PinkNews.co.uk’s Tony Grew provides some background on today’s debate in the House of Lords on the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
Northern Ireland is a religious place, probably the most devout part of the UK. Church attendance is high, for both Protestants and Catholics. It is also a place used to bigotry.
Those two aspects of Northern Irish society have come together over the new regulations that outlaw discrimination against LGBT people when trying to access services.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended, and the province is ruled directly from London. This means that the locally-elected politicians, still overwhelmingly divided along sectarian lines, have no actual control over anything that happens in the province.
As the Northern Irish people cannot rule themselves, the Northern Ireland Office in London imposes legislation, often through a process called ‘order-in-council.’
These legal instruments are not debated on the floor of the House of Commons, but merely drafted by the government and then read out to the Queen during a meeting of the privy council. Her Majesty gives her assent verbally, and the order becomes law.
Unionist politicians argue that the British government is acting undemocratically, and that they should wait until after new elections in Northern Ireland later this year have established a new Assembly before attempting to bring forward the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
Secretary of State Peter Hain, mindful that the Unionists would probably never vote for the Sexual Orientation Regulations, used his powers to impose the regulations on Northern Ireland.
Protestant politicians protested, and Democratic Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson even secured a debate last month in the ‘shadow Assembly’ currently sitting in Belfast. The vote was a dead heat, and totally irrelevant.
It gave Donaldson and the others a good opportunity, though, to press their religious credentials.
“If a teacher teaches orthodox Christian belief that homosexual practice is sinful, then a pupil who self-identifies as being gay could make a claim for harassment, claiming it has had the effect of violating their dignity or of creating an intimidatory, humiliating or offensive environment,” he told Assembly members.
“Is that the sort of situation we want to place our teachers in today in Northern Ireland?”
It is notable that both main Catholic or Nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, are broadly in favour of the SOR.
The Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church, and other Christian groups in Ireland, such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians and of course members of Ian Paisley’s own sect, the Free Presbyterians, all oppose protection from discrimination for LGBT people.
Christian groups in the province are trying other methods to overturn the regulations.
They have been granted a hearing at Belfast’s High Court, after claiming that the consultation process about the SOR was too short.
DUP peer Lord Morrow secured today’s debate in the House of Lords, calling on the Queen to rescind the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
Lord Morrow, 68, is one of three DUP members of the House of Lords ennobled in April 2006. The wife of party leader Ian Paisley was also made a peer.
Their appointments, a first for the party, reflect the fact that the DUP are now the largest political party in Northern Ireland.
The party took 30.5% of the vote in the 2003 elections for the Assembly, beating the more traditional Unionist party, the UUP, into third place behind Sinn Fein.
An estate agent by profession, Lord Morrow is a member of the current, suspended, Northern Ireland Assembly, representing Fermanagh South Tyrone. He held the post of Social Development Minister in the devolved Northern Ireland government from July 2000 until October 2001.
The DUP have a long history of opposing LGBT rights. In 1977, Ian Paisley launched the “Save Ulster From Sodomy” campaign in an attempt to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the province, which eventually happened in 1982.
Numerous DUP officials have been accused of homophobia.
Maurice Mills is a typical example. A councillor in Ballymena, he claimed in April 2006 that Hurricane Katrina was a judgement from God.
“The media failed to report that the hurricane occurred just two days prior to the annual homosexual event called the Southern Decadence Festival, which the previous year had attracted an estimated 125,000 people,” he said.
“Surely, this is a warning to nations where such wickedness is increasingly promoted and practiced. This abominable and filthy practice and sodomy has resulted in the great continent of Africa being riddled with AIDS, all at great cost to the nations and innocent children.”
Members of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church have a yearly appointment at Belfast’s Pride celebrations, to, in the words of the Rev David McIlveen, take on the “responsibility” to point out that “flaunting their sexuality” is deemed “unacceptable and contrary to the teaching of the Bible.”
It is not so difficult to understand the concerns of Secretary of State Peter Hain that if he delayed the introduction of the Sexual Orientation Regulations they would be killed off by the DUP in the Assembly.
The DUP now have a chance to raise the issue in the House of Lords.
As Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill commented to PinkNews.co.uk about the outcome of the debate, “Trying to predict what will happen in the House of Lords is like trying to predict the British weather.”
Leading Tory peer and former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, wrote in The Daily Telegraph today about his concerns that the regulations discriminate against religious people.
Perhaps other Conservative members of the House of Lords – there are 208 of them – will take this opportunity to speak out against gay rights.
For all his PR smoothness and his pride at having voted for civil partnerships, it is the homophobes in his own party that David Cameron has to win over to convince LGBT voters that the Tories have really changed.
As for the DUP, they are almost certain to be defeated in the Lords this evening. For their core voters back home in Belfast, speaking the language of bigotry and homophobia will only serve to increase their loyalty to the party.
In wrapping themselves in the flag of religious intolerance, they are continuing a tried and tested vote-winning strategy.