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Health boss Jim Wells joins a long line of senior politicians to be embarrassed in public for showing their blind bigotry

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 25/04/2015

Health Minister Jim Wells
Health Minister Jim Wells
Health Minister Jim Wells with his wife Grace, who has been seriously ill since being admitted to hospital in January

Does the bigotry we had in the past shape the bigotry we have today?

That is the theme of a discussion I will be chairing this afternoon at the John Hewitt Festival in the Londonderry Arms in Carnlough.

I have a feeling that much of the discussion will be about Jim Wells, the latest politician to be caught blurting out something daft that would hardly have been noticed in the past when our passions were directed elsewhere.

He joins Ken Maginnis and Alasdair McDonnell and a host of others who just haven't spent enough time considering the complexity of the issues they pronounce on, or considering the feelings of those they offend.

Maginnis lost his place in the Ulster Unionist party for raising a question of whether liberalising the law on gay rights might ultimately lead to the legalisation of bestiality. It is painful to see a senior politician get an education on air, but party leader, Mike Nesbitt, moved quickly to axe him.

McDonnell appalled and perhaps terrified women faced with diagnoses of fatal abnormalities in the babies they were expecting by saying that such diagnoses were 'never accurate'.

And behind them were a host of others. Ian Paisley Junior affronted grammar as well as gays by saying he was 'repulsed' by homosexuality.

Throw in then a senior Sinn Fein member, Gerry Kelly, cheerfully describing on television how he shot a prison officer in the head; Sammy Wilson as Environment Minister saying he didn't believe in man-made global warming; Culture Minister Nelson McCausland calling on the Ulster Museum to demonstrate the creation of the world by God; another Culture Minister, Caral ni Chuilin, saying she hadn't read a book for years but hoped to get round to one soon; you get the drift.

We are governed by people for whom the best excuse that can be offered is that they were too busy during the Troubles and the peace process to enter the modern world.

What are we to make then, of the Wells farago?

The Health Minster is damaged. Gerry Kelly's claim that he can no longer represent the welfare of all of the people is an impossible case to answer. Jim Wells shapes health policy. We already have a precedent of a health minister, Edwin Poots, banning gay blood and struggling to distance his policy from his religious beliefs. His Bible tells him that homosexuality is an abomination. Still, he and other ministers know now the Bible is no defence in the public arena. It once was, but that has changed.

What our representatives are learning is that they cannot trot out in the political domain the principles and ideas affirmed in the closer circle of their evangelical churches or families.

Some have tried to argue that there is an injustice in that; there is certainly a challenge and a difficulty. What they are discovering is not just that swathes of public opinion are against them but that they need to understand why people get so angry when the commonsense of the parish and of much of the rest of society a generation ago no longer applies.

It must be galling for Jim Wells and his supporters to hear other political parties leap on him when their own pasts have been as narrow and their legacies from those pasts are much bloodier.

Part of this is down to the election. This is not the moment to be sparing of your kicks when you have a rival on the floor.

For Sinn Fein to present such concern for the welfare of children when their own record of abuse outstrips that of any other party is a bit rich. For decades Sinn Fein offices housed the kneecapping hit teams and punishment squads of what they called Civil Administration.

But even if they had the sensitivity to note the paradox, they could not stand aside from this issue. Modern society demands greater consideration for gays, and that perhaps needs examined and explained to some people.

Those who stand against this often talk of the gay agenda or the gay lobby and see it as an insidious and destructive influence. It isn't.

The secularising society of Ireland north and south changed its attitude to homosexuality with unprecedented ease, if you compare it to how long it agonised over contraception and divorce, how it still agonises over abortion. And there is a reason for that. It was because everybody knows gay people. Everybody has heard heartbreaking interviews on television and radio with gays who have been beaten up and harassed and everybody has thought, 'that could have been my friend/brother/son/father.'

So politicians who get this issue wrong do not just lose the sympathy and possible support of people in the gay community but of everyone who has accepted - as all must - the homosexuality of someone close to them.

It is no longer possible to cut yourself off in a church or clique or political party and pretend everyone is like yourself when, most likely, even the man beside you is not like you. Political parties in which gay men have to be silent on their sexuality are more rare today, but the DUP is one of them.

That simple fact is now a vulnerability in that party and not the strength they might imagine. Others can take advantage of it and that is another reason why the party will have to change.

Mairtin O Muilleoir was asked on Newsnight last week what percentage of Sinn Fein supporters agreed with same sex marriage.

He said 100%, a daft answer.

Even the British Labour party wouldn't rally that much support, for the transition towards a healthier and more accepting society is still under way.

But Sinn Fein is grabbing hold of liberal secular human rights issues and the squeamish evangelicals are letting them.

And if people want to stand in umbrage over their Christian convictions, let them at least acknowledge the pain they cause, and be Christian about that. We still live in a society where most gay men are wary even of telling heterosexual friends about their private lives.

Jim Wells has learnt to be more careful next time, and he will be. So has Ian Paisley junior. That's something. Even just changing tactics is better than digging in.

The rest of us will marvel at how we inherited a political class, across the board, which has so much yet to learn.

Further reading

PSNI probes gay abuse comments as DUP leader Peter Robinson stands by his man

David Cameron: I will never validate the DUP's stance on gay rights and LGBT issues

Gay adoption: It is 'natural order' for a man and a woman to have a child, says Northern Ireland Health Minister Edwin Poots

Call for clarity after DUP man's 'make homosexuality illegal' comments

First Minister Peter Robinson backs wife's view that gays are an 'abomination'

Iris Robinson: gays more vile than child abusers

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