The DUP’s Conscience Clause
Written By: John Coulter
Published: March 8, 2015 Last modified: March 6, 2015
Pink power will either be crimson in the face with rage or red with embarrassment as the gay and lesbian community across the island of Ireland faces a number of crucial votes in the coming weeks.
On May 22, less than three weeks after the Westminster general election in Northern Ireland, voters in the Irish Republic will have a referendum to decide whether to approve same-sex marriage.
Opinion polls suggest victory for the pro-same-sex marriage lobby, a result which will further damage the once-dominant Irish Catholic Church.
In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party is rallying evangelical Christian support behind the campaign for a so-called conscience clause that would allow companies to opt out of supplying customers with products if it went against a firm’s religious beliefs.
A row erupted after a bakery owned by evangelical Christians refused to provide a cake decorated with a pro-gay slogan. The situation has now developed into a benchmark legal case that could have major implications for the Christian churches.
There is a suspicion the DUP is bringing the conscience clause before the Stormont Assembly as a pre-election stunt ahead of polling day on May 7.
Sinn Fein hopes to scupper the conscience clause using an Assembly petition of concern. This needs the backing 30 of the 108 MLAs to succeed.
If Sinn Fein can garner support from smaller parties, such as Alliance, the Green Party and NI21, it will be a massive slap in the face for Unionism’s fundamentalist wing, which is searching for a new political messiah following the death last year of Ian Paisley senior.
Defeat for the conscience clause will be interpreted as a growing trend towards secularism in Northern Ireland, which once boasted it was the centre of the United Kingdom’s Bible belt and the source of the famous 1859 spiritual revival which swept across the British Isles. In the Republic, a victory for the same-sex lobby could be interpreted either as the development of pluralism, or a two-fingered salute to the Irish Catholic Church in the wake of the clerical abuse scandals.
Ever since the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty paved the way for the modern Republic, the Catholic Church in Ireland could boast of having one of the best examples of church-state control outside the Vatican. But as clerical abuse allegations became court convictions, the Catholic Church’s power has been steadily eroded. During the Eamon de Valera era, the Church held almost as much influence over legislation as the Dail in Dublin.
Just as Sinn Fein is using anti-austerity as a political platform, there is the real danger that those who want the Catholic Church brought to boot over the sexual abuse allegations may hijack the same-sex campaign to attack Catholicism, which is vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage. Although the gay and lesbian community is one of the best organised in Ireland publicity-wise, if it is too successful politically, there could be a backlash from religious militants sparking a new wave of homophobia.
Across Ireland, Sinn Fein has always had an uneasy relationship with the Catholic Church. And a victory for the same-sex lobby on May 22 will benefit Sinn Fein in its quest to become a coalition government partner in the next Dail. In Northern Ireland, if Sinn Fein can defeat the DUP’s Conscience Clause, it will be a massive electoral boost for the party and may well sound the death knell for its long-time rival, the moderate Catholic SDLP.
Since the demise of Paisley senior, Christian fundamentalism has been struggling to regain a political foothold within Unionism. At one time, the DUP was dominated by the Free Presbyterian Church, formed by Paisley in 1951 – two decades before he launched the DUP. Under First Minister Peter Robinson modernisers have taken control of the party, pushing the religious fundamentalists to the fringes of the movement.And with the demise of the Ulster unionist Party electorally, along with the DUP rebranding itself as a middle class Unionist movement, the Protestant Loyal Orders also have reason to feel uneasy.
A conscience clause defeat at Stormont might galvanise the Orange and Black Orders to put up their own candidates in future elections.