DUP’s veto on progressive legislation gives Dr Paisley plenty to chuckle about
Votes in institutions do not count unless one is affiliated to one or other ‘community’
On December 19th, 2005, Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles emerged from Belfast City Hall with a hop and a skip into crisp winter sunshine and a blizzard of confetti and cheers. They had just become the first couple in the UK to be joined in civil partnership.
The joyous scenes are likely to have been a factor in persuading the Rev Ian Paisley to enter coalition with Sinn Féin.
It isn’t that Dr Paisley will have found the happiness of the couple so infectious that a benign smile replaced snarling sectarianism as his default expression. But he will have been pushed in the direction of powersharing by fear that the imposition by Westminster of civil partnership law on the North might just be the start of it.
Gay civil partnerships today, transgendered abortionists stalking the hills of north Antrim in no time at all. A devolved Assembly with a built-in veto for his sort of people will suddenly have seemed not only politically acceptable but urgently necessary.
Within a year – in October 2006 – the shape of the DUP/SF deal was emerging at St Andrews, to the swooning approval of commentators proclaiming that Paisley’s endorsement of a path which he had been warning for decades was the high road to hell could be put down to the mellowing effects of age. As if.
The Civil Partnership Act had been passed at Westminster in November 2004. Dr Paisley had intervened in the debate: “The minister will be aware that in all political parties in Northern Ireland there is opposition to this Bill…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?”
Equality minister Jacqui Smith turned the question back to him: it was because the Assembly was not up and running that the issue remained with Westminster. The remedy was in his own hands.
The public celebrations of Grainne and Shannon’s partnership will have helped persuade him to apply the remedy while he could. Protecting homophobia in the North from further erosion became the order of the day.
Paisley’s success in this endeavour was clear in October last year from the fate of a motion from Green Party MLA Steven Agnew and Sinn Féin calling on the Assembly to keep the North abreast of Britain by moving on from civil partnerships towards same-sex marriage.
‘Petition of concern’
The motion was defeated by 50 votes to 45. Not that that mattered much. The DUP had submitted a “petition of concern”, a procedural device whereby any group of 30 or more MLAs can dictate that a specified measure will be deemed defeated unless it is backed by separate majorities of Unionists and Nationalists. Thus, the DUP, with 38 of 55 designated unionist seats, can veto any measure it doesn’t fancy.
Last April saw a repeat performance when the gay marriage issue arose again following the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act at Westminister. A Sinn Féin motion called on the Assembly to follow the British example.
Again, the move was defeated – this time by 53 to 42. Again, it hardly mattered. The DUP had its blocking mechanism in place.
Sinn Féin with 29 seats is one shy of the number needed to trigger a petition of concern.
The party turned to Agnew and Anna Lo of Alliance in March this year to make up the numbers when presented with a motion which would have made it a crime for any private group or institution – the Marie Stopes Clinic was the target – to offer abortion facilities in the North.
The issue having to do with women’s rights, DUP boorishness was at full blast. Jim Wells jeered at Ms Lo for signing the petition when, as he pointed out, Alliance would have no influence when it came to the Assembly vote.
“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.”
Which summed up more honestly than we are used to a couple of key aspects of the Belfast Agreement – that the operation of the institutions depends on political allegiances continuing to be constructed solely or mainly around the idea of communal identity, and that the price you pay for refusing to designate yourself a representative of one or other of “the two communities” is that when it comes to a crunch your vote counts for nothing.
De Valera is said to have said that “Labour must wait” – that it was only when national independence had been achieved and consolidated that the specific interests of the working class could come centre stage. In the North today, it’s gays and women who must wait.
No gay equality, no right to choose, and a set-up that gives his party special powers. What’s not for Paisley to like? Small wonder he took to the chuckling.