The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley, is under pressure from a Unionist MEP to repeal legislation protecting gay people in the province from discrimination.
The Sexual Orientation Regulations, which were imposed by then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain before self-government resumed, outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation when accessing goods and services.
Their introduction was extremely controversial.
In January a member of Mr Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party tried to block them in the House of Lords.
Mr Paisley himself joined protesters outside the Lords, saying: “Are we really Christians and will we stand up for Jesus? We’re here to say that we’re on the Lord’s side.”
In the 1970s the First Minister spearheaded a campaign against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, “Save Ulster From Sodomy,” and as recently as 2005 he led opposition to civil partnerships
Since taking office in a joint administration with nationalist party Sinn Fein in May the DUP has muted their stance on gay rights.
Unionist MEP Jim Allister, who resigned from the DUP in protest at the decision to go into government with Sinn Fein, has challenged Mr Paisley to state publicly that he will move to rescind the SORs.
In an exchange of letters seen by the News Letter, Mr Allister was told by the First Minister that because of an ongoing judicial review of the SORs at the High Court in Belfast, he could not comment.
Mr Allister replied:
“I am in receipt of your belated and pitiful reply of July 30, 2007 to my letter of May 8, 2007 in respect of the above regulations.
“I did not ask you to comment in any way upon the current judicial review.
“Thus, hiding behind it as a means of avoiding dealing with my correspondence is transparently pathetic and a mere device to avoid the issues raised with you. I really did expect better.
“I note that the same judicial review did not impede your deputy from lauding the said regulations at a gay pride event in Londonderry, as reflected on the website of your office.
“How can this judicial review impede you from answering my letter, but not hinder your deputy in promoting this obnoxious legislation?”
The Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, launched Derry Pride last week and welcomed the progress the province has made toward equal rights for LGBT people.
A coalition of Christian churches and charities sought the judicial review and in June Mr Justice Weatherup said it would take him “some time” to come to a judgement.
Mr Paisley was dismissive of Mr Allister’s comments. He told the News Letter:
“It would be more productive if Allister concentrated on his European portfolio and agriculture matters, and perhaps he could play some small role in assisting the Executive in our endeavours.
“Allister appears to gain great enjoyment from proclaiming that the First Minister operates as part of a joint office, yet on the very next breath demands I act unilaterally.
“Despite all his bluster, he is choosing regularly to write to the Deputy First Minister.
“It doesn’t take long for people to see through his hypocrisy and the childish games he is trying to play.
“He is well aware that I am opposed to these regulations and that I have no difficulty in speaking out on this issue. Indeed I have already voted against them.”
In an interview with PinkNews.co.uk during his bid for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Peter Hain, who imposed the SORs on Northern Ireland, assured gay people in the province that their rights would not be reduced under the current coalition government.
“Because of cross-community voting you couldn’t make a change to unravel or repeal the legislation I introduced on goods and services,” he said.
“I think there is a great respect for the law among members of the DUP, whether they approve of it or not, and I don’t think you will find there is any attempt to unravel it.
“And if there were, in the way that the devolved government acted administratively or in terms of resources, it will be challengeable in the courts, and the courts would find against the government so that means its not going to happen.
“The gay community can feel quite comfortable in that.”
Alan Wardle, head of public and parliamentary affairs at gay equality organisation Stonewall, told PinkNews.co.uk:
“To get rid of this legislation needs cross-community support – we have been very heartened by the continued support of Sinn Fein.
“They have been quite stalwart in their support of lesbian and gay rights.
“We hope these bigoted calls to scrap the Sexual Orientation Regulations will not come to anything.”