Today, The Rainbow Project welcomed Health Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA and newly-appointed Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, Cllr Mary Ellen Campbell to the Belfast LGBT Centre.

This was the first time that a sitting minister had visited the LGBT Centre and we were delighted that this was where the Health Minister declared an end to the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.

The Health Minister said the new policy on blood donations will come into affect on September 1.

At present in Northern Ireland, any man who has had sex with another man is banned from giving blood permanently.

A ban on gay men donating blood was brought in across the UK during the 1980s AIDS crisis.

A ban was lifted 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.

Sinn Fein’s Mrs O’Neill took over the health portfolio last week and the decision on the blood ban is the first major announcement of her tenure.

Announcing the move at the Rainbow Project, Mrs O’Neill said substantial new evidence showed the risk of contracting HIV from donated blood is lower with a one-year deferral than with a lifetime ban.

“My first responsibility in this matter is patient safety,” she said

“Evidence from across the UK has provided assurance that the risk is lower with a one-year deferral.

“My decision is based solely on the evidence regarding the safety of donated blood.

“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.

“I will instruct the NI Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) accordingly. To allow NIBTS adequate preparation time, the new policy will come into effect on September 1 2016.”

“I am delighted to meet with The Rainbow Project today to say I can lift the lifetime ban. Experts say that it is safe, and I am also delighted that the Executive backs me in this announcement.”

Speaking after the Minister’s announcement, John O’Doherty, Director of The Rainbow Project said:

‘We are delighted to welcome Minister O’Neill and Deputy Lord Mayor Campbell to the Belfast LGBT Centre today. From this centre, The Rainbow Project delivers counselling, sexual health testing and a range of other vital services for our community and so we are immensely proud that this is where the Minister made the announcement that she would be scrapping the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. The Rainbow Project has been campaigning on this issue for over a decade and it is fantastic to finally see this unnecessary ban removed.

‘We are particularly gratified that Minister O’Neill made this announcement only eight days after being appointed, demonstrating her commitment to prioritising issues affecting LGB&T people in Northern Ireland. We hope to continue our positive engagements with Minister O’Neill over the coming months and years.’