Martin Price writes …
A DUP pamphlet dropped through the letterbox recently and I noticed that there was a lot wrong with the pages towards the back. This isn’t a nationalist response – like 47% of people in Northern Ireland I’m not part of either the unionist or nationalist communities – there’s just a lot of problems with what the DUP are saying.
Points 1-3 deal with a section on same-sex marriage and points 4-6 deal with a section on the Union flag issue written by Peter Robinson.
1. “The DUP…will oppose any attempts to redefine marriage.”
Either the DUP doesn’t know the history of marriage, or they are deliberately ignoring it in order to make their position appear stronger. Presumably, they support redefinitions of marriage such as the 1882 act that allowed wives to own property, the 1929 act that raised the minimum age for marriage to 16 and the 1991 act that allowed husbands to be prosecuted for raping their wives. They should not present their position as a defence of a traditional, unchanging conception of marriage, nor should they pretend that same-sex marriage would alter it for the first time. In addition to the three examples mentioned, there have been several dozen ‘marriage acts’ that have redefined marital law in the United Kingdom alone  and in places outside of the UK, same-sex marriage is part of the traditional definition and considerably pre-dates the introduction of Christianity.
Marriage never had a single definition that applied universally and even in this particular place the current definition is the result of many changes and is increasingly out of step with the legalisation occurring in the rest of the world.
2. “The Coalition for Marriage has taken legal opinion which states that any protections [that churches would have to exempt themselves from the legal obligation to perform same-sex ceremonies] will be successfully…overturned by the courts.”
The was no citation explaining the legal opinion taken, although what this quote presumably refers to is available on the Coalition for Marriage’s website. A single lawyer, Aidan O’Neill, presents several cases that he believes show that future church protections will not stand up in court. The Government Equality’s Office in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport offer a detailed, case-by-case analysis of why Mr O’Neill’s concerns are groundless.
The use of a single dissenting lawyer (who opposes same-sex marriage morally in addition to his comments about its legality ) to give a veneer of respectability to their claims was in evidence in the tactics of an earlier pamphlet against same-sex-marriage that the Coalition for Marriage produced. Independent political fact-checking website fullfact.org concluded that their use of statistics in the pamphlet was both “unfair” and “misleading”.
3. “We believe in religious freedom and tolerance…It’s wrong and intolerant that parties pushing this issue have not recognised this as a matter of conscience.”
This is a continuation of their point, above, that people will have their freedom of religion imposed upon by same-sex marriage. Their legal concerns don’t stand up to any scrutiny. However, the wider problem with their argument is the assumption that there are only two possible positions on same-sex marriage; either you are morally against it and want it to be illegal, or you’re morally for it and want it be legal.
In reality, you can be for the legalisation of same-sex marriage regardless of your moral feelings about it and this is the stance that the DUP should be taking and promoting with their literature. It’s possible to be morally opposed to same-sex marriage whether it is legal or not, but it is obviously not possible to marry another person of the same sex if same-sex marriage is not legal. This is the difference that the DUP gloss over. Their moral opposition to same-sex marriage is unaffected by its legality, just as their moral opposition to different faiths is unaffected by their legality, just as the opposition of someone with a different faith (or no faith at all) to the Protestant religion does not require that it be outlawed.
4. “…Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance for colluding to disrupt the status quo.”
Leaving aside context, ‘colluding’ is a bad word to describe the Union flag vote, as Peter Robinson (who wrote this section) acknowledges that the move was taken by ‘the 24 nationalist councillors facilitated by the 6 Alliance Party councillors every step of the way’. Secrecy is the main part of the definition for the word ‘collusion’ and illegality is also implied when it is used, though this will not materialise either barring an unexpected decision from the Equality Commission.
Given that it was wrong word to use anyway, why use a wrong word that also has such a loaded meaning in the context of Northern Irish politics? This was either an extremely careless choice or Peter Robinson is deliberately comparing the Union Flag vote to the involvement of state security forces in paramilitary murders. Assuming that it was a deliberate choice – and it is difficult to believe someone so used to speeches as the First Minister would choose such a loaded word inadvertently – it shows a total lack of perspective, incredible insensitivity and is needlessly inflammatory.
5. “96% of the public responses supported the retention of the Union flag and less than 10 out of 16,600 responses supported designated days.”
There is no information on how, when or where this polls was carried out, what the questions were, their level of response etc. There isn’t even evidence that it occurred, although it obviously wouldn’t be difficult to poll specific areas of Belfast where these results could be obtained, so I don’t doubt that it did. The lack of transparency is the problem, as the figures are presented as if they represent the public at large, whereas Spotlight polls showed that even immediately after the vote, only a slight majority support the right of protesters to take to the streets at all, and 77% thought the protests should stop by late January, which indicates that the DUP are concealing something in the methodology of the polls they cite in order to inflate the perceived level of opposition to the Union flag vote.
6. “Scores of police officers have been injured and many of the young people involved in the violence will emerge…with nothing to show…but a criminal record. All of this because of an unwanted and unnecessary decision of Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance.”
Here Peter Robinson is laying the blame for the violence carried out by those who disagree with a political decision at the door of those who took the political decision. This is at odds with the central message his and other parties have publicly stressed since the beginning of the peace process – that violence is not an appropriate response to political disagreement. Like the use of the word ‘collusion’ above, this is either extremely poor phrasing – to the point of unbelievably poor – or counter-productive, hypocritical, insensitive and needlessly inflammatory.