Belfast Telegraph

So will Robinson give Pride of place to gays?

By Liam Clarke

I will be in the Guinness Book of Records some day; the only man to be thrown out of the DUP for being a bigot," the late George Seawright once said to me.

It was 1984 and the Belfast City Councillor was pondering what the future might hold now that he had been expelled from the party for advocating, at a meeting of Belfast Education and Library Board, that "fenian scum" who objected to the singing of God Save the Queen should be incinerated along with their priests.

Seawright possibly intended his remarks as a joke, but when he refused to apologise he got the boot. The DUP showed that it had a bottom-line on sectarian rhetoric.

Now things have moved further. Peter Robinson advocates religious tolerance and pluralism; he aims to attract Catholic support and lead the DUP into the next election as a non-sectarian, centre-Right force.

This is a delicate manoeuvre, so the party manages its changing public image with draconian severity.

Politicians live in fear of making 'solo runs' on issues that do not have head office approval.

Just recently, Ian Paisley junior was rapped on the knuckles for criticising the standard of debate in the Assembly as compared to Westminster.

Jim Wells was cast into the outer darkness after he revealed that he had voted against going into government with Sinn Fein and gave a description of the meeting at which he was outvoted.

However, one issue which - so far anyway - seems to cause no problem at all when it comes to solo runs is homosexuality.

Both Iris Robinson and Ian Paisley jnr got away with it and it is tempting to believe that Mr Wells was acting within head office guidelines when he decided to tell the organisers of a Belfast Pride debate that he found them "repugnant".

He could have easily said he was too busy, but he chose to let fly.

In George Seawright's day, the DUP campaigned under the banner 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' and homosexuality is still an issue on which it chooses to keep its religious Right support-base happy - even as it attempts to broaden its base.

When the DUP decided to share power with republicans, one of the carrots held out was that, under devolution, Stormont would be able to opt out of liberalising legislation, like the introduction of civil partnerships for homosexuals.

That is why it will be a surprise if Mr Wells' remarks meet with any serious rebuke from the leadership.

Still, Peter Robinson has been saying some surprising things in recent months, so you just never know.

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