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Progressive Unionism and LGBT Rights: A Response to Peter Tatchell

01/07/2015 09:43 BST | Updated 30/06/2016 10:59 BST

I read Peter Tatchell's recent article on the institutionalised homophobia in Northern Ireland with a great deal of interest, given the recent court ruling on the Asher's case, the well-attended rally for equal marriage, and the increasingly liberal attitudes towards equality in the region.

Further, I support his organisation's aims, which are to remove the bans on same-sex marriages and blood donations, for the LGBT citizens of Northern Ireland, and to block the proposed "conscience clause" bill, which would allow religious individuals and groups to discriminate against those same citizens.

I would like to point out that Tatchell's knowledge of Unionism, and Northern Irish politics, may be somewhat under-developed, and that if he wishes to positively affect change in the region, he might wish to broaden his understanding.

Firstly, the DUP are not best understood as "the political wing of Loyalist Protestantism" (Tatchell 2015). They are a Party of two factions. There is the old guard, a more conservative, religious grouping, who adhere to the 'Free Presbyterian' faith, and who comprise 31% of the current membership (see Tonge et al 2014).

However, there is also the new, and growing, socially conservative, but economically liberal, section of the Party, who are less influenced by religion, and more interested in free marketism, admittedly, another form of fundamentalism.

What does this mean for LGBT rights? It means potential. The DUP is a changing beast. Its newer members will not necessarily agree with the old, morally dubious claims of the old guard. More neoliberal than theological, the new members are less likely to oppose progressive legislation.

Where we should be focussing, however, in our joint efforts to advance equality in Northern Ireland, is on those Unionists who are already on the side of equal rights. And for that, we must look to the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), who, at their Party conference in 2013, enshrined their support for equal marriage into policy.

Party member, and current Belfast City Councillor, Julie Anne Corr, spoke to the conference audience, and framed her argument in a broader, British setting, and pointed out that the DUP were, ironically, seeking to deprive British citizens, in Northern Ireland, of their British civil and legal rights.

Party member William Ennis, noting that the vote for equal marriage would be a difficult one for the Party to win, added that, "if we don't do this, we are just a poor man's DUP". This is a reference to the fact that the PUP are comprised of, and mostly represent, working class Unionists. On 13th October, 2013, the Party responded positively to Ennis' appeal, and asserted their own, progressive agenda, by differentiating themselves from the DUP.

For those who believe Unionism to be a generally conservative identity, there is hope to be gleaned from examining the politics of the PUP, and of the political journey undertaken by the Party in nominating Julie Anne for election, where she was successfully voted into Belfast City Council in 2014, winning 1658 votes, and becoming the first openly gay, Unionist Councillor in Northern Ireland.

Since the elections, the PUP have continued to advocate for equal marriage, and in an interview, published in The Guardian in January 2015, Julie Anne outlined her position on the "conscience clause", stating, "Yes I would be opposed, that would be my personal viewpoint. The freedom of conscience bill only gives way for further discrimination." (McDonald 2015).

This is evidence that Unionist voters are not more, or less, homophobic, than any other group in the region. Indeed, survey evidence, undertaken by Queen's University, supports this. In 2013, when asked if they were "prejudiced towards gay men", 65% of Protestants replied that they were "Not at all prejudiced". The same question, asked regarding attitudes towards gay women, elicited a 69% response of "Not prejudiced at all". (Note: Not all Unionists are Protestant, but most Protestants are Unionist, with only 2% supporting a United Ireland as of 2011).

We therefore see, that the DUP, whilst the largest, Unionist Party, do not speak for all of Unionism. Nor do they represent the Protestant population of Northern Ireland. There is a growing appetite in this region for full equality, and the struggle must include those Unionist who are already fully paid-up members of the progressive agenda.