Loyalism and a stance against marriage equality have become dangerously conflated in the negotiations for a new power-sharing agreement in the North, says Rob Buchanan
With Northern Ireland’s power-sharing agreement paused until June 29, same-sex marriage has become a make or break negotiation issue. With an announcement of another election trigering a postponement for the agreement, the DUP said Sinn Féin’s demands for marriage equality continue to be non-negotiable. There have even been threats from leading DUP MLAs, saying they will split from the party if concessions on same-sex marriage are made or discussed.
Is the DUP exploiting this hot topic in order to win additional concessions from Sinn Féin in a trade off? Or could this be distraction from the numerous scandals surrounding the DUP and mismanagement of public funds, which have dogged the headlines of late?
Such questions aside, it appears that LGBT rights in general, and marriage equality in particular, are incompatible with many DUP members’ deeply held Free Presbyterian and evangelical Protestant beliefs. Former DUP minister Jim Wells is extremely vocal on the subject. Labelling Sinn Féin’s call for marriage equality a “red line,” he said: “Peter will not marry Paul in Northern Ireland. We will strangle that idea at birth if that’s what it’s going to bring.”
Even more offensively, in terms of sheer audacity, current DUP leader Arlene Foster claims that gay people don’t really want to get married anyway. Within the DUP it seems MLAs are trying to reframe the deadlock, saying nationalists using the gays as political pawns.
The main tool the DUP uses to veto same-sex marriage laws is called a ‘petition of concern’, a vetoing power granted to both sides as part of the power-sharing agreements in the peace process. However, even though the DUP party line is anti-marriage equality, the fact is that the Northern Ireland Assembly already boasts a majority support for it.
After this year’s first election in March, the DUP, with only 28 MLAs, could no longer block the assembly on its own, but it remains to be seen if this will continue to be the case after the UK’s early general election on June 8, called by Prime Minister Teresa May.
Whether or not you believe the DUP and SF are using gay rights as a cynical political football, what’s indisputable is that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without marriage equality. It’s an atavistic embarrassment and another example of how, despite so much progress, the bad old days of civil inequality in Northern Ireland could easily roll back.
Perhaps the DUP is also concerned that if Sinn Féin gets its proposed civil forum off the ground, it could have the same effect as similar forums in the Republic, which paved the way for the Marriage Equality referendum. And then what other progressive ideas might take root in the longtime sectarian blighted society?
As I previously wrote in my piece on homophobia in Northern Ireland, the situation of gay rights in the North is unique. Nationalists broadly support and campaign on behalf of LGBT folk and there is a thriving scene in Belfast, which is refreshingly non-sectarian. It is a model for how societies can come together, blending over the bond of being LGBT, yet homophobic hate crimes in the North are disproportionally high. With unionists (in the form of the DUP) attempting to couple anti-marriage equality attitudes with loyalism, there is a huge potential for more of that homophobia to play out, in the streets and institutionally.