Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Scottish same-sex marriage law highlights how different we are in Northern Ireland

Members of the Scottish Parliament celebrating the passing of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill this evening which will allow same-sex couples to marry.
Members of the Scottish Parliament celebrating the passing of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill this evening which will allow same-sex couples to marry.
DUP MLA for Strangford Jonathan BellDUP MLA for Strangford Jonathan Bell

The decision of the Scottish parliament to legalise same-sex marriage should be a major wake-up call for Northern Ireland.

It is only a year ago that Jonathan Bell of the DUP could appear on TV repeating a mantra that "there is no such thing as same-sex marriage" in answer to questions about the subject.

Like many in Northern Ireland churches and at Stormont, he is, or was then, in denial about the fact that marriage is changing and becoming more inclusive across the civilised world.

The shock among some evangelical Protestants and presumably traditionalist Catholics, too, was palpable.

"Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill passes by 105 votes in favour, with 18 against and no abstentions. Lord have mercy upon us!" one person posted on the Facebook page of the Caleb Foundation, a biblical fundamentalist pressure group.

The sheer weight of feeling in favour of the change in Scotland was the most shocking thing for the poster, who seemed to throw up his hands in horror at the very idea. It is a sign of Northern Ireland's growing isolation from the part of the UK to which loyalists feel most cultural and ethnic affinity.

Ulster is becoming a place apart – and not in a good way. When devolution was introduced, there were predictions that we would be seen as a model of conflict resolution, visited by the rest of the world for lessons in tolerance and accommodation.

Instead, we are emerging as a weird sort of place, which is moving away from other societies we might feel close to at a rate of knots.

In England, Tory MPs are getting deselected for being opposed to homosexual law reform. In the Republic, which a generation ago was derided as a priest-ridden society by many unionists, polls show 75% support for extending marriage rights to same-sex couples and a constitutional convention is expected next year. It will have government backing, in spite of a few jitters on the Right wing of Fine Gael.

Jackson Carlaw, a west of Scotland Conservative, summed up the feeling of relief and celebration that many feel at the vote in Scotland.

"There has been huge change in my lifetime from the brutal atmosphere in which gay people had to live when I was a teenager and young man, when gay people felt that they had to strangle their sexuality. I know some of those people – I am in the Tory party, after all," he told the Scottish parliament, to laughter and applause.

Will we ever hear the same sentiments being expressed at Stormont, except that the speaker will finish with the words "I am in the DUP, after all"?

There is no doubt that some DUP members and supporters, like any other large social group, are gay. One prominent DUP member told me that he knew homosexuals who remain celibate, suggesting that was the least-damaging course.

Yet we now know that treating sexual orientation as a cross you have to bear is deeply damaging, both socially and personally.

It leads to situations in which people can be blackmailed and in which depression and self-harming become more common.

Recent research in both Canada and New Zealand shows that the mental health of gay youngsters improves markedly if they are open about their sexuality.

This is a subject on which we need, as a society, to move beyond rhetoric.

The fact is that our long rearguard action against homosexual law reform has left us the odd ones out in the developed world, more like Russia, or the Congo, than Britain, or Ireland.

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