Stephen Donnan-Dalzell is a writer, campaigner and LGBT+ activist, from Belfast.
This week, in a socially distanced interview, I spoke to him about COVID-19, politics in the North and South of Ireland, LGBT+ rights, and much more!
MH: Stephen, thanks for doing this interview.
SD: No worries.
MH: So, let’s start with what’s affecting the lives of just about every human being on the planet right now, COVID-19, how’s it changed things for you?
SD: Well it’s meant that I’ve had to re-evaluate what I spend my time on and it’s made me realise that I need to be more aware of what I control, for my own mental health. The panic and anxiety that I feel because of the sheer horror of everything that’s happening can be quite overwhelming but I’m very grateful that I still have a job to go to.
MH: The mental health issues this situation is causing/likely will cause is a big concern, isn’t it? I don’t hear much talk of it though from governments/medical professionals.
SD: Well everyone is focused on flattening the curve, and trying to ensure that the critical facilities of the NHS aren’t overwhelmed with Coronavirus patients and that’s the immediate focus. The problem will be that social isolation and distancing will be incredibly hard for people who’ve never had to do that before, and are used to a routine. Having to adapt to a completely different way of working and living and being separated from their support networks. It’ll be very difficult for them to adapt and to go back to normal.
MH: Absolutely. And we know that, before all of this, mental health services and support groups were under-resourced and over stretched. What’s the situation going to be like during and after this crisis?
SD: Honestly, I don’t know and that’s the scary thing. People will be suffering massively in isolation and also with the inability to get on with their lives. I think we’ll see a wave of poor mental health and unfortunately suicides after this.
MH: Indeed. The victims of this pandemic will, sadly, not just be those people unfortunate enough to lose their lives to the virus itself. There’ll be economic victims and people who suffer due to mental health challenges as a result. What do you make fo the UK government’s handling of the situation?
SD: I’m not a scientist of an epidemiologist but I think we made a critical error in not enacting a lockdown sooner. The evidence from Spain, Italy and China that herd immunity doesn’t work, that it would be an unmanageable disaster and the Government didn’t listen. I’ve always considered the Boris (Johnson) government to be incompetent but I think now that they’ve realised how badly they’ve handled it they’re trying their best. Had they not underfunded the NHS for a decade and still been in the EU maybe we would be better prepared.
MH: I think there may well need to be some kind of inquiry looking into the response once this is all over. What about the response of the five party Northern Ireland executive?
SD: The amount of politics being played is just ridiculous. At a time when we need to have a united front we have government spokespersons briefing against the performance of one of their own ministers. The focus needs to be on saving lives and not winning votes.
MH: I believe (deputy first minister) Michelle O’Neill (of Sinn Fein) has in effect said her own administration’s Health Minister (Robin Swann, Ulster Unionist) is not up to the job?
SD: I think she said something to that effect but it was walked back rapidly.
MH: I appreciate it’s (made up of) five different parties, but it’s one Executive. And, surely, disagreements should be aired and sorted out behind closed doors?
SD: They should but, unfortunately, I don’t think the parties are able to see that, even at a time of global emergency. It’s incredibly disappointing.
MH: Looking beyond COVID-19, how would you rate the fledgling executive?
SD: They’ve only just started and the pandemic has halted any legislative plans and they had so I’ll reserve judgement until this is all over.
MH: Fair enough. What’s on top of the To Do list, once this is all over?
SD: Mental health and poverty. These two are interlinked demonstrably. We have serious and severe deprivation in Northern Ireland and mental health is a byproduct of that. A country that can’t feed its people is a failed state.
MH: And do you think this executive can deliver on changing that?
SD: They have no other choice. We’ve had three years of de facto direct role from an indifferent and, at worst, vindictive Westminster government. We can’t go back to that or devolution is dead.
MH: You’re a former member of Alliance (liberal, cross-community party in N.I.) It must be good to see Naomi Long in Ministerial office. Quite a year she’s had.
SD: It is. Naomi is a friend first and foremost and it’s great to see her take up the Justice portfolio. I was incredibly proud of her when she was elected to the European Parliament and I was sad to see her leave due to Brexit but I have no doubt that she will continue to advocate for stronger ties between N.I. and the E.U. in the future. Naomi is a formidable political operator who genuinely cares about people, and she’s always been a great friend to me.
MH: As you know, I think you’d be amazing in elected office. You have a loving heart for the least, the last and the lost. I know it’s far from the only way to affect change, but do you think you’ll stand one day?
SD: Haha, that is very kind of you but I’ve been there and done that. I think my passion lies in community development, lobbying and campaigning rather than in the chamber of a legislature but you never know! I would need to be sure that I had the mental fortitude to do it because the last time I did it I was burned out. I was naive about the commitment it involved, mentally and physically as well as emotionally but I was very proud to do it and if I was ever asked again I would definitely have to consider whether I was the right person for the job.
MH; You do such amazing work, Stephen. Please share a description with my readers.
SD: Thank you Mathew. So I’m a counsellor but I work in a homeless hostel with people who have mental health issues, addictions and social problems. It’s a real privilege. I’m also a writer and I like to talk about mental health, poverty, politics etc.
MH: Firstly, can I thank you for your service, especially at this time…and ask you what the levels of need are for the services your organisation provides?
SD: Thank you Mathew, I really love my job. A lot of the services we work with have had to significantly scale back their service delivery or have had to close altogether. That being said the initiatives being set up by community groups is incredible.
