I started this post a few days ago, angry about Jim Wells, angry about his comments that children with parents in a homosexual relationship are more likely to be abused and neglected, angry about the way it made me feel (devastated, frustrated, upset). I think we need to have a discussion on holding our politicians accountable.
Since then he’s resigned as Health Minister. Great, right? Not really. He hasn’t resigned because he said something totally unacceptable and out of line, something hateful and cruel, something so disturbing in its implications that it makes me feel worried and sick about the type of society we would live in if certain high profile members of the DUP had their way. He hasn’t been forced to resign, he hasn’t been dismissed. In fact, Peter Robinson very quickly came out to support his colleague after the incident. Jim has cited his sick wife as his reason for resigning. Which is fair enough. My heart goes out to her and their family, it really does. It’s a horrible thing to have a family member in hospital, to spend so much of your time waiting for news. The worry and the dread you feel when you have to be away from them, it doesn’t ever leave you. He’s cited his stress and worry as his reasons for saying what he did.
And that is what I find unacceptable, that implication that he would never say something like that under normal circumstances. That he didn’t mean it. I don’t think worry and grief resulted in him saying the things he did. I think the fact that he’s homophobic did. If worrying about his wife meant he wasn’t focusing on the debate, then that’s fine, and that’s human, and that’s completely understandable. But it also looks like not focusing on the debate resulted in him saying what he actually felt, rather than a carefully crafted lie that danced around the point without explicitly saying anything too horrendous.This is a man that blocks gay news and LGBT related sights on Twitter. A man who spat in the face (metaphorically) of gay pride organiser Simon Rea when the latter reached out to his Kilkeel office about a Belfast Pride debate.
So, can we talk about it? Can we talk about the fact that one of the largest parties in Northern Ireland is so blatantly homophobic? Can we talk about the fact that our First Minister didn’t reprimand him? Let’s talk about the DUP, and the way they would have us treat gay people in Northern Ireland. Let’s really talk about it and dissect it and let’s think about how it makes LGBT people feel about themselves and the world that they live in.
Let’s have a chat about how it makes us look to the rest of the UK, that one of the largest parties in Northern Ireland is absolutely hateful and backwards (I’m pretty sure they’re laughing at us, BTW. And that may be a good thing, because I hate to think about what they might do if they were taking us seriously).
Let’s look at the track record. DUP leader and apparently competent First Minister Peter Robinson came out quite quickly, in support of his colleague. This is the same Peter Robinson whose wife, Iris (an MP in her own right at the time) said in 2008, in parliament that homosexuals were viler than child abusers*. She used the bible to defend her stance when asked for comment, she stood by it, she didn’t apologise. Because of the bible. Just two weeks before that she had said that homosexuals should seek psychiatric help. Iris was very clear that she took everything the bible says quite seriously, she does not water it down, and does not pick and choose her beliefs depending on what suits her (I really want to stress here that Iris Robinson was very clear that her religious convictions guided her in every aspect of her life).
It wasn’t long after that that the news broke about her affair. That’s right. Adultery. Pretty sure that’s unacceptable in the bible too Iris. It’s also been revealed that she asked property developers for £50,000 for her lover’s business, I don’t think that was very Christian. It certainly wasn’t the legal way to go about it. Most importantly, I think, it highlights the need to separate church and state.
And let’s not forget Edwin Poots, a former DUP Health Minister who has actively blocked the rights of the LGBT community to donate blood. An action that the high court ruled was strongly influenced by his Christian beliefs. £40,000 of public money was spent by Poots defending that position. Edwin Poots, who doesn’t think gay couples should be allowed to adopt either. Jim Wells continues to support this, and actively campaigns against the right of gay couples to adopt.
My point here, is that it’s not surprising that Peter Robinson supported Jim Wells. Members of his party are known for making these comments, they’re never reprimanded for spouting such undisguised hatred, and this is not a recent thing. This is the DUP. Under his rule, his party have still not accepted the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and every single time marriage equality has been voted on his party have used a petition of concern to block it. Not sure what that means? It means that the majority of the Assembly could vote in favour of marriage equality, and it will mean nothing at all if just one party files a petition of concern with 30 signatures on it. It’s original intention was to protect minority communities/parties from discrimination. The DUP aren’t the only party to abuse this, it’s become somewhat of a habit in Stormont when certain parties feel they aren’t getting their way.
