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Paul Givan: 'Majority of responses are in favour of a conscience clause'

The Big Interview

Published 15/06/2015

Action man: Despite being a busy politician, DUP MLA Paul Givan is keen to stay fit and keep a work/life balance
Action man: Despite being a busy politician, DUP MLA Paul Givan is keen to stay fit and keep a work/life balance

Self-styled champion of the conscience clause campaign, the DUP MLA talks to Noel McAdam about his hopes for the legislation other parties have pledged to block, speculation of tension between his Lagan Valley branch and the party leadership, and his love of surfing.

Q. Your 'conscience clause' is going nowhere, is it?

A. Unfortunately Sinn Fein has stated they will block it through the use of the petition of concern (an Assembly device requiring majorities of both unionists and nationalists). Which disappoints me because there isn't even a bill to block at this stage. Instead there is a public consultation which has been taking place and the Bill will be drafted to reflect the concerns.

Sinn Fein, aided and abetted by Steven Agnew (Green Party leader) and Basil McCrea (N21), have closed their eyes and shut their ears to a very real issue that our society is faced with.

Q. But it is not just Sinn Fein and Mr Agnew is it?

A. No, you are right. The SDLP and Alliance have said they same and, in fact, Alliance brought forward a motion asking the Assembly to reject it.

But that did not happen, in fact the Assembly said it wanted this to be addressed.

I am asking Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance to listen not to what I am saying but what those who are interested in this issue are saying.

Q. So what is your consultation showing?

A. I have had more than 1,000 responses, which is more that some of the official departmental consultations get, and the overwhelming majority of those who have responded are in favour of what I am proposing. A lot are from individuals and, of course, many have been emailed but more than half are hand-written, which I think indicates the level of concern among Christians. I think people are almost wakening up and realising 'this is happening in Northern Ireland' - my own country - and there is almost a degree of shock from people who just want to go about their ordinary lives and be quiet about their faith.

Q Nonetheless it is going to be blocked in the Assembly?

A. This has been framed as Christians versus the gay community and it should not be framed that way. This is far broader than sexual orientation, it is about our fundamental freedoms and the nature of our society. It is about political and religious freedom as well and how all of that can fit in together without causing tension in society and how it can be managed.

Q. But in terms of building a consensus, you face a very steep climb.

A. I am taking a two-pronged approach. On the one hand we are scoping out what it means to have sexual, religious and political freedoms and how we manage that. In terms of the Ashers bakery case the appeal has now been launched and we have to hear whether the Court of Appeal will hear it and it will probably be the autumn before we get a decision.

On the other my process needs to work alongside and in parallel with that in finding a way forward politically which works.

It will probably not be possible to do that in the current mandate of the Assembly, of which there are only 10 months left.

Q. So did the Ashers case achieve anything more than just confirm what we already knew about equality legislation?

A. Well, the equality law was in dispute and a court case was the wrong way to resolve any of this. Ultimately the Equality Commission is standing over the course they have taken and I have spoken to its chief executive Mr (Michael) Wardlow, who recognises that there needs to be a conversation now on how we manage these tensions over different rights.

The court case in my view has polarised elements in our community but I am hoping to set out how we can move forward on this before the end of this Assembly term (less than a month away).

Q. Is there anything more you or the party can do to support the appeal - and the family?

A. I have not been directly engaged with the McArthur family, though I have spoken to them briefly and encouraged them in what they are doing. But there is not a co-ordinated effort between myself, the family and the Christian Institute which is supporting the case. They have to go through those legal proceedings and I have been in court and seen good people with genuinely held beliefs be cross-examined and grilled in the witness box about those beliefs and I don't think that our society should be like that.

Q. Doesn't all of this come down in the end to framing what is meant by "reasonable accommodation"?

A. It is and people will have a different view as to the boundaries of what is 'reasonable' and that is something that needs to be teased out. That is what I want to take forward. There are people here who are feeling marginalised and it is how can we make sure they feel very much part of our community. Faith groups feel increasingly marginalised.

Q. What is the evidence for that? Is it really the case that Christians here feel uncomfortable? Is it not more a case of the chattering minority obliterating the silent majority?

A. The feedback I am getting to my consultation is very much from the silent majority, people who do not want to have confrontation but just live their lives in peace and quiet, according to their beliefs. These are people for whom this is all a very serious issue, they cannot believe this is happening in Northern Ireland.

Q. But what has changed in society to bring this about?

A. I think people took a very much common-sense approach in the past but now it seems that people feel they need their identity not just to be accepted but that it needs to be endorsed by everybody.

I don't ask people to endorse my beliefs. Ashers were being asked to endorse something they couldn't do. If I went to a bakery I know was owned by a gay couple and asked for a cake opposing gay marriage they would have to produce it. That is the effect of the result of the court case. The judge said that is exactly what would have to happen. I don't think that is reasonable. That is why people are uneasy.

Q. But is it not more a case of your party - and others - telling Christians their rights and their standing are being eroded and undermined than is actually the reality or the way most ordinary Christians feel?

A. I can see it might have been possible to argue that before the court case but now there is a very clear court judgment. And this is an issue which is far too serious just for party politics, there is a real need to reach consensus. I have had over 1,000 responses and the overwhelming majority are in favour of the conscience clause. And it is people of no faith at all who have also responded and recognised that this is a much broader issue.

Q. Yet isn't Christianity all about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving those who hate you - a tall order for most people?

A. This issue as I say has been framed as the Christian community and the gay community being on opposite sides. I have to say I don't think that is an accurate narrative because it is much broader than that. It also covers people from the Muslim community in how their beliefs can be respected. I have said that from the very start.

