Prejudice towards the LGBT community, corruption and hypocrisy may define the DUP to many but earlier this year they received their highest ever share of the vote as hundreds of thousands of Protestants voted for them amid heightened community divisions, writes Donal O’Cofaigh
The Democratic Unionists (DUP) are propping up Theresa May’s minority government — but how many British readers are fully aware of their history in regard to the issue of LGBT rights?
This is a party with a long pedigree of prejudice towards the LGBT community, which has repeatedly voted down equal marriage — using the petition of concern, a mechanism meant to guarantee community rights on either side, to veto change after majorities in the Stormont Assembly have voted for equality.
So who are the DUP?
The DUP grew up as an opposition to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who ruled Northern Ireland as a one-party state for 50 years after its foundation. The UUP oversaw systemic discrimination against Catholics but also against working-class Protestants.
Northern Ireland — an intrinsic part of the UK — did not have one-person-one-vote until 1974 and that only after years of civil rights protests, the eruption of violence on the streets and the proroguing of the Ulster unionism’s seat of government, Stormont with the imposition of direct rule from Westminster.
While standing against “big house unionism,” the DUP was not motivated by class-based politics, instead it was founded on fundamentalist Protestantism — anti-Rome rhetoric was mixed with populist demands and attacks on anything verging on power-sharing.
The DUP was shaped by the largerthan-life personality of the Reverend Ian Paisley, who received his doctorate in divinity from the Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The DUP were the political wing of his church, the fundamentalist, evangelical Free Presbyterians.
Whether in the pulpit or on the streets his message was one of intolerance to Catholicism, ecumenism and homosexuality. The goal was to save the Ulster people from the “evils” of social liberalism, militant Irish republicanism and, worse still, the threat of godless communism.
Despite its strong unionism, the religious zealotry of the DUP has repeatedly led it to oppose the extension of progressive British legislation to Northern Ireland.
In 1977 the party launched its “Save Ulster from sodomy” campaign in response to attempts to extend the decriminalisation of homosexual acts under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. As a result of this opposition, decriminalisation only took place in Northern Ireland in 1982 as a result of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.
In the following years, the DUP’s opposition to LGBT rights has remained every bit as strident despite the fact that it has now totally obliterated its Ulster Unionist opposition and is led by an Anglican, Arlene Foster.
Ian Paisley’s son, a leading member of Parliament, recently referred to homosexuality as being “immoral, offensive and obnoxious” and that he was “repulsed” by LGBT people. Another MP, Jim Wells, claimed that children growing up in same-sex households were more likely to be subjected to abuse before being forced to apologise. He also claimed the LGBT lobby was “insatiable.”
Such comments abound in the party — filled as it is with creationists, climate change-deniers and anti-choice campaigners but their moral pronouncements are often deeply hypocritical. The DUP are quite possibly the most corrupt party in Stormont with a strong history of flirtation, if not outright and open support, for paramilitarism but they portray themselves as righteous defenders of “democracy” and “freedom.”
Perhaps the most emblematic case of this is hypocrisy was almost a decade ago when the partner of former DUP leader Peter Robinson, Iris, also a member of the Stormont Assembly, referred to homosexuality repeatedly as an “abomination” causing her to feel “nauseous” and claiming that when she encountered LGBT people she referred them to a psychiatrist (who was also a political adviser). The political fallout from this claimed her psychiatrist friend’s career but despite that she went on to claim that homosexuality was worse than child abuse.
By April 2009 both herself and her husband, the first minister of Northern Ireland, were involved in public furore as it was exposed that the pair were drawing more than £571,000 a year in expenses, not including a further £150,000 for family member advisers, earning them the nickname “The Swish Family Robinson.”
But worse was to come when at the end of 2009, details came out on how Ms Robinson was having an extended affair with a 19-year-old businessman for whom she had secured an undeclared £100,000 donation from two different property developers.
Castlereagh Borough Council, which the Robinsons were known to have run as a fiefdom, was forced to conduct an investigation into the award of a catering contract to the same young man, that she was said to have influenced.
Iris resigned from public life being admitted to acute psychiatric care at the same time as the police raided the offices of Castlereagh Borough Council. Notwithstanding this bad publicity, her husband continued on as first minister until the beginning of 2016.
Scandal, corruption and hypocrisy may define the DUP to many but earlier this year they received their highest ever vote share as hundreds of thousands of Protestants voted for them amid heightened community divisions.
Sinn Fein had almost caught the DUP in an Assembly election — the prospect of a border poll was raised against the context of Brexit. Protestants voted in huge numbers for a party that takes its own working-class base for granted — many against their better judgements.
In the absence of a cross-community progressive alternative in Northern Ireland, society here continues to polarise.
The DUP are now propping up the Tory government. They have secured a few crumbs from the table for an act of betrayal against the working class throughout these islands. This is an outcome that will only further divide communities; something that suits both sides of the power-divide.
Those of us who are trying to build a cross-community labour movement to overcome division find ourselves pushing a boulder up an even steeper gradient but perhaps, at least, the DUP’s feet of clay as well as their regressive social policies will be subject to much greater scrutiny than ever before.
Donal O’Cofaigh is a campaigns and communications officer for Unite in Northern Ireland. This article is written in a personal capacity.