Tonight, BBC News broadcast the Northern Ireland leaders’ debate from Belfast, the last of the general election debates ahead of Thursday’s vote. Though mostly ignored in the national campaigns — in large part because none of the major parties have a heavy presence there — Northern Ireland could yet play a deciding factor in who will soon occupy Number 10.
Northern Ireland is unique in the United Kingdom. Marked by years of sectarian violence between unionists who wished to remain in the UK and nationalists who wished to join the Republic of Ireland, it is still a country struggling to reconcile its past with its future. But what really struck my interest was the fact that, perhaps for the first time in the entire election, LGBT rights took centre stage.
Equal marriage arrived in England and Wales early last year; it followed in Scotland shortly thereafter. Even the Republic looks like it may vote for equal marriage later this month. But Northern Ireland, deeply traditional and conservative, has held out. In April, the Northern Ireland Assembly rejected equal marriage for a fourth time. This follows the controversy surrounding the Ashers Bakery, which is currently in court fighting charges it discriminated against an LGBT group by refusing to bake a cake supporting gay marriage. And just last week the DUP’s health minister resigned after saying that gay parents were more likely to abuse and neglect their children than straight parents.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the largest Northern Irish party in the Westminster parliament. As the right-wing website Brietbart UK reported, it is likely to have 9 seats in the next parliament which could prove deeply important to a possible Tory minority government. It is an extremely socially conservative party, though with a strong contingent of pro-labour sentiment. Sinn Féin — the Irish nationalist party — tends to be more left-wing, but has long refused to take the seats they are elected to, believing the Westminster government to be illegitimate in Northern Ireland. The other party supportive of equal marriage, the Alliance Party, has one MP who may well lose her seat on Thursday.
This is all idle speculation, and there is no guarantee that the DUP will even play a significant, or indeed any, role in any coalition. To my knowledge, none of the major party leaders have publicly entertained the idea. Plus, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, “Northern Ireland may simply be too distant from Westminster thinking for either Labour or the Tories to find common ground” with the party. But in an election that’s been defined by the rising profiles of a right-wing populist party (the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP) and of nationalist parties such as the Scottish National Party and Wales’ Plaid Cymru, it’s also easy to imagine the appeal to Miliband and especially Cameron of aligning with a populist, pro-union contingent from outside England.
So if Northern Ireland is to play kingmaker, it’s likely to be the result of MPs antagonistic, or at least antipathetic, to LGBT rights. It’s not a stretch, given the tensions over the issue in Belfast, that one of the DUP’s “red lines” (as the press has taken to calling non-negotiable policy positions in potential coalition negotiations) might be no further advances in LGBT equality. That could mean up to and including halting any efforts to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. This has been a pet project of the Tories’ education secretary, Nicky Morgan who, it’s worth noting, voted against equal marriage. UKIP, with its reputation and record, are unlikely to cringe at the DUP’s positions. And the majority of Tory backbenchers did vote against equal marriage. In that context, a grand coalition of the right including the DUP, and their anti-gay policies, becomes more imaginable.
What that might mean for people remains to be seen. But judging by what’s happening in Northern Ireland, if the DUP is allowed to hold any of the balance of power in Westminster, it won’t be good for the LGBT community. It’s something few have entertained, but in an election where anything is possible, it’s one activists, and indeed the country, should consider as they tick that box on Thursday.