Newton Emerson: DUP takes tiny steps forward - and is promptly pilloried
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In an ambiguous tweet last weekend, DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly appeared to send her gay constituents good wishes for Pride. A few days later, Arlene Foster gave a speech and follow-up newspaper interview insisting she is not a homophobe, albeit while still putting her foot down on same sex marriage. A north Down DUP councillor then told columnist Alex Kane “there is nothing wrong with being gay” - although admittedly, by DUP standards, everyone in north Down is gay.
How orchestrated any of this is remains a matter of speculation. It is all very little and very late - and may never amount to enough. The DUP needs to embrace inevitable change, including same-sex marriage, rather than just coyly stepping out of its way. But if the party has any doubt about the wisdom of movement, it should note the torrent of abuse Little-Pengelly received from supposed advocates of reform. The DUP’s opponents would really hate to lose this stick to beat it with.
In Northern Ireland, alas, a journey of two steps forward must include one step back. DUP MLA Jim Wells has resigned from the National Trust over its support for gay issues, causing Alliance leader Naomi Long to announce she will join. Further sympathy with the Trust must be limited while it has yet to explain why it installed then removed a creationist exhibit at the Giant’s Causeway visitors centre seven years ago, apparently at the behest of the DUP-linked Caleb Foundation. In a statement on his resignation, Wells said the Trust would be: “very wise to keep out of controversial social issues which have little of anything to do with its main objectives” - unless it is teaching children the world is only 6,000 years old, of course.
It says something about the paranoia of loyalists that some have seriously suggested Sinn Féin wanted to provoke violence at republican bonfire sites in Belfast this week, to bolster the case against bonfires in general.
Violence has not served that agenda - it has only made clearing sites harder - while any suggestion Sinn Féin wanted trouble is absurd. The party was clearly hoping for a smooth demonstration of leadership on the issue. Failure provoked Jim McVeigh, Sinn Féin’s leader on Belfast City Council and the architect of its new bonfire policy, to propose that parents of rioting children be evicted from social housing. This was widely discussed after the 2011 London riots but would be considered an extraordinary measure here, although it would certainly be popular with long-suffering residents. For Sinn Féin to even raise it proves its dismay.
Four opposing demonstrations took place in central Belfast last Sunday: a dissident parade and loyalist counter-protest, which have previously led to serious violence; plus a far right rally and anti-fascist counter-demonstration outside City Hall. Yet the only recorded disturbance, according to the Belfast Telegraph, was one thrown “tin of juice”. The use of this urchin’s colloquialism seems entirely appropriate.
Labour’s long-time shadow Northern Ireland secretary Kevin McNamara, who died last weekend, has been fondly remember by the SDLP - he was Gerry Fitt and John Hume’s de facto envoy to the Commons for decades. However, he stuck with Hume’s demand for joint authority and timetabled ‘British withdrawal’ long after Hume ditched it for the peace process. In 1995, McNamara resigned from Labour’s front bench when the party backed a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland. His view was that unionists should be “fearful of a Labour government”. In 1997, during negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement, he argued against dropping Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. As late as 2000, he was equivocal about IRA decommissioning. While a lifelong opponent of violence, McNamara ended up begrudging the peace we have.
The Stephen Nolan show has discovered that electric bicycles are still classed as motorcycles in Northern Ireland, uniquely in the UK, because direct rule ministers neglected to copy British law over in 1995 and a suspended Stormont cannot do so now. Anyone riding the vehicles without insurance and a licence is committing an offence. Green Party leader Steven Agnew told the BBC: “It’s something that if we had a functioning assembly could be simply solved, this is something that could be brought in through secondary legislation.” Is he sure? Even when functioning, Stormont rarely seems to pass legislation ‘simply’. If there is the slightest sign that something is wanted by one party more than by another, or merely that one party might get more kudos from it - by virtue of controlling the relevant department, for example - it goes into the pile of bargaining chips in games that can last for years. There is no reason to believe electric bicycle deregulation would be any different. Perhaps the acid test of restoring devolution should be how well it deals with easy problems, rather than hard ones.