Election ’15: A Campaign Dominated by Moral Issues

Jim Wells. Gays and child abuse. Rathfriland lesbians. Thruples. Criminalising homosexuals. Assembly motion exposing divided parties on Same Sex marriage. Calls for a NI Same Sex marriage referendum.

We’ve hit the final weekend before polling day, and there is growing anticipation around the results in a number of local constituencies, and even greater excitement and uncertainty concerning how the chips will fall at Westminster after Thursday.

But one noticeable feature of Election 2015 in Northern Ireland has been how the election campaign has been dominated by what might be termed moral issues, as opposed to vexed disputes relating to ‘The Troubles’, peace process or constitutional and identity related themes.

That is in no way to suggest that the moral issues will act as the greatest determining factor when people choose where to place their X on Thursday. Rather, it is simply to note that these issues dominated discussions throughout the campaign in a way that was not as apparent in previous electoral contests in the state.

In any case, for the overwhelming majority of voters, the constitutional question will continue to define the parameters of our respective voting options into the forseeable future. But within that narrower voting field, moral issues are a factor which can influence the final decision as to whom to cast a vote for.

It is common for moral issues to dominate election campaigns in other democracies, and perhaps none more so than the USA- and this link illustrates the political gulf that can exists between supporters of the two main parties in the United States on some of the moral issues which are now increasingly defining much of the political agenda in Ireland and Britain.

The Jim Wells saga brought to the fore once again the DUP and political unionism’s strident moral conservative outlook on LGBT issues, which was reinforced by Peter Robinson’s BBC The View utterances in response to one of his senior party councillors, Paul McClean, expressing the opinion that homosexuality should be made illegal.

Robinson’s remarks, that he hoped people would abide by the law if that situation did arise, have brought more front page negative headlines for the DUP leader in today’s The Sunday Life, which won’t do the campaigns of Gavin Robinson nor Jonathan Bell any good, though at least Gavin should be comfortably enough ahead to not fret too much on such matters.

Incidentally, Bell can count himself lucky that his somewhat bizarre expression of concern regarding ‘thruples’, or three-person marriages, as reported by Sam McBride, did not go viral and bring yet more unwelcome attention to a party which has even managed to provoke an angry retort from Kyle Paisley, the son of the DUP founder and one time leader, Ian Paisley, over its morally conservative views.

Robinson’s U-turn on the issue of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, a policy change announced on the same The View programme, precipitated a remarkable public rebuke from a DUP party member, Michael Cameron, carried in The Newsletter, and an angry emotional response from some women who have endured the painful experience of giving birth in such tragic circumstances.

More so than any other party, the DUP are vulnerable to electoral blowback from such public utterances quite simply because the party has, in an electoral sense, managed to create such a broad coalition of support across the protestant communities in the north of Ireland.

The DUP’s electoral success, with 8 MPs and 38 MLAs, has been constructed with the benefit of not having a credible alternative unionist party to provide a challenge, either from the centre left on socio-economic issues, or from a more liberal standpoint on moral issues.

The Ulster Unionist Party stands as a type of ‘Mini-Me’ figure, mimicking DUP policy and outlook in a range of areas to the extent that unionist voters have naturally felt obliged to opt for the stronger, more authentic version of the same product when presented with a choice- and, as the outworkings of the 2015 version of the Unionist Pact demonstrate, that choice will not always even be offered, again to the benefit of the more tactically astute DUP.

The sporadic noises made to date by the smaller loyalist-aligned political parties, most notably the PUP, have yet to prove anything other than a minor irritant to the DUP, and the loyalist party’s failure to even field one candidate in this election illustrates how ill-equipped they are to mount a challenge to the DUP at this time.

Thus, the party of academic selection and low taxation will continue to sweep the board in working-class protestant communities, whilst many liberal protestants and unionists will look past their instinctive unease at the homophobic whiff emanating from the party when marking their ‘X’ on the ballot paper.

Consequently, as in the case of Sinn Fein, many DUP voters will cast their vote for DUP candidates on Thursday in spite of their policies in a wide range of areas, as opposed to because of them.

In the medium to long term, that is something that should give hope for other parties within both unionism and nationalism, but which also will continue to provide the challenge to the DUP (in particular) but also to Sinn Fein to keep the base as broad as possible, mitigating against extreme voices which alienate parts of the broader electoral base.

