As Pride approaches this weekend, Eamonn McCann discusses how the DUP and inherent sectarianism at Stormont have stalled equality.
The panic of the DUP about the possibility of Westminster decriminalising abortion in the North goes to the root of the party’s attitude to “moral” issues as well as to power-sharing at Stormont and to devolution generally.
The same holds true in relation to equal marriage.
The interplay between devolution and defending the North from gay rights and women’s rights was on display in the House of Commons in October 2004 when Home Office minister Jacqui Smith introduced the Civil Partnership Bill.
The Assembly was in suspension at the time, mainly over the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree on policing.
In the Commons, DUP leader Rev. Paisley asked Smith: “Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again so that the people of Northern Ireland can make the decision themselves?” Exactly the argument being put forward now by Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson, etc. in relation to decriminalisation of abortion.
In the Commons exchanges, Smith responded sharply to Paisley. For as long as the Assembly remained suspended, the issue fell within the remit of Westminster. If Paisley’s party didn’t like it, the remedy was in their own hands. Do a deal with Sinn Fein and get Stormont back on track: then they’d be able to handle the issue at local level, with the Petition of Concern giving them a veto.
To the chagrin of Paisley, MPs passed the Civil Partnership bill by a comfortable majority, to apply to all of the UK.
“Save Ulster from Sodomy.”
Deeper dismay was to follow for the DUP. At Belfast City Hall in December the following year, around 100 guests gathered for the first civil partnership ceremony in the UK, between Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close. The North, the last redoubt of biblical Protestantism as far as the DUP was concerned, had become the first part of the UK to put the Civil Partnership Act into practice.
As the happy lesbians emerged skipping hand and hand into a blizzard of colour and cheers, members of the DUP were to the fore among a dour contingent by the back gate urging God, mysteriously, to “Save Ulster from Sodomy.”
Just over a year later, with devolution and the Petition of Concern back on the agenda, Paisley was cheek-by-jowl with Gerry Adams at Stormont delighting the world’s media as he welcomed in a bright, brand new day. Every effort since to legislate for equal marriage or abortion has been stymied by the DUP, always ready to reach into its back pocket and whip out its veto – the Petition of Concern.
Power-sharing was a price Paisley and his party were willing to pay to save Ulster from abomination.
The veto arises from the terms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which spells it out that the biggest party within the unionist or the nationalist bloc can stymie any proposal it finds abhorrent through the mechanism of a Petition of Concern – if it can muster 30 votes. The DUP could do this on its own. SF fell two votes short and needed others to make up the number.
‘A headcount of Nationalists and Unionists’
In March 2013, Paul Girvan of the DUP and Alban Magennis of the SDLP moved a “wrecking” motion aimed at closing the Belfast Marie Stopes clinic. Sinn Fein submitted a Petition of Concern to thwart the move, with backing from Stephen Agnew of the Greens and Anna Lo of Alliance.
But although Agnew and Lo were able to sign the Petition of Concern, their votes wouldn’t count when it came to the substantive issue. Here, the Agreement laid down that, put simply, a motion needed at least 40 percent of each of the Unionist and Nationalist blocs.
The way these tangled rules worked was made explicit in a rant by the DUP’s Jim Wells in which he told Ms. Lo: “The Alliance Party votes will count for nothing in an hour’s time, because, when a Petition of Concern is tabled, the votes from the middle, non-aligned parties do not count. It is entirely a headcount of Nationalists and Unionists.”
Thus, Orange and Green parties are privileged over class-based parties like People Before Profit and cross-community liberal parties such as Alliance and the Greens. Thus, the pattern of politics which preserves Orange-Green hegemony and marginalises those who fail to fit into either category is reinforced.
Campaign for real equality
This is not to say that the Petition of Concern is the main source of sectarianism. But it symbolises and gives formal recognition to Orange versus Green as the defining line of demarcation in Northern politics.
The campaigns for equal marriage and a woman’s right to choose, as well as economic demands which reflect class rather than community interests, are the key to winning any meaningful transformation of society.
It also follows that these campaigns, if they are to effect radical change generally, must be linked to the fight against cuts, for trades union rights and for a shift in resources from the rich to the poor.