Beyond the Palin

As America goes to the polls to elect the 44th President of the United States, a previously little known gun totting social conservative, with hard-line views on abortion, gay rights and creationism have caused a media storm, breathing unpredictability into an otherwise electorally forgone conclusion.

Whilst the Palin factor has generated headlines and column inches across the States, and the world, across the Atlantic, this wee spot in Europe has been contemplating another, less famous, evangelical fundamentalist female politician, with equally uncompromising views of the society in which we live.

And so it was this summer, that Iris Robinson, the wife of the First Minister, embarked on an astonishing series of attacks directed at the provinces gay community.

She appeared on BBC Radio Ulster one June morning to belittle the forthcoming Belfast Pride parade, insisting, unsurprisingly, that neither she nor her husband would be in attendance as it was an abomination.

Less than a week later a young man was severely attacked in Ballyduff on the outskirts of Belfast in what the police described as a homophobic attack.

Two days after this attack Mrs Robinson was back on the same BBC show to insist that she had a psychiatrist who worked with her who had a track record in curing’ gay people from their lifestyle choices’.

The inference was clear – this young man was attacked because he was gay, so Iris’s solution was not to challenge the societal homophobia which manifests itself so violently, but challenge the victims of such brutality to change their ways, thus no longer making them a target.

Not content to simply dispense her, albeit questionable, Bible based moral guidance to the LGBT population of Ulster, Mrs Robinson offered a legal -social commentary, by proclaiming during a House of Commons Grand Committee debate that there can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality, than the abuse of innocent children.

Overnight she surpassed the folksy, you betcha, social conservatism of Palin and became something all together more disturbing a hate mongering ayatollah on a moral crusade.

Northern Ireland is, of course, not alien to such medieval bigotry. Last year a joint University of Ulster / University of Queensland study placed the province as the homophobic capital of the west. But the Robinson saga clearly indicated a shift within wider society from passive indifference to outright horror that political leaders in a community with a history such as ours could still hold such a propensity for hatred towards a minority.

An online petition calling for the Prime Minister to censure Mrs Robinson attracted 18,000 plus signatories. Similarly the Belfast Telegraph conducted its own poll, which, on a parochial level, showed some 70% of respondents in favour of her resigning.

These actions, whilst not materialising into some formal governmental reprimand, clearly helped harness broad public opinion and mobilise and unite the gay community over Pride week, culminating in a parade attracting over 7,000 participantSeand featuring representatives of every political party in Northern Ireland, save, of course, Mrs Robinson’s Democratic Unionists.

Northern Ireland’s last acceptable prejudice was finally being challenged across the socio-political spectrum.

Paradoxically, despite the best efforts of the DUP and their cohorts, the gay community in Northern Ireland is thriving, particularly outside the established scene in Belfast and Londonderry.

A new bar has recently opened in the border town of Strabane, whilst regular club nights have arrived in the towns of Newry and Bangor.

And our new gay rugby side, The Ulster Titans, despite the DUP minister for sport decrying their creation as sporting apartheid, walked away with the shield at their inaugural participation at the gay rugby World Cup. Success was hailed with a three part BBC NI documentary celebrating their achievements. The documentary wasn’t voyeuristic, but rather in the typical Ulster fashion of celebrating all achievements emanating from the province regardless of sporting code or sexuality.

Meanwhile governmental funding has provided a development officer for the sector, working to establish and encourage local social and support groups in Craigavon, Lisburn, North Down and the Causeway coast.

This funding, which has underpinned the significant advances the community has made over the last number of years, is due to expire in April. It was allocated by direct rule ministers, before devolution, and as it comes to an end few of us hold out for sensible funding solutions from a DUP led executive.

We wait with baited breath for the publication of our devolved administrations Sexual Orientation Strategy in the coming months, but in this austerian age the excuses for a fledgling executive who can’t even agree to hold a meeting, are all to ready to justify withholding further funds to the community sector.

Famously Tony Blair sympathised with the plight of the moderate nationalist party the SDLP during protracted peace process negotiations, when he noted that their negotiating gravitas was hampered by the fact the did not process a paramilitary wing.

So too the gay community, which has been something of a forerunner in cross community relations in a still divided Northern Ireland, has been underfunded and marginalised by the, perceived, more pressing issue of bridging the sectarian divide.

The new political dispensation does not allow for Protestant Catholic feuding, but political expediency dictates a common enemy is useful particularly for a party whose bread and butter is bible bashing dogma. Just as Palin can deflect questions over her experience and record by playing the God card, Mrs Robinson shored up support from the evangelical core of the Democratic Unionists for her husbands succession of Ian Paisley as leader of that party. The party was not secularising or losing its moral compass by power sharing with Sinn Fein.

Robinson, like Paisley, hates the gays.

Governor Pailn may represent the cliched view of small town America, but Mrs Robinson has exemplified the finest traditions of small minded Northern Ireland.

Given that there has been a 175% increase in homophobic motivated incidents in her own constituency over the past year is it not reasonable to presume that by saying the things she has said the local MP could be stoking tension, giving a degree of kudos to those whose attitudes which are similar to Mrs Robinson’s manifest themselves not over the airwaves, but through acts of violence?

Hate crime law is vague at present, and as such there remains the possibility that by claiming gay people are worse than paedophiles the MP for Strangford is inciting hatred, even if she herself does not throw the punch, petrol bomb or brick.

Aristophanes said that under every stone lies a politician. Under the boulder of homophobia in Northern Ireland still remainSean entire party of government.

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