Simmering tensions between the DUP and the church which helped give birth to the party have burst into public view after the DUP’s selection of its first openly gay candidate.
Ian Paisley, the preacher-politician who fused his faith and his politics to the extent that he often seemed to be preaching about politics and delivering a sermon from political platforms, founded the church two decades before he set up the DUP.
Although the two were never formally linked, it was the church which provided not just many of the early DUP candidates, but also the foot soldiers who enthusiastically campaigned for the upstart party which would smash Northern Ireland’s political establishment.
There were always criticisms from some in both church and party who saw the tension between a secular party with ambitions of winning votes and a fundamentalist church with the aim of saving souls.
But those largely lay below the surface until Paisley’s decision to enter government with Sinn Fein, something which dismayed many in the church, who had been taught to view Sinn Fein in theological terms as the representatives of evil.
The church gave Paisley an ultimatum: Choose to remain as moderator or remain as first minister. He opted for the latter and, after 57 years, was replaced as moderator.
In his blistering valedictory interview with Eamonn Mallie in 2014, Paisley said that his church critics “do not have the ear of God on this matter [power-sharing with Sinn Fein]”, a claim which appeared almost sacrilegious to some within the church. He also said that his family no longer entered his former church – although his son Kyle remains a Free Presbyterian cleric in England.
Then in December 2016 the church criticised the party for allowing retrospective pardons of those convicted of homosexual offences to pass through the Assembly. In implicit praise of the DUP’s nemesis, the church said that the proposal “was opposed only by Mr Allister of the TUV while sadly many others remained silent”. The church said it was “deeply grieved and bitterly disappointed” at the failure of MLAs to oppose the pardons.
Now the uneasy relationship between a party which sees the strategic value in secularising and a church which believes that God’s law is unchangeable have returned with the DUP’s choice of Alison Bennington, a lesbian, as one of its council candidates. Ms Bennington has said she is standing “based on what I can deliver as a councillor ... not based on my sexual orientation”, and it is clear that the party leadership has endorsed what in any other party would be a fairly unremarkable stance.
Ms Bennington was chosen centrally by the party, itself an indication that the party was taking a strategic decision to test the waters with its supporters. But for a party which once campaigned under the banner ‘Save Ulster from sodomy’ for homosexuality to remain a criminal offence, it is nevertheless a striking indication of how the DUP is changing.
Traditionalist DUP MLA Jim Wells, who is currently suspended by the party, has been outspoken about what he described as a hint of “a major – and very worrying – change in the policy of the DUP on social issues”.
On Saturday, TUV leader Jim Allister said he was struck in canvassing “by the number of lifelong DUP voters dismayed by what they see as their party’s softening on the gay marriage issue because of the Bennington nomination”.
Mr Wells yesterday said that “many, many DUP members up to the highest level”, including MPs, MLAs and former ministers, had been in contact with him to express concern about the issue because it was “a huge change in the ethos and tradition of the DUP”.
The South Down MLA said that there was concern within the party that it was “a step towards other radical change” and that people who had in some cases been members of the party for 40 years “simply cannot come to terms with this decision”.
At the weekend, DUP veteran John Carson, posted on Facebook about the decision. The Ballymena councillor, who is standing for re-election on Thursday, said that he had been a DUP member for 38 years but “I say quite openly and with no fear of the consequences ‘NOT IN MY NAME’. I first entered politics because of my admiration for Dr Ian RK Paisley and ... I make no apologies to anyone for saying I am an old Paisleyite.”
He went on: “I believe in the coming days not only myself but many of us will have some soul-searching to do and some tough decisions to make”. Invoking images of Old Testament idolatry, Mr Carson asked people to pray for wisdom for “those of us who have not bowed the knee to baal” as they “stand against evil in these days”.
On Saturday, the presbytery officers of the Free Presbyterian Church issued a statement which was unusually oblique for a denomination known for its full-frontal assaults on those it regards as acting sinfully. The statement, a clear response to the DUP move, did not name the party but said that it “underlines its opposition to all marital and sexual relationships outside the covenant of Biblical marriage”.
It added: “Therefore, as a church we are saddened by the attempts of political parties to normalise and promote marital and sexual relationships that are in contravention of the clear teaching of Scripture.”
The statement was read out in some Free Presbyterian churches on Sunday, although not in others, in what may be a hint of the church – as well as the party – being split on the issue.
Although a tiny denomination, Free Presbyterianism has long exerted an influence which exceeds its size, both through the DUP and its frequent pronouncements to the media about issues of public morals.
One church source said that there was a desire among some within the congregation to see DUP party officers who are members of the church disciplined for their role in Ms Bennington’s selection.
In response to the church’s statement, the DUP merely said: “Our position on support for traditional marriage is well known and as the party leader indicated last week, it has not changed.”
An academic study, published as the book The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power, four years ago found that the Free Presbyterian Church continued to wield huge influence within the party, with 30% of DUP members being Free Presbyterian. That meant that Free Presbyterians were 50 times more common in the DUP than in the population.
It has been clear for some time that the DUP is no longer “the DUP at prayer”. But if the DUP continues on its path to expand its voting base, even the continued high levels of cross-membership of church and party may increasingly become a thing of the past.
If that accelerates the DUP’s liberalisation it could be significant for everyone in Northern Ireland.