Can social conservativism redefine political division in Northern Ireland?

You might think listening to some of Northern Ireland’s commentators that in every instance any centre right case for freedom is doomed against a centre left case for equality since the latter is already a done deal: ie, that the centre right loses not simply on merit but because they have no popular support.

Yet the largest and (at least by the limited terms of elective democracy) the most successful political party in Northern Ireland is also the least loved by the media. Increasingly it also likes to define itself as centre right.

Yet as the Economist points out (h/t Kate), playing each issue as it comes has its merits, not least in the case of #CakeGate where the DUP is making common cause with non secularist of both communities:

Paul Givan, a young politician from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose roots are in sharp-edged Protestantism, invoked Catholic as well as Protestant concerns when he floated a piece of draft legislation which would allow businesses and other organisations to turn down jobs if issues of deeply held personal belief were at stake. He cited a recent decision by Catholic bishops to withdraw backing from an adoption agency rather than treat same-sex couples on the same terms as heterosexual ones; and the story of a bakery whose evangelical owners (pictured) turned away an order for a cake which would have carried the slogan, “Support Gay Marriage”.

The idea of a sort of pan-religious “moral majority” is perfectly realistic, Mr Givan insists. He told me that in his constituency south of Belfast, some Catholics had assured him they were voting for the DUP because of its conservative stance on abortion and gay marriage. At a launch event for his proposal, he was happy to welcome a representative of the Belfast Islamic Centre. That suggests a happier turn in relations between the DUP and local Muslims, who felt patronised when party leader and first minister Peter Robinson said that he would trust a Muslim to “go down to the shops” for him.

Secularists and gay-rights activists say they are appalled by Mr Givan’s initiative, which in their view could lead back to the bad old days of businesses picking and choosing their customers on sectarian or ethnic grounds. As John O’Doherty of the Rainbow Project, a gay-rights group, put it: “We don’t have a problem with Christians, but they seem to have a problem with us—and it’s a very fundamental problem, because they object to who we are. When they tell us that we shouldn’t be who we are, it’s like us telling Christians they shouldn’t worship on a Sunday.”

The outcome of Northern Ireland’s escalating culture war will depend a lot on how each side manages to frame the issue. A Britain-wide opinion poll suggests that the “gay-cakes” affair could be a gift to social conservatives, because many people appear convinced by the bakery’s argument that it was not turning away a customer, but merely declining to play an active role in propagating a message that offends its conscience. On the other hand, the same poll found clear majorities for the view that businesses, including hotels, should generally be obliged to treat all customers, including same-sex couples, alike.

Writing in the print edition of the paper the same writer concludes:

So should Catholic traditionalists vote for the DUP, even though Paisley once called the pope “the scarlet woman of Rome”? Senior DUP leaders, who resist change to a restrictive abortion regime, say their party is a logical choice for faithful Catholics.

Father Tim Bartlett, a Catholic spokesman, insists that the church will never tell people how to vote; but it does urge the faithful to assess the parties’ stance on moral matters. For Catholics, he adds, the issues of abortion and gay marriage might now be “of a higher order” than the old quarrel over flags which has been “parked” by the peace process.

It doesn’t mean the Christian schisms of the 16th Century will disappear soon, but an interesting faultline in the political landscape that has had scant attention from a definitively liberal press and media.

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