And then there’s the Conscience clause Bill, tabled by Paul Givan, with the full support of Peter Robinson. A bill that would give businesses the right to discriminate against people based on their religious beliefs. A bill that would essentially legalise the right to believe that there is something wrong with gay people: and to act on it. A bill that, if passed, could start us down a very slippery slope. And I can’t imagine it would stop there. What’s to stop businesses using it to discriminate against atheists? Or Muslims? Peter Robinson hasn’t exactly been kind to them either. I’m an atheist from a Catholic background myself, and it’s something I try to be honest about, when it comes up, because it took me a long time to come to it, and it was hard, and I’m not ashamed of it. But in a Northern Ireland where a freedom of conscience clause existed? I don’t know if I’d be as comfortable admitting to it in certain situations. And I shouldn’t have to feel that way. No one should.
The DUP isn’t the only horse in this race, not by a long shot. The Catholic Church fully supports the conscience clause. They run an adoption agency, and they certainly don’t want to have to treat gay couples like same sex couples, or maybe even atheists for that matter.
And this has been bothering me. Like, really really bothering me. It’s stayed with me and it pops into my head on ever more frequent occasions. The DUP want to legalise discrimination, the Catholic Church supports them. The gap between Church and state feels like it’s shrinking, and I feel strangled by it.
It wasn’t that long ago that it was pretty much legal to discriminate against people because of their religion, or the colour of their skin, or their gender. There’s a big difference, a really freaking big difference, between morals and religiously motivated morals though. At least in my mind there is. And I find this difficult to put into words because it’s a feeling in my gut. It’s the deep down knowing that some things are just wrong. That you can’t refuse to do business with someone because they happen to be attracted to people that are the same sex as them. That you can’t use their sexuality to judge them as people, as parents as customers or employees: and I do believe that’s what would happen in a Northern Ireland where the conscience clause passes.
There’s a difference between refusing service to someone because they’re abusive or racist or sectarian, and refusing service because you personally don’t agree with their lifestyle choices. I used to work in a call centre, and I once had a customer tell me that he used his child maintenance to pay for his Sky Sports subscription, and I found this utterly repugnant and morally wrong, but I certainly was in no position to refuse service. It was no business of mine how he chose to live his life. And really, it may not even had meant that he was a bad father, I only had one part of that story.
I can only imagine what it feels like to be a member of the LGBT community in Northern Ireland. I can only imagine what it’s like to know that one of the ruling parties think that there’s something wrong with you. I can only imagine how it feels to face the fact that someone is trying to make it legal for businesses to refuse to serve you. If it makes me feel angry and bleak and disenfranchised, I can only imagine how it makes members of the LGBT community feel. I’m lucky, and I shouldn’t get to be lucky in that respect, just because my sexuality falls in line with the apparent norm.
Why can’t we hold our politicians accountable for things like this? Why do we keep voting in the same parties, with the same archaic, and frankly terrifying, beliefs? Parties that couldn’t even manage their budget, to the extent that they were forced by Westminster to do so? (Parties that still accepted a pay rise, with their budget in the state that it was in) What is wrong with us, that we keep these people in power? I have Christian friends, people who are deeply religious and not so deeply religious, people who attend services every week and people who don’t, all of whom are equally dismayed and worried at the direction our politicians are taking us in.This week, the DUP has blocked marriage equality in Northern Ireland for the fourth time. Amnesty International is considering taking legal action against the Assembly.
What on earth are we doing? I know this probably sounds like a furious rant. I know it could more eloquent, well written and measured. But I am so angry. I am frustrated. I am really freaking worried. There’s an election next week, and I don’t think a damn thing is going to change. I think the same parties are going to be representing us. I think the same backwards thinking and abusive, divisive comments are going to prevail. And the absolutely terrifying part? Both the Conservative and Labour Party might be considering trying to align themselves with the DUP, in an election that is so close, and so important, a basically homophobic party that believes in creationism, the death penalty and where one member blamed Hurricane Katrina on LGBT people, could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. Are these the people we want representing us?
I don’t think we should let this define us. I don’t think that this is all we are. I think we’re so much better and tolerant and basically good than our politicians are making us out to be.
If you’re interested in reading a full breakdown of the long history to homophobia in the DUP you can find a pretty comprehensive one here.
If you’re interested in signing a petition demanding a referendum on marriage equality on Northern Ireland, go here.
And vote guys, if you’re reading this in Northern Ireland vote. Vote for a party that supports equality, vote for a party that will actually take their seats in Parliament (sorry Sinn Fein, but you lose me on that). Vote for a party that will allow us to be taken seriously by the rest of the UK.
*I mean, we could view it as progress, Jim Wells only thinks that the children of homosexuals are more likely to be abused, not that the homosexual parents themselves are viler than non-homosexual abusers.