THE Alliance Party’s name gives the clue to the risk which it has taken in publicly backing gay marriage.
The party is an alliance of individuals who 40 years ago came together as a response to bigotry, and that central anti-sectarian ethos has been broadly consistent.
During the Troubles, there was limited scrutiny of parties’ social or economic policies and real power resided with direct rule ministers.
Now, with security not the main issue on most voters’ minds and a stable Stormont Executive, parties are increasingly under scrutiny for their position on the issues which in normal western democracies fire political debate.
Of those, the issue of homosexuality is possibly the most divisive and, as Trevor Lunn’s opposition to gay marriage demonstrates, such divisions cross all party boundaries.
Though attitudes to gay rights have softened in Northern Ireland from the days of the DUP’s ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign, the issue of gay marriage has attracted significant opposition across the UK and Ireland, and Northern Ireland is probably the most conservative part of these islands.
Alliance’s decision is a risk – it could put off Ulster Unionist or SDLP voters from switching their allegiance to a party increasingly seen as a haven for disenchanted UUP and SDLP voters. Or it may attract social liberals.
However, the issue may fade from public consciousness before the next election as the DUP’s Stormont veto means that it is difficult to envisage the Assembly legislating for gay marriage; some gay rights activists believe that only a successful court challenge will bring in gay marriage here.
But this decision will test the unity of a steadily growing Alliance Party.
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