Talking without listening and victory without annihilation

Mick has covered the criminalisation of users of prostitution debate and the spat between Dr. Graham Ellison and Jim Wells ain the Stormont committee below. I thought there might be some merit in looking at what this shows about the DUP’s view of itself, others views of it and how the DUP deals with these sorts of issues. This episode seems to be a case of two sides talking without listening.

I am not going to enter into the merits of the proposals to criminalise users other than to say that there seem people who could be described as broadly progressive both supportive of and opposed to the change.

Critics of the DUP have suggested that their support for this bill is largely based in a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible; moral disapproval of sex outside marriage; misogyny and often spiced with a bit of homophobia and topped with a good dose of sexual repression.

As a semi relevant aside the Bible, whilst condemning prostitution, is frequently complementary about prostitutes. The classic example being Rahab who sheltered the Israelite spies. Numerous attempts have been made to suggest that she was not a prostitute but she is referred to as such in the Bible in Joshua and then very approvingly by both the writer to the Hebrews and James.

The problem seems to be that the DUP genuinely felt that Lord Morrow’s proposal was needed and useful. In addition they felt genuinely that it was progressive and liberal and would be supported by the “right on” just as much as the Bible-bashers.

In contrast those liberals opposed to the changes seem to start from a position that any and all DUP proposals in such a field must stem from bigotry, misogyny, homophobia (and probably sexual repression). There may be a bit of truth somewhere in that in terms of the DUP’s motivations but essentially people like Dr. Ellison seem to believe that there must be an overriding devious and mendacious motive from the DUP.

The DUP’s reaction has itself been characterised by a degree of suspicion: some of its maybe justified but in danger of overreaction. Revealing Dr. Ellison’s intemperate email was probably fair comment (if a little cunning) and pointing to the links between a number of the Bill’s opponents and prostitution is very definitely part of normal political debate. However, to assume that all opponents to the bill are by definition supportive of prostitution, the exploitation of women and fundamentally opposed to the DUP is unlikely to be fair.

The DUP have fairly clearly won this battle. It is most unlikely that Dr. Ellison will want to take on the DUP in the near future. However, the possibility of the DUP seeking to have Ellison disciplined seems a bit disproportionate and unfair.

More politically important than any fairness, however, is the fact that any attempt to discipline Ellison would be to play to the narrative of the backwoodsmen, fundamentalist DUP stifling debate and imposing their antiquated moral values. The fact that Ellison’s views are far from universally held in liberal, progressive circles would likely quickly be forgotten and he might become a martyr whilst the DUP would likely be seen as even more ogreish than they often are.

This would weaken any kudos the DUP might gain from this bill especially as there is a bit of a move elsewhere to follow their essentially Scandavinian model of criminalisation of prostitutes’ users rather than the prostitutes. If the rest of the UK and RoI followed suit they, the DUP, could ironically be the progressive pioneers. That might itself help in some of their outreach to any gnomes (liberal garden centre Prods) and unicorns who might be inclined towards them.

The DUP win frequently in their battles. However, one of their failings is that they keep kicking their opponent when he is down which can lessen their victory as it creates sympathy for the defeated and makes the DUP look churlish. Accepting the armistice can be victory: planting the Red Flag on the Reichstag is not always necessary (that said if we had kept going and planted the Union Flag there in 1918 we might have saved a lot of bother – a debate for another day).

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