The recent anti-gay comments by Iris Robinson (DUP MP, wife of the party leader and first monster, and chair of the Assembly’s health committee) have highlighted for the umpteenth time the thoroughly reactionary nature of politics in the north.
This latest bout of bile was sparked a number of weeks ago when was Robinson appeared on Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show to comment on a homophobic attack on a man in the Newtownabbey area. Given the DUP’s well-known and long-standing position on homosexuality, and the presenter’s own publicity seeking approach, some sort of controversy was probably inevitable. In this respect Iris certainly delivered. After a halfhearted condemnation of the assault, she lunched into an anti-gay tirade that could only have given comfort to those who carried it out, describing homosexuality as “vile,” “disgusting,” “nauseating” and “an abomination”. She topped this off with an offer to refer homosexuals to the care of a psychiatrist friend who had helped gays to “turn away from what they are engaged in.”
These comments were a media sensation for a few days and drew some mild criticism from gay groups and politicians. But if people thought this was going to blow over they were wrong. Just a few weeks later Robinson was courting more controversy. Taking part in a radio discussion on whether the severe restrictions on abortion in the north should be relaxed, she argued that they should not on the basis that government had “a responsibility to uphold God’s laws”. This conjured up images of a Free Presbyterian version of Iran, with DUP ministers framing legislation in accordance with Ayatollah Paisley’s interpretation of the scriptures.
However, Iris still wasn’t finished. Just last week it was revealed that the First Minister’s wife told a House of Commons committe, during a debate on the assessment and management of sex offenders, that “there can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children”. Maybe this was a little too strong even for the DUP, with Iris forced to back track, first claiming that her comments had been misreported (thy hadn’t) and then issuing a clarification. It turns out that what she meant to say was that homosexuality was only “comparable” to child abuse, and that she was “totally repulsed by both.” Well that’s a big improvement. The fact is that Robinson’s comments are a form of incitement that can lead directly to the type of assault carried out against the young man in Newtownabbey. All this pious baloney about loving the sinner but hating the sin is just a cover for pure hatred and bigotry.
One reaction to the comments by Robinson is to portray them as an outburst from a particularly bitter individual. However, even a glance at the public record shows that such attitudes run right through the DUP. It was party founder and former chuckle brother Ian Paisley who pushed to stop homosexuality being decriminalised in the north with the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. It was Paisley’s wife, the recently ennobled Eileen, who led the campaign in the House of Lords to oppose anti-discrimination legislation. Their son Ian Jnr also got in on the act when, as a junior minister with responsibility for equality, he stated that he was ‘repulsed’ by gay men and lesbians
And there’s more - such as DUP councillor Arthur Templeton, who was found guilty of harassing a gay colleague and ordered to pay £4,000 in damages. There’s Edwin Poots, who as a councillor in Lisburn tried to ban gay and lesbian couples from holding civil partnerships. During his period as sports minister he called the presence of Ulster’s only gay rugby team - the Ulster Titans- a form of “apartheid”. While in 2005 he remarked that homosexuality needed to be “overcome just like alcoholism and drug addiction”.
The views of the DUP on homosexuality, and on equality issues more generally, are consistent. They are, and continue to be, opposed to the very concept of equality, whether that is in relation to religion, race, politics, class, sexuality, gender or anything else. That they are now heading the Government really makes a mockery of claims, from Sinn Fein in particular, that equality is at the heart of the settlement. Indeed, its very stability depends on the DUP demonstrating that this is not the case. In this context Iris Robinson’s comments, rather than a rash outburst, can be seen as a calculated signal to its supporters than they have nothing to fear.
What this recent controversy has also demonstrated the extent to which gay rights activists have accepted the political approach of the peace process. In this schema the most bigoted views are legitimatised and their promoters accommodated. It is notable that there were very few calls for Iris Robinson to resign her position as Assembly health committee chair. In any liberal democratic system she wouldn’t have survived. But in the north she continues. Those who are the subject of her hate speech call not for her resignation but for her to engage in debate. They have even invited her to a Gay Pride event!