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Hollywood studios could shun North over DUP’s conservatism

Successful film industry at risk of being drawn into America’s social battlegrounds

In 2016, a threatened Hollywood boycott stopped the US state of Georgia enacting a "religious freedom" Bill that would have exempted public employees from having to recognise same-sex marriage.

The Bill was blocked by Georgia's governor after film and TV studios, led by Disney, said they would not work in a state with discriminatory laws.

The story went on to become an issue in that year's presidential campaign. Out of all the Republican candidates only Donald Trump backed the studios, although he later changed his mind.

Subsequent attempts to pass similar laws in other states were rolled back by similar threats, with other industries becoming involved. Companies such as Apple and Walmart had “religious freedom” legislation overturned by raising concerns about recruiting and retaining staff, which widened the debate and helped make opposition a mainstream view. Despite the subject’s “culture war” aspect it is no longer considered especially controversial – most Americans and even most American churches oppose such laws as discriminatory and bad for business.


For Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage remains unlawful, a rather obvious disaster is now waiting to happen.

Film and TV production in the North is phenomenally successful, employing 5,000 people and generating three times as much income as in Georgia, itself one of the top filming locations in the US.

In 2016, Georgia feared knock-on effects to related tourism, another significant concern for Northern Ireland.

The Walking Dead

The value of a single brand can also prove decisive. In Georgia’s case it was the prospect of losing The Walking Dead, a long-running series that had established the state’s TV industry.

Northern Ireland’s equivalent is Game of Thrones, with a prequel now in production.

The North has been given a brief reprieve, somewhat perversely, by the focus shifting to abortion.

It is all too easy to imagine the DUP letting the creative sector collapse rather than yield on issues it considers totemic

Having lost the battle on same-sex marriage, American conservatives are moving on to legislation against abortion. Hollywood has responded by threatening another boycott.

Among the actors to speak out is Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner, who was immediately asked why she had worked in Northern Ireland.

Hollywood studios have responded by saying abortion has always been illegal in Northern Ireland so there is no comparison with US states introducing bans.

This is clearly splitting hairs. With a fraught new battle under way in the US, nobody there wants the distraction of a slightly different dispute across the Atlantic – for the time being. But for how much longer? Add in the North’s ban on same-sex marriage, now quite unusual across the western world, and glossing over its exceptionalism looks unsustainable.

In total, the creative sector in Northern Ireland is worth 3 per cent of the economy and employs 25,000 people, twice as much as farming and almost as much as construction.

Half these jobs are in software, which tends to be seen as less “creative” and hence immune from culture war controversies.

That complacency is mistaken. The gaming industry is increasingly being drawn into America's social battlegrounds. Companies such as Facebook and Google affect to have progressive agendas. They are just as likely as Hollywood to shun Northern Ireland should its outlier status become a more widely known embarrassment.

Same sex-marriage

Beyond same-sex marriage and abortion there is a third issue quietly menacing the North’s creative sector. Libel reform was secretly blocked by the DUP in 2012 for reasons that remain unexplained. The party has resisted all pressure to recant, leaving Northern Ireland with some of the world’s harshest defamation laws.

This has serious implications for broadcasting, social media platforms and publishing, including online publishing. Libel reform was introduced by Westminster specifically to protect scientific research, which employs another 5,000 people in Northern Ireland.

So far, no company has pulled out due to the DUP’s obstruction but we will never know how much investment has been deterred and it may already have been substantial.

Ironically, the DUP has justified its position by pointing to a small number of Hollywood celebrities who have sued foreign newspapers through Belfast’s courts. Does it think we will have an industry of 30,000 libel lawyers?

Unlike Georgia’s governor, who blocked conservative legislation under economic pressure, the DUP would be required to enact liberal legislation – or at least to let it pass – should economic pressure come to bear.

Omens for this are not good. The party has stuck defiantly to its Brexit stance despite unprecedented criticism from the entire business community. It is all too easy to imagine it letting the creative sector collapse rather than yield on issues it considers totemic.

Film and TV production has opened Northern Ireland up to the world, and kept talented people at home, more than any single development in the state’s history.

DUP ministers and first ministers – including current leader Arlene Foster – have taken pride in driving it forward. It would be a cruel tragedy if this was jeopardised by the party's lingering religiosity. But that is the very real danger now looming.