Alliance Party Leader David Ford has backed proposed equality protections laws in Northern Ireland and has hit out at the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for whipping up unfounded fears to discriminate against gay people.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson had called for a debate asking for the law to be delayed by the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, as in the rest of the UK, for further consultation, claiming the regulations will inhibit religious rights.

The Assembly was tied yesterday on the issue.

Mr Ford accused the DUP of stirring up homophobia, he said: “Alliance strongly supports these regulations. It is sad that over-exaggerated fears are being whipped up by the DUP.

“There is a real danger that the views that they are expressing will whip up homophobia. The days of discrimination must be over and these new laws will ensure this.

The Sexual Orientation Regulations, which protect the LGBT community from discrimination in the provision of goods and services, is due to be introduced in Northern Ireland in January and the rest of the UK in April 2007.

Mr Ford added, “The laws which exist today cover elements of discrimination against homosexuals, but they still provide less protection against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation than on other grounds.

“We need a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland and that means equal rights for everyone from all backgrounds.

“Religious groups are provided with adequate exemptions within this legislation to ensure their own rights.

“Homophobic violence and bullying is a serious problem in this society and we will do all in our power to stop this type of intimidating behaviour.

“It is absolutely essential that every citizen has full access to goods and services. We will oppose every form of discrimination and safeguard the rights of everyone in Northern Ireland.”

In Northern Ireland there is confusion as to the extent of the tough new regulations, with Christian groups claiming that gays will be allowed to harass Christians about their beliefs but gays will have legal protection from harassment.

The Sinn Fein Party is also in favour of the laws.

The Christian Institute, a charity notorious for its opposition to gay rights, has said it is considering asking for a judicial review of the new regulations.