The moral agenda also stung the SDLP and Alliance Party. Both parties were exposed as being divided over the same sex marriage issue, divisions which led to a perfectly timed Sinn Fein Assembly motion on the issue being defeated because of the abstaining SDLP and Alliance MLAs, provoking bitter pronouncements by aggrieved party members in its aftermath.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP will jealously seek to protect their electoral dominance, and retaining their populist appeal will leave them vulnerable to parties more firmly rooted in an ideological sense to a fixed position on the political spectrum- either in the socio-economic or moral realm.

For nationalism, that will likely mean a party settling on a more conservative moral ground with a centre-right socio-economic outlook, capable of reflecting the more traditionally catholic outlook on moral issues and capitalizing on middle-class unease with Sinn Fein’s social and economic policy rhetoric.

But, for now, Sinn Fein stands apart as the only nationalist party appearing to have a sense of purpose and direction, and, coupled with their shrewd positioning on popular moral issues (see Martin McGuinness’ audible in the wake of the Wells furore, when he called for a Same Sex marriage referendum in Northern Ireland, as well as the timing of the Assembly motion on the same theme), Sinn Fein appear to be heading towards polling day without the imponderables worrying a DUP leadership that must feel like they’ve been in reactive mode throughout an election campaign that has felt like no other in Northern Irish history.


  • Zig70

    These kind of articles seem prefaced with the assumption that the good people here don’t have a conservative Christian outlook in the main. Is there decent evidence to back this? Is it that the DUP have broad support or that moderates have been turned off voting, equally on both sides to? I don’t know many who would admit to voting at all?

  • Glenn Clare
  • Glenn Clare

    http://sluggerotoole.com/2008/03/20/gerry-must-go/ Sinn Fein’s real record according to the Andytown news. Until they were told to remove it or should that be ordered to remove it and apologise to the sainted Gerry Adams of Clonard. As for a moral issue where do Sinn Fein really stand on the issue of pedophilia, keeping pedophilia secret and secret IRA kangaroo courts. Morality another Sinn Fein oxymoron.

  • Gopher

    “Shrewd positioning on popular Moral issues” Unfortunately the Narcolepsy tweet by Martin displayed the seriousness SF take any moral issue ie zero.

    As for worrying about “imponderables”,SF face many probably more than any other party, turnout being the greatest. Migration from core seats, apathy, rivalry, lack of resources, by and large poor candidates and most importantly they have not been able to articulate their point to standing in this election except for turning it into a secterian headcount (again) when real benefits can be won for Northern Ireland. The Manifesto was nothing short of hilairious and “Lets be clear on this” Hazards defence of it even funnier.

    The DUP, UUP, Alliance and SDLP are pretty poor fair but they have one distinct advantage, they are not SF

  • Zig70

    West Belfast is also a damning indictment of so called Christians who would still see it burn rather than spend a penny helping the most vulnerable in our society. The unsaid bit that everyone knows in the moral critic of the DUP.

  • Pat Hines

    Good article, although I wonder how many local readers will get the “audible” metaphor. 😉

  • Stephen

    In regard to Sinn Fein I feel its imperative to concentrate on what they are doing now in 2015 rather than what the IRA did in 1972. Of course there are those in the SF hierarchy and core membership who are inextricably linked to the IRA a fact we cannot deny, however a day will come when the link will be historical only which poses the question what stick will political unionism/loyalism use then to beat them with?

  • banana man

    the whole equal marriage situation will send young protestants to SF, I have spoken to 2 young gay men from staunchly unionist/orange backgrounds who will be voting SF, however the declining nationalist turnout is a worry for me. most nationalists just dont feel the need to turnout at this election apart from the obvious areas such as Upper Bann and North Belfast which will affect SF’s vote share to decrease 2 years in a row

  • Gopher

    What is the point them voting for SF in a Westminister election since it will have absolutely no effect on gay marriage? Not the smartest young gay men from unionist/orange back grounds.

  • Pete

    Why would Bells thruples remark have gone viral?

    If someone is in favour of redefining marriage to be between 2 people of any gender, why should they be against 3 people getting married? As long as they are all consenting, whats the problem?

  • Zeno

    “the whole equal marriage situation will send young protestants to SF”

    It doesn’t say much for them if they will vote for anyone who supports gay marriage.

