DUP to reject equal marriage in Northern Ireland.

But the results of this election marks a significant development. After seismic losses for the DUP, they now occupy only 28 seats in the assembly - ten seats less than before and two below the requirement for the Petition of Concern. This means they no longer hold the sole power to veto same-sex marriage. Their strength as a unionist party has been weakened and the door is now open for a much more equal and progressive society.

For me, I will always defend Northern Ireland's union with the UK. I do not take for granted my access to the NHS nor the incredible development opportunities available for British young people, such as DFID's International Citizen Service. I believe Northern Ireland's youth are stronger in the UK and I will always, at heart, be a unionist.

But I am also pro-equality, progress and a human rights advocate. For too long Northern Ireland has suffered under the heavy hand of social conservatism, becoming a dark spot for inequality surrounded by countries who have taken those important steps forward. I believe now is the time for change. But while the unionist leaders of Northern Ireland reject equality, then I feel the price of this change must be unionism.

The ballot boxes are empty, the votes have been counted and our voices have been heard. Young voters have weakened the DUP's version of unionism to create one of a different kind. For a union of love, communities and social progress. And that's the future we need in Northern Ireland.

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