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Alf McCreary: Until we learn tolerance and honesty, our province will never move forward

By Alf McCreary

Sometimes it is difficult to understand where religion and politics begin and end here. This week, we've have a good example of the depressing connection between the two.

On the one hand, a number of Free Presbyterian ministers lobbied against a motion at Ards and North Down Borough Council suggesting the Town Hall be lit up in rainbow colours to mark the annual Pride celebrations.

However, in the same week, the DUP, which was supposedly founded on the principles of the late Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church, demonstrated at the RHI Inquiry some details of the distinctly appalling way - and that is putting it mildly - in which the party is run.

There were accusations of lying, evidence of political in-fighting and a lack of trust, and a bad feeling all round.

Most observers could claim that on many issues the DUP faithful acts as if the welfare of the party is more important than the welfare of the province, although in these difficult and depressing times, there is a dark humour in watching Sinn Fein members attempting to occupy the high moral ground, as if butter would not melt in their mouths.

There is also widespread confusion about the DUP's attitude to the LGBT community. A few weeks ago, the leadership seemed to reach out to gay, lesbian and transgender people, but in Newtownards, DUP councillors did the opposite.

It is all the more important, therefore, to praise the courage of a lone DUP councillor, Tom Smith, who voted according to his conscience, rather than following the herd.

Praise is also due to Alliance councillors who supported the bid for tolerance, and members of other parties who backed it.

Who is the DUP to tell others how to behave, given the shocking claims and counter-claims at the RHI Inquiry?

As Alliance councillor Andrew Muir said on BBC Radio Ulster, "It's time that the DUP caught themselves on". I doubt if it will.

Unfortunately, this narrowness is evident elsewhere. Last month, DUP members of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council used a procedural mechanism to prevent the Pride flag from being shown on council premises.

The influence of Free Presbyterianism, which is certainly not for free thinkers, still hangs heavily over the DUP, and the dark ghost of the late Dr Ian Paisley still hovers in the background.

Paisley mellowed politically at the end of his life, but although he was a good MP to his constituents, including Roman Catholics, he retained a deep intolerance of Roman Catholicism until his dying day.

The only time I heard him preach in the Martyrs' Memorial Church was at his final sermon there.

Religiously, it was as uncompromising as his first sermons decades previously.

Paisley failed to move on theologically, and the Free Presbyterian-DUP axis largely remains the same.

People, of course, have the right to their opinions, but they do not have the right to ram their beliefs down other people's throats, and to force them to live in a manner in which they do not wish to.

In this province, which has much religion but little real Christianity, the churches are struggling to maintain their teachings, but some are doing this in a way that puts many people off .

Who is entitled to refuse membership of a church to a gay or lesbian person who wants to worship God, or to refuse baptism to their children?

Christ said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me", but in our province too many church members are saying to these little children and their parents or guardians, "Do not come unto us if your daddy or mummy is a practising homosexual, lesbian or transgender person".

This is partly why outsiders like influential London political journalist Tim Shipman refer to this land as a "strange place". He also claimed that most people in England "do not give a monkey's" about Northern Ireland.

It is hard to take such comments from an arrogant outsider, but, sadly, he is right.

We will continue to be a strange place until people here learn to be tolerant of differences and accept those from all political backgrounds, gay or straight, black or white, or in any other condition as fellow human beings made in the image of God.

There are many good people in our churches, but there are so many others in our small, stiff-necked and bigoted community that I doubt if even Jesus Christ himself would last three months, never mind three years, if he started his earthly ministry again in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

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