Ulster says no, only this time it's to basic human rights for gay people
IT will have surprised nobody to learn last week that Ian Paisley, Jr is "repulsed" by gays and lesbians, "hates what they do" and feels that they "harm society" just by going about their daily lives. The interview he gave to Hot Press was pretty standard stuff from a man who possibly pips Vladimir Putin and Poland's Kaczynski brothers for the mantle of Europe's most homophobic politician.
In the past, most people would have just rolled their eyes and regarded Paisley's outburst as his usual paranoid grandstanding (can you think of another public figure who continually feels the need to point out how straight they are?) and a play to the substantial Ulster constituency that doubts the theory of evolution and thinks that sporting events shouldn't be held on a Sunday. But now that he's a junior minister and, in theory, has some responsibility for equality legislation in the North, his rant is viewed in a different light, hence the calls for an apology. Last week, IPJ's rhetoric was variously denounced as "outrageous", "irresponsible" and "totally out of touch".
IPJ might be many things, but out of touch he most certainly is not. In fact, on the issue of gay rights he has his finger very much on Northern Ireland's pulse. Ulster may have had gay marriage forced down its throat by Westminster, but life there is still grim for gay people. The pride parade which passes peacefully through the streets of Dublin each year is picketed in Belfast. Being 'out' is still a taboo there, even amongst the well-educated professional classes, and statistics for attacks against gay people completely dwarf the figures for the Republic. The situation is not much better in Derry than in Belfast. If you are gay and live anywhere in Northern Ireland, you are more than 30 times more likely to kill yourself than if you are straight.
The situation at a political level is just as bad. In 1971, Ian Paisley founded the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign and has kept up a vocal anti-gay-rights policy ever since. There are still no openly gay representatives in public life in the North, and it's little wonder, given the reception that greeted David Trimble's adviser, Stephen King, when he married his partner a few years back. Merely having a gay adviser was seen to have politically damaged Trimble. Two years ago, the party suspended one of its election candidates, Paul Berry, after reports that he had met a male masseur. Every piece of pro-gay legislation that successive Labour governments have tried to introduce over the years has been fought tooth and nail by the DUP. When Westminster tried to bring in anti-homophobic legislation earlier this year, the party actually formed an unlikely alliance with radical Muslims and conservative Catholics to try to bring down the proposed laws. Direct rule might have been a bad thing for the economy of the six counties, but London for many years served as a ballast for gay people against the DUP's bigotry.
That Northern Ireland's culture of homophobia is more fully on display recently is a function of two things. Firstly, the gradual liberalisation seen elsewhere in the last 30 years has placed the province out of step with the the rest of Europe, meaning that the unionist brand of bigotry seems more anachronistic than ever. Everything seems to move slowly in the North.
Secondly, the peace process, which for so long served as a smokescreen for the other problems, has recently tapered to something of a conclusion, meaning that the full extent of the province's rot could be laid bare. A ferocious popular hatred of minorities, particularly gay people, had been festering for generations beneath the old Catholic-Protestant conflict. According to a recent MORI survey, the glut of homophobia in the North is to be found in the "Protestant Evangelical community".
The similarities between the DUP's treatment of gay people now and the treatment of Catholics in the Sixties are striking. As in the era of gerrymandering, it now attempts to aggressively deny basic civil rights to a minority. Just as it did during the campaign for civil rights in the North, the party leadership incites hate crimes against this minority and then takes no responsibility for the consequent violence. The Parades commission, invented to defuse the summertime Orange-Green tensions, is now used by the party to try to stop the Pride parade. And just as they have always done, the Paisleys and their cronies continually claim that in trying to stop some people from going about their daily lives, they are somehow doing God's work.
In these parallels there is, however, a tiny glimmer of hope. If the Steptoe and son of Ulster politics can finally sit in a cabinet with Sinn Fein, then maybe it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that they can also one day conquer their homophobic paranoia. We live in hope.