something rotten in the State of Ulster

She was a nice wee girl, very friendly.. mind you all the same, I don’t know what her religion was.

So goes the art of the cautious compliment in Belfast.

This backhanded, potentially deprecating form of description is as authentically Northern Irish as the orange sash, the armoured Land Rover and your mammy’s fried soda bread.


Northern Ireland is a peculiarly strange and difficult thing to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived in it or through it. Understanding why religion qualifies a person’s character is baffling to most people. But, cultural life in Ulster, (the northern province of Ireland), starts from the day you are born and splits into two very neat halves, like two teams in a sports match: the Catholics in the green shirts and the Protestants in the orange.

Orange sash

You have to be born into one of these two communities, because other minorities in Ulster are so minor that they can be counted on the fingers of a few hundred hands (and in any case the great majority of them are so busy cooking sweet and sour at Chinese takeaways with alluring Oriental names like ‘Lucky Dragon’ or ‘The Golden Peaches’, that you’ll never meet them anyway.)


During the Troubles, Catholic and Protestant always meant the good and the bad, depending of course on what side you’re supporting; it is the black and the white, the orange and the green. Contrast, and difference. The politically euphemistic term for this is “the two communities”. Segregated schooling over the years created two very distinct notions of identity: myself and ‘the Other’. There are terms of endearment for each other: a Catholic is referred to as a ‘Fenian’ and a Protestant as a ‘Prod’. (Both also serve as adjectives and often go well with the word ‘bastard’, when enhanced rhetorical emphasis is called for).

The Troubles, which saw almost daily bombs and shootings for around thirty years, was a well-rehearsed example of sectarianism with sawn-off shotguns. (Note: the word sectarian functions in NI in exactly the same way as racism functions in South Africa, and elsewhere.) The main political agents in these two sides are the most prominent cultural icons in all of Northern Ireland: (the late) Rev. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, suffered patiently over the years by a pin-striped cast of British prime ministers, all of whom wrestled their Cambridge educations and buffoonish Secretaries of State on an enduring problem which none could solve – not until the Rt Hon. Tony Blair forced the Good Friday Agreement into existence.


But in the mundane day-to-day of life, set against endless Atlantic rain and warm grey skies, it is a sincerely-held sense of personal guilt which explains the great Northern Irish distaste for ‘otherness’; an aversion to foreignness, strangeness, and unorthodoxy. Guilt for displays of largesse and luxury. The thinking that nothing good comes from the conspicuous consumption of wealth. Thinking highly of oneself is gauche; displaying it, vulgar; and flaunting it, unthinkable.

Posh Christmas gifts from Harrods or Fortnum’s, put under the tree by prodigal children with jobs and lives in London, sit awkwardly unopened, misunderstood and uneaten well into the summer.

Who would pay twenty pounds for a jar of strawberry jam, anyway?

And even if someone gave it to us, when would we ever eat it?

England is a place forever just out of reach. So near, and yet so far – and perhaps that’s how it should be: ‘across the water’ is the undiscovered land, from whose bourn practically none have returned – at least not to stay permanently.

Into this scene of guilty austerity isolation and hostility, enter stage left the political parties whose success is due to the cult of personality of their founders and leaders. The Democratic Unionist Party, whose leader Ian Paisley advocated kicking “many’s a pope”, is a dominant player. The DUP’s Ballymena-born founder felt the Presbyterianism of the mainstream Church to be too decadent and permissive, and he founded his own church, the Free Presbyterian Church – as all great reformers must do – with a mix of Unionist political fervor and strict religious observance. Paisley saw the hand of the devil in liberalism, secularism and the Catholic Church. Sermons in the ‘Free P’ blend geo-political pride and theological strictness in a way that has only really been outdone by adherents of Radical Islam. Congregations provide votes at Election time for their minister-MPs, creating an unstoppable political machine to be reckoned with.


