Yesterday marked the first day of Arlene Foster as the new First Minister of Northern Ireland. It was also the first day that she had to face questions over some of the Democratic Unionist Parties views on equality in Northern Ireland.
In an interview with News Letter, when questioned about her party’s views on equal marriage she replied by saying ‘It’s not something that’s at the top of my ‘in tray’ if you like’.
‘Obviously it’s not on the agenda in terms of a vote coming up any time soon. We will of course look at it when it does come up. But our position in relation to those issues has not changed by my coming in.’
Foster chose her words carefully when she went on to clarify, ‘just because we believe in the traditional view of marriage doesn’t mean that we denigrate anyone who doesn’t agree with that – not in any one way, nor will we under my leadership be discriminating against anyone in terms of their sexuality or their way of life or whatever you may want to say. It doesn’t mean that we will be from the traditional view in relation to marriage.’
A nice sentiment, to state that the leadership of Northern Ireland will not be engaging in any discrimination against anyone because of their sexuality, but this may seem like empty words to many, who would say the refusal to allow marriage equality is by definition discrimination against people because of who they love.
Foster went on to say that she believes that even if their was a free vote on the issue of marriage equality that she wouldn’t expect anyone to vote in favour. ‘I say that from having conversations with MLA’s over the issue now on about five occasions it has come before the house – whilst I can understand journalists would be interested in the semantics of free vote or whip I don’t think it’s going to make any difference to be honest.’
This claim that no one would vote for marriage equality is a strange one to make, especially as the majority of the Northern Irish Assembly have already voted for marriage equality in the past.
Just a handful of months ago a majority voted in favour of equal marriage, by 53 to 51, however, the DUP used a ‘petition of concern’ to strike the law down. For the fifth time. Despite saying that no one would vote for equal marriage, perhaps Mrs Foster should have answered honestly, and said that even if equal marriage passed the vote for a sixth time her party would not allow it to come to pass.
A petition of concern is veto power, allowing a group of at least 30 MLA’s to block a decision of the Assembly by requiring a show of ‘cross-community support’. This effectively allows a small minority of MLAs to prevent bills voted on by a majority to pass, and in the case of equal marriage it has clearly been abused to the point of ridiculousness.
Back in November, when the DUP blocked equal marriage for the fifth time, John O’Doherty, Director of The Rainbow Project, spoke out on the veto. ‘We are absolutely elated today. We cannot overstate the impact this vote will have on our community across Northern Ireland, I want to sincerely thank all those MLAs who voted in favour of the motion today; those who have supported marriage equality from the start and particularly those who have gone on a journey in their support.
‘It’s true that the DUP have abused the petition of concern to block this vote and are now ignoring the will of the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland but we will not allow them to dampen our joy today. Our campaign continues and it will not end until marriage equality is a reality for everyone in Northern Ireland.
‘Today’s major vote marks another landmark victory in our campaign and we celebrate with our LGBT friends , our families and our supporters on this momentous day.’
Generous and level headed words considering that the DUP acted against the will of the majority of the Assembly to grant people equal rights. In that one hopeful statement of thanks and gratitude to those who voted for marriage equality, with no attacks on those who vetoed it, Mr O’Doherty showed more strength of character than those who issued the petition of concern.
Sadly it would appear that Arlene Foster will not be the leader to usher in an era of understanding and equality to Northern Ireland, but will continue to deny basic rights to many of her countrymen. These rights do not just end at marriage equality, however, as the DUP’s ‘christian values’ also extend to abortion.
Current abortion laws in Northern Ireland make abortion illegal, and punishable as a criminal offence, unless the life of the mother is at risk. These laws have been met with heavy criticism as take away a persons right to chose whether or not they wish to have a child.
These laws have resulted in many women leaving Northern Ireland and travelling to England, Scotland or Wales in order to terminate a pregnancy. In other cases women have risked the wrath of the law and illegally obtained abortion medication within Northern Ireland in order to simply have the right to make a choice about their own body.
Just today news outlets are reporting on a 21 year old woman who is facing court proceedings and a possible prison sentence for trying to have an abortion.
Arlene Foster was asked if traditional views on abortion accompanied her party’s views on marriage equality as a core component of their identity, she said, ‘The DUP is – and we make no apology for this – founded on very strong Christian values as you know. We as a party will continue to have those strong Christian values and part of that is in and around the traditional views in terms of marriage.’
This decision to support their current stance on abortion comes even after the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission ruled that the current abortion legislation in place is a breach of basic human rights.