Sam McBride: In half-abandoning its historic anti-gay stance, the DUP is clumsily annoying everyone

Viewed from afar, Northern Ireland’s politics can seem bleakly unchanging – the same orange and green disputes, the same sectarian hatred, the same centuries-old constitutional chasm.

Saturday, 24th April 2021, 7:01 am
Arlene Foster has discretely sought to soften the DUP’s stance on issues such as homosexuality – but her successor could be much bolder. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

In part, that is true. But just beneath the surface, and sometimes in full sight, there has been radical change in just a few years. It often happens incrementally, sometimes grudgingly, and can be camouflaged in rhetoric which obscures reality – but it is change nonetheless.

Last week saw senior Sinn Féin figures attired in mourning black to pay effusive tributes to Prince Philip. Some sceptics questioned the sincerity of those tributes, seeing in them a calculated PR move.

But regardless of motive, such a development is a major break not only with republican tradition, but with recent Sinn Féin ideology.

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In 1979, after the IRA had murdered Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, the Provisionals wallowed in the crime, saying in a statement that “we will tear out their sentimental imperialist hearts”. As recently as 2011, Sinn Féin boycotted the Queen’s visit to the Republic, with Gerry Adams saying it was the wrong time for “the English Queen” to visit. Having misjudged the political mood of southern voters, the party moved deliberately to show it had changed.

On the other side of the Assembly chamber, this week saw more discrete evidence of major change in the DUP. On Tuesday an Ulster Unionist motion proposed that gay conversion therapy should be banned. The motion itself was not going to change the law, but would indicate the mood of the Assembly before legislation is drafted.

The DUP tabled an amendment to remove a section of the motion stating that “it is fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure” and calling for the Stormont Executive to urgently table legislation “to ban conversion therapy in all its forms”.

Given DUP history, that was unsurprising. The party has campaigned against all but one gay rights reform (the exception being when in 2016 Arlene Foster faced down internal dissent to endorse pardons for those convicted under the old law which made homosexual acts a crime).

The party’s stance on same-sex relationships has been as clear as it has been controversial – from the 1970s when the DUP campaigned to ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy’ to the 1990s when Peter Robinson said that “homosexuality is unnatural...it’s not open to discussion” and 2008 when Iris Robinson advocated that “sexually confused” young people could get “help in terms of practitioners assessing them with talking therapies to help them realise exactly what they are, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual”.

But all of that language was foreign to the position articulated by DUP MLA Pam Cameron, who moved the party’s amendment on Tuesday. She stated that she was “in full support of a ban on the dangerous practices of conversion therapy” and added firmly: “Let me be clear: I do not believe that members of our LGBT community should be fixed or cured” – a repudiation of the DUP’s past stance.

She set out the DUP’s opposition in far narrower terms – the motion did not define conversion therapy and she said the party was concerned that it could include a ban on activities such as prayer.

But the really intriguing development came when the Assembly divided to vote. One DUP MLA, Paula Bradley, did not vote for the party’s amendment. Whereas in the past this could be explained away by some other commitment, it was clearly a conscious decision because new Stormont rules mean MLAs can allocate their vote to the chief whip of their party to vote on their behalf.

After the DUP comprehensively lost that vote, things became even more interesting. That day there had been rumours circulating in Parliament Buildings that the DUP wanted to avoid a recorded vote on the main motion.

Veteran DUP MLA Jim Wells – who since a dispute with the party leadership three years ago is no longer subject to the party whip but remains a party member – said that he became aware that the DUP was “split” on the motion and was seeking to avoid a vote which would make that public. A recorded vote can only be called if two MLAs request it and Mr Wells said he approached TUV leader Jim Allister to offer to force such an outcome.

“I became aware that some in the DUP were very unhappy with my decision to do that,” he said.

“I had a friendly word in my ear from a DUP MLA asking me not to – he was very pleasant about it, but I made absolutely clear I wasn’t for turning.”

The former health minister said that there had been “a very heated exchange within the Assembly group on this issue”. He said that the party of which he has been a member for more than four decades “hoped the motion would go through on the nod without a division”, something which a reliable DUP source said was correct.

When a vote on the unamended motion was called, five DUP MLAs abstained – Mrs Foster, Peter Weir, Diane Dodds, Ms Bradley and Mrs Cameron.

Three quarters of the DUP ministerial team abstaining alarmed some DUP members because they feared it meant that those individuals could not be relied upon to use the DUP’s Executive veto to stop Executive legislation on the issue.

The DUP said that MLAs were given a free vote on the motion and pledged: “We will not support, indeed we will veto, any legislation which does not contain robust protections for churches”.

All of this might seem technical to the point of being arcane. But it hints at two significant political developments.

The first is the changing makeup of the DUP. Few of those reading about what transpired in the Assembly this week will have realised that this represented a significant softening of the DUP stance – and that the party leader was central to that.

Eight years ago, the DUP allowed academics to conduct an unprecedented survey of its membership and the results informed the book The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power.

At that time, the authors found that almost two thirds of DUP members believed that homosexuality is wrong. However, crucially, they found that younger members, and those who had joined the party more recently, were significantly less hostile to same-sex relationships.

Members who at that point were junior are now more senior – and even the leader has a more nuanced position than in the past.

With widespread internal speculation about Mrs Foster’s future, there is the potential for the DUP to confront this and wider questions about its policies for the first time in a leadership election – perhaps with Gavin Robinson as the liberalising candidate.

But there is a more immediate political impact for the DUP. In the debate, former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt cited the DUP stance on the motion as evidence of “why there is not and never can be unionist unity” – something which may be significant as unionists next year attempt to secure an Assembly majority to vote down the Irish Sea border.

The DUP also dismayed gay rights campaigners who denounced the party’s stance. On the other side, Mr Wells said that many long-standing DUP members and several Free Presbyterian ministers – including the church moderator – contacted him to express alarm at the party’s position.

Some pragmatic secular DUP members hoped that with gay marriage and abortion legalised, they could move on from such issues. But this week showed that there are always going to be decisions awkward for a party founded in Protestant fundamentalism – and fence-sitting will annoy everyone.

Unquestionably, the DUP is seeking to soften its position on gay rights. But there is a sense that it is in a similar situation to Terence O’Neill in the 1960s where, in the words of Sir Ken Bloomfield, “in a rising market, unionism always tried, unsuccessfully, to buy reform at last year’s prices”.

In moving clumsily, the DUP has annoyed everyone in a way which demonstrates why it is losing support to Alliance on the one hand and to TUV on the other.

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