A prominent DUP woman has broken ranks with her council colleagues to condemn the banning of a play about the Bible from a Newtownabbey theatre.
Alderman Dineen Walker, deputy mayor of Newtownabbey, told the Belfast Telegraph she intends to vote to overturn a decision on the Reduced Shakespeare Company play her party colleagues branded as blasphemous and an attack on Christianity.
Ms Walker said it was not the job of councillors to censor art. While she has no interest in seeing The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged) production which was to play two nights at the Theatre At The Mill this week, she does not think it is appropriate to restrict others from doing so.
Anger has been growing since it was revealed the council's artistic board – made up of councillors and independent members – had pulled the plug on the irreverent comedy under pressure from the DUP. The decision caused outrage and made international headlines.
Several weeks ago, DUP councillor Billy Ball made it clear to this newspaper that the party would use a vote at tonight's full council meeting to stop the performance.
The decision to ban the play, which has been performed across the globe over the last 20 years without ever being cancelled, was then taken last Wednesday at an away day meeting of the council's artistic board, with no DUP members present.
A source who was at the away day told this newspaper they feared members of the board would be forced to resign if the issue went before the full council meeting and that subsequently power to censor art at the Mossley Mill theatre would be in the control of the DUP.
Only one person voted against the motion to cancel the show.
Independent artistic board member Johnathan Hodge from Larne – who is a Christian and also a member of the PUP executive – said he had no interest in seeing the play but did not want to stop others from seeing it.
Speaking ahead of a vote tonight to reinstate the play to the borough's Theatre at the Mill, Ms Walker said she was on holiday last week but if she had been around she "definitely would never have voted to censor it".
Last night, she said since returning home on Friday she has been inundated with emails, Facebook messages and text messages about the cancellation of the show.
"I personally don't think we should be censoring things like this," she said.
"It's not a council's responsibility to do it.
"I do believe in God, but I am not a practicing Christian, and I personally wouldn't have gone to see the play, but I don't think, as elected representatives, we should be pointing the finger at anyone."
On taking a different view on the matter than her Christian party colleagues – such as Billy Ball, Audrey Ball and Mandy Girvan – the deputy mayor added: "That's fine".
The councillor said she thinks the whole situation is now "out of control" and hopes the matter can be resolved tonight.
"I like comedy and plays, but it just wouldn't have interested me," she added.
"Only 18% of the tickets had been sold for the play, but now it has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons."
Given the worldwide publicity the Newtownabbey council decision has garnered, several dates on the UK tour have now sold out.
The cancellation of the internationally acclaimed comedy show – which was due to run at Theatre At The Mill this Wednesday and Thursday – has enraged large numbers of people online and a number of prominent figures, including Australian comedian Tim Minchin and English scientist Richard Dawkins.
Patrick Corrigan from human rights organisation Amnesty International described the ban in Newtownabbey as interference with freedom of speech and artistic expression that "should be of concern to freedom lovers everywhere".
And the Stormont Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin echoed sentiments from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland regarding its disappointment that the show has been cancelled.
Meanwhile, the cast and crew from Newbury Productions and the Reduced Shakespeare Company arrived in Northern Ireland yesterday.
Messages posted from their Twitter account, which has swollen to more than 10,000 followers since the row erupted, poked fun at the DUP and some of the less liberal aspects of life here.
The Twitter name @reduced posted: "Made it to NI & tried to hit the shops this morning. They're closed until 1pm on Sundays. #ThouShaltNotSHOPApparentlyEither" A further post from @reduced said: "Woke up & saw we now have 10K followers. Tis a glorious Sabbath. Thanks, @duponline - couldn't have done it without you! #ThouShaltNotLaugh"
And a petition supported by the Reduced Shakespeare Company has gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
UUP man didn't speak for party: Nesbitt
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has insisted one of his councillors was not speaking on behalf of the party when he defended Newtownabbey Council's decision to ban a play about the Bible.
The former journalist said he would go and see the Reduced Shakespeare Company's controversial production of The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged), unlike his party colleague Fraser Agnew.
Mr Agnew, who is Newtownabbey mayor, was among those who defended the council's decision to ban the play because of accusations it was blasphemous and offensive to Christians, saying there was a "need to defend Christian values".
But last night his party leader said it is the role of the arts to challenge people and he is not a fan of censorship.
"I would describe myself as a struggling Christian," he said. "I understand people have passionate views which often reflect in objections to plays like this.
"The best thing to do is simply not to go. I am not in favour of censorship. Art is to instruct and entertain and that often involves a huge challenge."
He added: "Fraser was not speaking on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. He was reflecting the views, as mayor, of constituents and ratepayers."
The UUP leader said when his wife, broadcaster Lynda Bryans, struggled with content in a play, a compromise was struck.
"My wife, Lynda Bryans, acted in the Vagina Monologues and Theatre at the Mill was one of the venues," he explained.
"There were bits Lynda didn't want to say because of her religious beliefs so she worked around it. If there are genuine difficulties with the Reduced Shakespeare Company play work around it, not buy a ticket, not go."
My view: It's OK to feel aggrieved, but all must have a say, writes Dan Gordon
So, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Here's the thing, a few members of Newtownabbey Borough Council screwed up. They cancelled the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete History of the Bible (abridged) show, which they mistook/believed to be a sleight on deeply-held Christian religious beliefs.
The decision hit the fan and the news travelled across the world. Many of us feel aggrieved to be included in the decision. We feel portrayed to the world as members of an intolerant, repressed and closed society.
The main protagonists know they look foolish in the eyes of the majority. They may well repent, or feel cornered and can't, or perhaps they don't feel they need to. They compared what many of us see in today's world as a 'harmless' Monty Python-style romp to a live sex show, burning the Koran and anti-Semitism.
Let's not fall into the same trap – they are not the Taliban or Nazi book-burners any more than we are.
Their argument has been crushed. Feel free to sign petitions – write to your MP, MLA, ring the Nolan Show, picket local party headquarters, but before you do remember – just because we are the majority, we have a duty to tolerate any minority as long as they, like us, stay within the law.
So, what have the Romans ever done for us? Newtownabbey Borough operates two theatres, an exemplary recycling centre, top-of-the-range public leisure facilities, empty bins, tend graves – and do a job that I couldn't.
So yes, of course we have righteous indignation and wounded pride on our side. We won't tolerate them chaining the swings, but maybe we should allow them to feel they should. Remember you're all individuals – except me – I'm not.