MH: Yes, at a time like this we really see the best of what communities can be. You mention your writing, Stephen. You’ve been published numerous times in a diversity of publications. Tell us about that.
SD: I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to have my writing published because it’s not easy to get that platform and I’m blessed to have been given so many opportunities. I’ve written for PunkOut (now defunct), Hornet, Elle magazine in Ireland, as well as GCN and GNI Magazine about LGBT Rights issues in Northern Ireland and further afield. I’ve also been published in the i paper, Prospect and Dazed about LGBT Rights issues and political coverage. It’s been an absolute pleasure and rather surreal. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and whilst I don’t make a living from it, I love it and it’s very rare that you get to say you able to make a little bit of money from your passion.
MH: Definitely. You mention LGBT+ issues, about which you’ve written so much. Obviously we saw the change in legislation in Northern Ireland to legalise Same Sex Marriage, which is fantastic, but is there still much opposition on the ground about this?
SD: Not really to be honest. There was never a lot of opposition outside of the churches and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party,) The public were largely behind us and opinion polling demonstrated that time and again. What we need to focus on now is the delivery of trans rights, more robust action to stop homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools and allowing trans and non-binary people to self-identify. We also have miles to go on things like access to healthcare, battling the stigma of HIV, and removing the ban on blood donations completely.
MH: The level of transphobia, on social media and traditional media never fails to shock me. We need to call it out when we see it. Is there more we can do beyond that?
SD: Promoting the services that Trans people can access, calling for services to train their staff to properly support trans clients, and talking to our friends and neighbours and family about trans people we know and look up to so that we can break down those barriers for our trans and non-binary friends.
MH: Re the ban on sexually active gay men donating blood, it saddens me that this deeply discriminatory rule wasn’t got rid of years ago. It’s nonsensical.
SD: It’s nonsense and it’s not supported by science. It’s based on prejudice and stigma and the AIDS boogeymonster. It’s a hangover from reactionary health policies adopted in the mid 1980s.
MH: It is indeed. There’s still a lot of need for LGBT+ charities and services, yet many are finding it hard to survive (even before this current crisis), do you think governments (UK, devolved and local) recognise this?
SD: No, I don’t think there is enough support given to LGBT organisations or charities from central or local government. It’s just not happening and it’s not good enough. Services are dependant on the donations from the public as well as grants and other revenue streams to support the most vulnerable people within our community. Government needs to step up and have a ring-fenced fund for LGBT initiatives as well as other minorities.
MH: I absolutely agree. Leicester Pride (my local Pride event) is always one of my favourite days of the year. As I’m sure Belfast Pride is for you. Though still months away, they’re unlikely to be taking place. Do you think there’s any likelihood for virtual/online Pride events? To help cheer us all up and provide that crucial representation/visibility, which is so important.
SD: I’m not sure as it would be difficult to work out the logistics but the most important thing is keeping everyone safe. An online pride festival would certainly be interesting and I suspect that many cities and towns will be adopting new ways of delivering pride events.
MH: Just a final couple of questions, on the political situation in the Irish Republic. He may be now a caretaker Pm, but Leo Varadkar appears to be dealing with COVID-19 in a way which other governments may envy and, indeed, is going to be practising as a GP (his former profession) one day a week to help out in these exceptional times. Quite a balancing act for someone not given a vote of confidence by voters in the recent election, no?
SD: I mean it’s rather extraordinary and I think they have played a blinder. People are forgetting about the election results and its likely that this will translate as a boost for any future government with Leo at the helm. That being said the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition which looks to be entering government soon will be the most right-wing government that Ireland has seen for a long time. I have serious doubts whether it will deliver any real change, and whether the next Dail election will see Sinn Fein win a majority outright. People are angry at the homeless and housing problems, the state of the health services, of the price of rents, of the constant increases in rates etc. Leo back as Taoiseach will be a slap in the face to those voters.
MH: Isn’t the likelihood that he will be back in government, but as Deputy PM?
SD: I don’t think so. I think, if anything, he’ll remain as Taoiseach but possibly only for another year or so. I think Leo wants his legacy to be how Ireland managed Brexit. He won’t want to go until that’s dealt with.
MH: Irish Labour has a new leader, the colourful Alan Kelly, following the party going backwards again in the election,,,yet, in theory at least, they could find themselves back in government. Mr Kelly once said ‘power is a drug.’ Will he be strong enough to resist it?
SD: I’ll be honest, he’s not who I would have picked for leader. I would have loved to see Aodhan O Riordain as leader of Irish Labour. They gained nothing but electoral oblivion when they went into coalition with Fine Gail a few years ago, and they haven’t recovered from that. The left wing surge that saw Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats and the Greens gain seats didn’t reach Irish Labour and I don’t see how Alan Kelly, or any leader for that matter, will be able to rebuild for quite some time.
MH: What’s most likely then an FF/FG/Greens administration?
SD: I think Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will have an agreement to form a minority government but with confidence and supply arrangements with the Greens and Irish Labour. But I can’t see it lasting. The Greens would be foolish to enter government with both or either of those parties.
MH: Well, Stephen, it’s been a delight to interview you once again. You are a total star and one of the nicest blokes I know. Stay sage and well. Best wishes.
SD: Thank you so much, Mathew. It’s been a pleasure.