Mike Nesbitt: ‘Conversion therapy debate shows why we can’t have unionist unity’

A UUP motion to ban “conversion therapy” has passed by a landslide, with former party leader Mike Nesbitt saying the debate had shown why there can never be unionist unity.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 7:00 pm
Mike Nesbitt in the chamber today; behind him is John Stewart, who moved the motion alongside Doug Beattie

The DUP had sought to alter the motion, adding in a clause to protect religious practice, but its efforts failed – its preferred text was voted down by 59 votes to 28, and the intact Ulster Unionist motion sailed through with 59 votes to 24.

Before the debate, the UUP had told the News Letter its members would not have a free vote on the issue.

This in full is how its motion read: “That this Assembly rejects the harmful practice widely referred to as conversion therapy;

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Notes that the UK Government National LGBT Survey in 2018 reported that 2% of respondents had undergone conversion therapy with a further 5% having been offered it;

“Acknowledges the damage this practice causes to the mental health of those who are subjected to it;

“Further acknowledges this practice has been widely rejected by medical professionals;

“Declares it’s fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure;

“And calls on the Minister for Communities to commit to bringing forward legislation before the end of the current Assembly mandate to ban conversion therapy in all its forms.”

The DUP amendment sought to get rid of everything after the line beginning “Declares that it is fundamentally...” and replace it with:

“Recognises legitimate religious activities such as preaching, prayer and pastoral support do not constitute conversion therapy, cannot be defined as such and must be protected;

“And calls on the Minister for Communities to consult widely on the way ahead, including relevant legislative options, to ban the practice of conversion therapy.”

The number of speakers pledging their support for the LGBT community was overwhelming.

And from within the DUP ranks, Pam Cameron declared: “Let me be clear: I do not believe that members of our LGBT community should be fixed or cured.

“I might not agree, but I recognise that there are those with deeply held religious beliefs on sexuality who have differing opinions on how someone should live their life.”

She stressed that the party wants to ban “conversion therapy” but said that it is first necessary to define what it is.

One recurring theme through the debate was that “harm” was being caused; the term was used 15 times within the first hour of what became a roughly two hour debate – for instance, Alliance’s Andrew Muir said the DUP amendment itself was “doing harm”.

SDLP MLA Cara Hunter said: “As someone with a strong faith myself, I’m sick and tired of religious freedoms being used as a way to think that it is in any way acceptable to reject the LGBT+ community.

“The motion is not about criminalising prayer; it is about limiting harm to our LGBT brothers and sisters with these unethical therapies.

“Religious freedoms must be questioned the moment that harm is committed, and we know, from speaking first-hand to people who have endured conversion therapy, that many have experienced hurt and rejection from people who told them, ‘God condemns you because of who you are and who you love’. That is shocking.”

Jim Allister, TUV leader, said: “If a minister of religion is approached by a young person or an older person who wants counsel and guidance on sexual issues because they are a person of faith or who is attracted to faith, is that minister of religion to be criminalised?

“There is a great phrase to the effect that the Government should not intervene between consenting adults in the bedroom. Fair enough.

“Now, however, there is the desire to intervene between consenting adults in the minister’s counselling room...”

DUP man Jim Wells said that the court action taken against Pastor James McConnell for his anti-Islam sermon shows the threat of legal action against ministers is real, telling MLAs the motion would mean a “complete ban on all interventions by pastors, priests and ministers” in gay or transgender matters.

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt attacked the DUP amendment and said: “For those who are listening to the debate who seek unionist unity and are wondering why we do not have it, the answer is very simple.

“Read the motion and the amendment. They are like chalk and cheese. That is why there is not and never can be unionist unity.”


Throughout today’s debate, a number of Bible passages were referenced.

Jim Wells of the DUP cited the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, the 18th chapter of which contains a series of commands to avoid certain sexual behaviour.

These include verse 22: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”

He also made reference to the teachings of Judaism and Islam.

Jim Allister made reference to St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, which says in verse 6:9: “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Quoting the above verse in 2019 saw Australian rugby player Israel Folau pilloried by gay campaigners and their supporters, including corporate sponsor Qantas, and Rugby Australia ended his contract.


Figures for exactly how many people in Northern Ireland have undergone “conversion therapy” are hard to come by, compounded by the fact there is no clear definition of what it involves.

However, today’s Ulster Unionist motion cited a UK survey saying that 2% of LGBT people polled had undergone such measures.

The Office for National Statistics has estimated that about 1.2% of the Northern Irish population are gay or bisexual (there are no reliable figures for how many are transgender – again, this is largely because there is no agreed definition).

Given a population of 1.9m people in Northern Ireland, that figure of 1.2% would be equivalent to roughly 22,800 people.

And if 2% of those people underwent “conversion therapy”, then it would amount to 456 people.

More from this reporter:

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers — and consequently the revenue we receive — we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe