Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Northern Ireland is a bigoted hole – and we're all to blame for it

Those who phone into radio programmes ranting about 'inhuman, filthy' gay practices might be noisy, but they are in a minority
Those who phone into radio programmes ranting about 'inhuman, filthy' gay practices might be noisy, but they are in a minority
Sarah Ewart was forced to travel to England for a termination when she found her unborn baby was suffering from a fatal foetal abnormality

We live in a bigoted, regressive hole – no gay marriage, no gay or unmarried adoption, draconian abortion laws – and it's all down to the DUP.

As the largest party, and never slow to use that electoral muscle in the most blunt and boorish way when required, they're the ones who keep squashing all attempts to inch Northern Ireland towards even the most basic, starter-kit form of equal rights for all. It's their fault. Right?

No. It's ours. The DUP's quintessential comeback line, when challenged on any of their thuggishly repressive practices – such as twice tabling petitions of concern to block votes on gay marriage in the Assembly – is that they have an electoral mandate to act as they do.

They are speaking for the people. By voting them in as the largest party, this – a benighted little statelet, left behind, nursing our prejudices, as the rest of the world goes marching on – is what the majority of people in Northern Ireland effectively choose. We give them permission to act in our name.

Which gives the DUP, and its allies, impunity to go swaggering on in their customary way, cutting a self-righteous swathe through the loving same-sex couples who just want to get hitched, the committed but unmarried heterosexual partners who would love to offer an abandoned child a home, the distressed women who find themselves pregnant as a result of rape, or discover that they are carrying a baby who doesn't have a chance of life. Sorry people. You're just not part of the new (old) Northern Ireland.

Our leaders protect us from evil outside influences, the creeping tide of secular licentiousness. Fun is dangerous, and must be avoided. So they shut the pubs early. They maintain a ban on poker. They keep our blood pure and holy: none of those abominable homosexual mud-bloods will be permitted to sully the pristine Ulster supplies (except when we run out and need extra from England, where gay men are permitted to donate blood, then it's perfectly fine).

They do it all for us. They do it because they care. They know it's what we really want.

While many of us are horrified at stories such as Sarah Ewart's – the young woman who was forced to travel to England for a termination when she found her unborn baby was suffering from a fatal foetal abnormality – and sympathise deeply, we did nothing to help her, or those like her.

In fact, we acted against her. Surveys repeatedly show that most people – and that will include DUP voters – support a woman's right to a termination in the case of rape, incest or severe foetal abnormality. Yet, in substantial numbers, we voted in the people who were content to send Sarah away, not just in the DUP but right throughout the other main parties.

It's a similar case with gay marriage. As the Equality Commission points out, in support of its recent call for the Assembly to take action on the issue, the 2012 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 57% of those surveyed are in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Those who phone into radio programmes ranting about "inhuman, filthy" gay practices might be noisy, but they are in a minority.

Yet again, the benign majority view of gay marriage isn't reflected in what transpires at Stormont. There is a glaring discrepancy between what we say we believe and what actually happens in government.

The sad truth is that most of those who do vote care more about maintaining tribal power than they do about protecting real equality, or reversing genuine discrimination (as opposed to the lurid, imaginary sort that haunts the polar extremes of loyalism and republicanism).

When you've got your selective sectarian goggles on, they block out all other real-life concerns.

For Northern Ireland to join the rest of the world, elections must be about more than the usual grim old carve-up. The implicit endorsement of discriminatory practices must end, but it will only do so when we start speaking up about them on the doorsteps, calling the parties to account for their actions and inactions.

More than that, we need to get out and actually vote on the issues we profess to care about. Figures show that from June 1998 to March 2011, electoral turnout fell from 70% to less than 55%. There's no point whining when we only have ourselves to blame.

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