Scott De Buitléir writes from an England that is trying to re-aquaint itself with the Democratic Unionist Party, and sees that now could be a turning point for LGBT rights in Northern Ireland.
Never let it be said that British politics is dull; if anything, recent events have given playwrights and screenwriters a plethora of ideas for years to come. Despite all the recent dramas in Westminster, and even over in Washington, the revelation that the Conservatives could form a minority government with the Democratic Unionist Party shocked and scared many, regardless of class, creed, sexual orientation, or political beliefs.
After the recent mess that was the British general election, Theresa May is now desperate to retain power as Prime Minister, keeping the Conservatives in power for the next few years and – of course – the upcoming Brexit talks with the EU.
Her only option is to take advantage of the fact that the DUP returned 10 seats in the election, as no other party was either able or willing to give her the required number needed for a majority in the House of Commons (Sinn Féin, of course, would never take their seats at Westminster, let alone support the Tories in a coalition).
The prospect of this partnership is music to the DUP’s ears, who are currently revelling in the fact that their party – rarely seen as more than a regional party within the halls of Westminster – has now taken centre-stage in British politics.
Google Trends noted that searches about who the DUP are shot up by 26%, following the news breaking about the DUP being potential coalition partners, proving that until recently, many in the so-called ‘mainland’ UK knew very little about them. News media from Canada to Australia noticed the curiosity spreading beyond Britain, and published ‘explainer’ pages about the unknown Northern Irish party.
And then people learned about the DUP. They learned about their views, their Christian fundamentalism, their track record on human rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, minority rights, language rights, and more. For the sake of this piece, I’ll focus on LGBT rights, but it is definitely worth mentioning that the DUP are not infamous just because they are anti-gay (and they most certainly are; any argument to the contrary would be naive and futile). Their stance on any aspect of native Irish culture within Northern Ireland is also worth noting, but I’ll leave that for another time.
Those who knew the DUP, before this election’s aftermath, knew that the prospect of them being in power (or close enough to it) across the UK could be dangerous. The DUP’s attitude towards LGBT people has hardly warmed since the days of their ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy’ campaign, as former DUP health minister, Jim Wells, was quoted in 2015:
“The gay lobby is insatiable – they don’t know when enough is enough”.
This, of course, was in a year when the Republic of Ireland introduced marriage equality, leaving Northern Ireland as the only part of the island of Ireland, or the United Kingdom, not to have it.
The DUP’s record of bafflingly severe homophobia – as well as their other opinions – is well-documented, but while many feel uneasy over the idea of their rise to (joint) power in London, it casts a light on UK-wide LGBT issues that many would find uncomfortable.
Firstly, it shows that for a supposedly United Kingdom, a blind eye is cast over basic civil inequalities for Northern Ireland. Despite British efforts to promote inward and internal LGBT tourism, with campaigns to promote cities like Manchester, London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the entirety of Northern Ireland is omitted from the LGBT-friendly campaign. A great British pity, one might call it, as the gay scene in Belfast, including Belfast Pride, is one of the most vibrant in the UK. Belfast Pride has even claimed in the past to have been the biggest such festival on the island of Ireland, proving that the pink pound is certainly welcome in that corner of Ulster.
For Theresa May to consider the DUP as bedfellows has upset many colleagues and neighbours, and no doubt the LGBT factor plays a part here. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and engaged to a woman from County Wexford, has been quite vocal in her concerns about the DUP, most notably retweeting a speech she gave at Belfast Pride. Her distain for the DUP’s record means that, even within the Unionist community, the DUP would have a lot of work on their hands to build up a relationship with Davidson’s Scottish Conservative and Unionist MPs.
Even further south, John Major has been reported to strongly urge Theresa May against forming any alliance with the DUP, warning that such a move could upset the eternally fragile peace process in Northern Ireland, claiming that it could be seen as the British government becoming biased.
Indeed, he wasn’t the only one to have concerns for peace, as, in Ireland, the incoming Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, also warned Mrs. May that the role of both the UK and Irish governments was “to act as co-guarantors [to the Good Friday Agreement], not to be too close to any particular party in [Northern Ireland], whether it’s nationalist parties or unionist parties”. Britain’s Independent newspaper also reported that Alistair Campbell, former director of communications to Tony Blair, said that “the British and Irish governments are the mediators between the Unionists and the Nationalists. How can they be the mediator when the Unionists are now being brought into government?”
So, we have a gay Taoiseach, and a leader of the Scottish Tories, keeping a close eye on what happens next at Number 10. If the DUP end up making an official deal with Theresa May, then Northern Ireland is kept in the centre of the British public eye for the foreseeable future, reminding everyone that that corner of the UK, across the Irish Sea from Britain, is part of the sovereign state, and yet very different indeed.
That could potentially backfire in two ways against the DUP: Either social and civil liberties, including LGBT rights, would need to be brought into line with the rest of the UK, or even more liberal (and moderate) unionists turn their backs on unionism altogether, setting off new calls for Irish unification.
Either scenario would end Northern Ireland’s ‘sore thumb’ status, being alone on these isles in continuing to keep LGBT people in second place.
Maybe the DUP will be forced to move Northern Ireland forward, like their motto claims, once and for all.