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Newton Emerson: Big business finally finds its its voice in the North

Call for extension of same-sex marriage law from multinationals is unprecedented

John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project speaking at a campaign event in Belfast as several major international companies operating in the North called for same-sex marriage to be introduced. Photograph: PA

There is no modern precedent in Northern Ireland for any major business taking an overtly political – let alone party political – stance on any contentious issue.

An entire culture of Troubles hyper-caution and peace process sensitivity mitigates against it. Even Brexit has provoked little more than strangulated hand-wringing from the firms set to be worst affected.

So it is extraordinary for 29 of the region's most prominent businesses to have published a letter, at the urging of gay rights campaigners, calling for the extension of the same-sex marriage law to Northern Ireland.

The signatories include major multinationals Santander, Coca Cola and IBM; domestic giants Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank and BT; the hugely influential consulting firms Deloitte and PwC; and Stormont’s favourite foreign investors in software, finance and legal services. All are significant local employers.


The letter does not mince its words, stating support for same-sex marriage is both the right thing to do in itself, so people can “live free from discrimination, prejudice or exclusion”, and also the right thing to do for the economy, to “attract the best talent to Northern Ireland and to retain the skilled staff we already have”.

‘Same rights’

“Equality contributes to an environment of creativity and excellence,” the letter concludes, adding “our people should have the same rights, entitlements, responsibilities and freedoms enjoyed elsewhere in the United Kingdom.”

The letter raises a question Northern Ireland is unused to addressing – should business interject directly in politics?

Apart from that reference to the United Kingdom, this could have come straight from the Sinn Féin press office. Representatives from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and Alliance attended an event to support the letter’s publication but the DUP stayed away, unsurprisingly, as one of its highest-profile policies was being attacked.

It could get even worse for the unionist party – the DUP is proud of its record in developing Northern Ireland’s thriving film and television industry and could easily find itself blamed for putting that in jeopardy. Hollywood does not want to be associated with homophobia.

There is a welter of theory and evidence for the letter’s central contention that “a diverse, outward-looking and inclusive society is essential to create a vibrant and competitive economy”.

This is the “creative capital” concept – the idea that the knowledge economy grows around places where liberal-minded people want to live. Greater Belfast, if not Northern Ireland as a whole, could be such a place – but not while the DUP is waving Bibles at the populace, as pretty much every investor, employer and economist will now feel free to point out.

If the letter has been met with something of a stunned silence, that is because it raises a question Northern Ireland is unused to addressing – should business interject directly in politics?

Same sex marriage

DUP former minister Jim Wells, not presently on speaking terms with his party leadership, said same-sex marriage is “a controversial political issue” and hence “not something that individual companies should be involved in, any more than they should be involved in, say, the right to fly the union flag or to march traditional routes”.

While this may look absurd once written down, it has probably been the default assumption of almost everyone in Northern Ireland in living memory. It is unclear how people will react to being disabused of this notion. Wells has vowed to boycott the letter signatories, which could be considered a common instinct but an extreme response.

An attempted unionist boycott of goods from the Republic after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement is chiefly remembered for its hilarious failure.

Same-sex marriage is not a definitive nationalist versus unionist issue. A bigger test will come over English/Irish bilingualism in private companies. Nobody cares when British retailers use bilingual signage in nationalist areas, but what if they extend this to town centres, to all areas and to a general principle?

Business was given a formal role in Stormont politics under the Belfast Agreement, via a consultative body called the Civic Forum, which had seven of its 60 seats reserved for the business sector. But the forum fell to the usual board-squatters and became an irrelevance. Sinn Féin and the DUP scrapped it on entering government in 2007.

Suggestions of reviving the forum or something like it have increased since devolution collapsed and this week’s letter gives those suggestions bite. However, another talking shop must be doomed to the same fate.

There were suspicions for decades that business bought political influence under cover of donor secrecy laws. When those Troubles-era laws were lifted last year the truth finally emerged – Northern Ireland parties receive effectively no money from the private sector, other than Sinn Féin from its American friends.

Perhaps now we have transparency and business wants a real say, it should put its money where its mouth is and the public should accept this as normal – even healthy.

A threat to stop donating beats the implied warning in this week’s letter, which is to stop investing and hiring.