Ballymena, County Antrim, is the ideological heartland of the DUP and there are – or at least there used to be not long ago – people who listened to his sermons on cassette tapes in their car.

The Ulster Unionist Party is a much more bourgeois creation, an ideological offshoot of the British Tory Party, unionist by name but not really entirely there in spirit, and not willing to get down and dirty enough to make it happen.

Yet there is a small niche within this landscape, allied to none of the above: the gay community. Homosexuality is really not central to the Northern Irish experience – at least, no more than the polar bear is central to the cultural imagination of the Gulf emirates. Most gay people leave, or stay firmly in the closet, and there is enough guilt and modesty in the Catholic and Protestant traditions to keep practically everyone busy all of the time. Belfast’s gay scene is a seedy, downmarket, behind-closed-doors-Friday/Saturday-night kind of affair. Distant Dublin’s more upmarket saunas, restaurants and clubs are revered in admiring, hushed tones; wicked weekends away are planned. The influx of students at Queen’s University provides a passing trade, enough to pad out the gyrating, alcopopping dancefloor, but gay pride and rainbow glory is by no means, whatsoever, something that readily comes to mind when ones thinks of life in a city where real men of a certain generation still have Love and Hate tattooed in behind the gold jewelry of their knuckles.


But, times have moved on – sort of. There is peace, and Northern Ireland has watched as its neighbour to the south went from donkey republic to darling of the eurozone. It became slowly apparent, with the Republic’s economic success, that perhaps Dublin might not be so interested in the dream of Irish national reunification after all. It seemed that things were more modern, that life was no longer drawn around sectarian lines. But the “gay cake” incident at Asher’s bakery showed that those old lines and the religious fervor which gave them so much meaning “haven’t gone away” – as Gerry Adams might have put it – and they remain just as powerful.

In reacting to this single case over the cake, a DUP member moved to introduce a ‘conscience clause’ in equality legislation allowing a service provider to be exempt from having to serve a gay or lesbian client where that service would involve “endorsing, promoting or facilitating a same-sex sexual relationship, in violation of a faith identity”. This is very similar to the kind of “gay Jim Crow” laws that are springing up in the more religious states of the United States. It’s important to note this law is written to be about same-sex relationships, not individuals.

A critique of this kind of law starts with the admission that, inevitably, it will be expanded upon in practice that can create a loophole for discrimination large enough to march a lodge of Orangemen through. The Rainbow Coalition states that it would be permissible for a restaurant to refuse to serve food to a same-sex couple, a hotel to deny them a room and a bank to deny them a mortgage. Public consultation on the bill ends on 27 February and a petition against the bill raised 100,000 petitions in the first 48 hours. Can the law stand up to the test, if it is passed? Can such a strange law survive judicial scrutiny in the many test cases which are sure to come to it?

Divisive it may be, but it is very hard to see how the social progress and development of Northern Ireland – a place which is uniquely horrible in its bloody past – can be served in any constructive sense of the word by the realignment and reactivation of religious paradigms which target individuals and groups. The time for that is long since past. Yes, there is guilt and there is prudence and there are people who still need to qualify a person’s character by reference to their affiliation. But strengthening the divisive power of personal held beliefs and legislating them into society as a whole is a huge, terrible, awful step towards a past that is truly best left in textbooks of history.

It’s not about name-calling and talking about medieval mentalities (although the #dupdinosaurs hashtag is probably spot on) and this sort of thing does nothing to raise the level of debate. But, rather understanding that by allowing space in the law books for arbitrarily intolerant ideas, we are nurturing privately-held prejudices, letting them thrive and take root once again. This sort of thing is cancer and it spreads. (It doesn’t help when the body of the patient has had it before and almost succumbed to it.)

It is absolutely time to send the message that the old forms of division, strife, class and community warfare – the old trick of thumping your Bible and shouting at the top of your voice to get votes, trampling on everyone else on the way to the top – simply don’t work any more, and have no place in any society.


The petition can be signed here

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