Politicians finding it hard to keep up with the people on gay rights

Opinion: Contrary to perceived wisdom, the people of the North are liberal on ‘moral’ issues


The right of gay couples to adopt was conceded in the North but hardly anybody noticed.

True, there have been more urgent issues on the agenda – flying flags, restricting parades, dealing with the past without inventing a time machine and so forth. But even so, the issue of gay adoption has been before the courts in the past year in Belfast, London and Strasbourg, has sparked heated debate at the Assembly and deluged phone-in programmes. The latest development might have been expected to rank as a middling-sized story. Admittedly, the news emerged in low-key circumstances – a statement from DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots’s department to the Derry Journal on the 27th of last month, reacting to a gay rights protest a few days earlier during a visit by Mr Poots to Altnagelvin Hospital. Campaigner Sha Gillespie was pictured holding a rainbow flag above the Minister’s head and was quoted to the effect that she was “sick of this man dictating to me how I should live my life”. She added that she regarded his refusal to contemplate gay adoption as particularly offensive.

The department responded: “Following the Court of Appeal ruling on June 27th, the department issued an information note to all adoption agencies instructing them to accept applications from unmarried couples (including same-sex couples) and those in civil partnership arrangement. The final decision on whether an adoption order should be made will be a matter for the court.”

The instruction clearly applied to all adoption agencies, including any which might have reservations on religious grounds.

The reference to the courts retaining the last word was superfluous. This already applied to all adoptions. And the basis on which court rulings would be made had now been spelt out.

The June 27th ruling had upheld an argument by the NI Human Rights Commission that the ban on gay adoption breached European law. The department then applied to the Supreme Court in London for permission to challenge the ruling. The court rejected the plea, saying that “the application did not satisfy the criteria of raising an arguable point of law of general public importance”. As far as legal niceties were concerned, that was that.

Gay adoption
However, when questioned about gay adoption in the Assembly on November 12th, Mr Poots gave no indication that anything was about to change, but regretted the result of the court action and allowed that he was “currently carefully considering the implications” and hoped to bring proposals to the Assembly next year. Gay advocacy groups and others feared a repeat of the situation obtaining North and South with regard to abortion whereby court decisions were routinely ignored and guidelines kept in place setting much narrower parameters than the courts had declared legal.

The widespread expectation that the outcome of the case would mean little in practice half-explains the barely discernible level of coverage, (the other half being the Talks, the current phase of which can usefully be seen as a negotiation equivalent of Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug – long wearying years into the saga, but with the certainty of more to come).

Adoption rights are only one item in an agenda for full equality for gays. But there is no doubt about the direction of travel or about the readiness of the people of the North to stay the course.

Last year’s Life and Times Survey, carried out annually by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster, found that, contrary to widely accepted caricature, Northern Ireland people are generally liberal on “moral” issues.

The survey showed that 67 per cent of Northerners would have no problem with a gay teacher, 76 per cent no problem with a gay boss, 69 per cent comfortable with a gay GP, 74 per cent with a gay MP. A majority – 57 per cent to 32 – believes that same-sex marriage should have the same status as traditional marriage, auguring well for moves to make gay marriage legal.

On the specific issue of gay adoption, opinions were more evenly divided but still showed substantial backing for a permissive regime: 39 per cent to 29 per cent in favour of lesbian couples being allowed to adopt; adoption by homosexual men supported by 36 per cent, with the same number taking the opposite view.

(Other interesting findings were that a majority, 46 per cent to 39 per cent, believed that lesbians should have equal access with straight women to IVF treatment, and that 90 per cent believed that married people having sex with others is always or usually wrong. Adultery is seen as much more objectionable than gay couples raising children.)

The pity is that it has taken court action to bring official practice into line with the prevailing views of the people, politicians having shown themselves too backward to catch up. People in the Republic will recognise the scenario.

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