Q. But if Northern Ireland is now a society where Christians feel uncomfortable isn't the DUP at least partly to blame for allowing that to come about?

A. No. One of the main arguments for devolution is that we could make our own legislation. Had there been devolution when the then Secretary of State (Peter Hain) passed the equality regulations in 2006, and the DUP had the numbers in the Assembly which we have now, it would have ensured they would have been drafted very differently.

Q. Yet are we really talking about anything more than the secularisation we have witnessed across the Western world over the past 30 or 40 years, even longer?

A. A secularist view of the world is very much a world view, in the same way people have a Christian view; that is a world view, too. A secular society is not a neutral society. My belief is that there should be space created for people who have any religious belief or an atheistic view.

I have had responses from the Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches - this is an issue which is of course important to every branch of Christianity who have expressed concern about the court case against the McArthur family.

Q. But isn't the danger that Northern Ireland ends up becoming a less tolerant and less pluralist society?

A. No, because where is the liberality and tolerance in saying people of faith must be made to leave their beliefs aside. The issue is now much broader than sexual orientation.

I had one lady who told me that if asked, she would not produce a T-shirt saying 'I support fox-hunting'. Yet as a result of the court case now she would have to.

If there was legislation to legalise cannabis - and we had candidates standing on that ticket in the last election there - businesses would be required to provide it whether they wanted to or not.

That is not the sort of liberal, tolerant society I want to see. Instead what we have is a view if tolerance meaning that there is only one way for everybody here.

Q. Talking of tolerance, what do you think of the way the party treated Jenny Palmer? (The Lisburn councillor who resigned after being threatened with disciplinary action following revelations on alleged political interference in the Housing Executive.)

A. My MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, and fellow MLAs made a statement on that (it asked the party leadership to reconsider the disciplinary action) but the party centrally took a different view.

Q. But how do you think Jenny Palmer was treated?

A. Jenny and her husband John (who is also a councillor) are friends of mine and I sent them a message wishing them well for the future. But Jenny decided to resign.

Q. Is there any way back for her do you think?

A. This is really an internal party matter and I don't want to say anything more about that.

Q. But are there now cracks emerging between the Lagan Valley branch and the party leadership?

A. None whatsoever. Lagan Valley is very much central to the party and Mr Donaldson has just been made chief chip of the Parliamentary party (following the Rev William McCrea's defeat in South Antrim in the general election) and very much engaged at all levels of the party.

Q. But weren't you punished for supporting Edwin Poot's statement that the party leader Peter Robinson would be stepping down within months, by being removed as chair of the Assembly justice committee?

A. That may have been how it was seen by some people, it is certainly not how I see it. I had a very good conversation with Mr Robinson when he called me in and told me he was going for a broader reshuffle and thanked me for the work I had done. Peter's job is immensely difficult. He has 38 MLAs who are capable and well able.

Q. But you must have been sore about it?

A. No. Sore wouldn't be the word I would use. I enjoyed the job I was doing.

If you are asking me would I have preferred to stay, of course I would. But I recognise it is not an easy job that Peter has, and I am a team player.

Q. But then you were, to use the word, rewarded when you were entrusted with your conscience clause project?

A. I recognised that it was an issue we needed to take on board and when I went to the party centrally I was given their full support and both Peter and Arlene Foster came to launch it for me.

No longer being chairman of the justice committee has allowed me to focus on this issue as well as dealing with key constituency issues.

I feel very much part of the DUP and not for one moment did I feel my removal from chair of the justice committee was some sort of punishment.

Q. Do you have full confidence in Peter remaining as leader for as long as he chooses?

A. Yes, absolutely. The narrative that I or others are waiting and wanting him to stand down is not one I recognise. Lagan Valley is very comfortable within the DUP.

Q. Should the party split the First Minister and leader roles when Peter does stand down?

A. That's a matter the party will consider, I am not aware of any vacancy or that some are involved in conversations about this.

Q. But you must have a personal view?

A. There are arguments for and against. It is an issue I am sure the party will consider when we need to consider it.

Q. Do you share the misgivings of those who say Mr Robinson has moved the party too far away from the founding principles of Dr Paisley?

A. That is not something I recognise. Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley were the reasons I joined the party in 1998 and they were a tremendous team who worked very well together.

Back then I went to hear Dr Paisley speak in Kilkeel and he captured me emotionally while Peter Robinson's and Nigel Dodds' forensic political analysis captured me intellectually.

Q. Where do you go to surf?

A. (laughs) Portstewart strand and the Whiterocks at Portush, mostly - every opportunity I would get, which is not very often. I haven't managed to get out on the waves this year so far though I was up at the North Coast over the bank holiday weekend.

I am very conscious of the work/life balance, I play football regularly, go for a run and try to get to the gym twice a week, even for half an hour.

Q. You claim with four MLAs and all your councillors on the new Lisburn and Castlereagh Council to be the strongest DUP team - yet just 100 yards from where we are sitting in the centre of Lisburn is probably the most disliked public realm scheme in Northern Ireland, which is being overseen by one of your own - Mervyn Storey - the Social Development Minister. Isn't that correct?

A. Well you have probably seen the survey showing Lisburn is the most popular place to live. Yes, there has been a lot of local disappointment about the public realm scheme which we do fully support and which will be completed soon within a short number of months and is already making a difference to the town centre with new shops opening.

Biog: Paul Jonathan Givan (33) is a father of three girls - Annie, Hollie and Maisie - all under the age of 10. In 2004, he married Emma. They started dating when they were 17. His grandfather and two great uncles were founding members of the DUP in south Tyrone and his father was a member when younger, but not after he moved to Lisburn and joined the Prison Service.

Belfast Telegraph

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