  • Gopher

    I think the biggest stick which SF beats itself with is the monlithic nature of the party and it being beholden to one man. The refreshing thing about this election is the DUP have been shown to have varying opinions from the quite mad to the slightly reasonable and have been (relatively) freer in expressing them. I think that needs nurtured. Freewill on the other hand just does not exist in an idelogical party like SF even in moral issues as the recent scandals and the falling back into line once Gerry decided from Louth he could not agree a budget for Northern Ireland. Marty and especially the ex Mayor were made to look like wee lads called to bed. Chris Hazard then had the task of explaininng Gerry’s budget this election in the traditional method “The newbie gets the stick”. A policy strictly enforced after Alex Maskey found himself incapable of giving one reason for a United Ireland when asked on Nolan. “Lets be clear on this”

    It is noticable unionists have not been beating SF with many sticks this election which is quite refreshing and just sticking to the more seats are better for Northern Ireland message

    The flagellation SF has to cope with is self inflicted.

  • banana man

    Imagine voting for a party based on a policy that will effect their whole life.

  • banana man

    maybe send a message to the DUP that they are so out of line with their own community?

  • Gopher

    They can vote Green, they can vote CISTA that gets the message across without losing their reprentation if they feel that strongly. If they live in East Belfast a vote for Naomi would be have greater effect and keep representation.

    Even in the assembly there is less point voting for any party if Gay marriage is your sole interest because the petition of concern effectively stops it dead. “Minority rule on crack”

  • Zeno

    They are not just a gay marriage party. They do support other things that the majority of us don’t. A vote for SF or the DUP is a vote for eye poke politics.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Good opinion piece Chris. I wouldn’t disagree with much of what you have written above and I certainly agree that the DUP are on a slippery slope with regard to their conservative (perhaps facist, some might say) views and their inability to change. However on the point of McGuniness suggesting a referendum on same sex marriage and the accurate points made below by commentators on the still conservative nature of NI, is he sure he could “win” a referendum? More generally, and I’m loath to say this, but the grasping of moral issues by the electorate may also be a function of the fact that these issues are easily grasped and also pounced upon by the media, being reported over and over again. Much of the electorate don’t understand (through choice or otherwise) the important concepts of the economy, which is the key issue in this and most all elections. The media and the political parties both have a case to answer on this.

  • barnshee

    “what stick will political unionism/loyalism use then to beat them with?”

    The stick will still be there -“Vote SF the party that brought
    you/ supported : Abercorn La Mon, Enniskillen, Omagh etc etc

    Acts firmly embedded in the memories of 3 ( or more) generations
    A bit like “our day will come”

  • Korhomme

    I’m not disagreeing with you, Chris, but the issues you raise might be better labelled as ‘social issues determined by moral views’. Capital punishment, for example, isn’t exactly a ‘social issue’ but it certainly has a moral dimension. Expressions of sexuality, and what two—or more—people get up to in private are social issues determined here by particular moral viewpoints, some of which are bonkers. Abortion is a social issue determined by moral viewpoints, sometimes ‘Biblical’. (Mrs Susan-Anne White’s ‘Biblically’ correct election manifesto has as it’s first point closing the Marie Stopes pregnancy advice clinic. Abortion is not mentioned in the Bible.) Fundamental/Evangelical/Biblical Christianity or just Christianity certainly form the basis of moral viewpoints; but they aren’t the only founts of such opinions.

  • kalista63

    What in the name of good god went on between Jane Christie, Sarah Ewart and Jim Wells? With a couple of exceptions, the DUP are fekn mental cases and not in the, gets you endlessly off the hook, way.

  • Croiteir

    Well here is one republican who will not vote due to the support for SSM, abortion and integrated education,
    I even know some nationalists who will be voting DUP due to the support for some/all of these issues by nationalist/republican parties

  • Turgon

    Pete that is actually a major issue. The second largest faith group on the planet allows a man to marry up to four women. Few muslims may want to do this but it is their right. In parts of Christian Africa polygamy is also practiced.

    If we are going to redefine civil marriage away form the western tradition of one man and one woman then we should be inclusive. That must mean marriage (or civil partnership) for any person and any other who can consent. That would also include unmarried siblings living together. A disabled person and their long term carer etc.

    Raising the status of non biologically related sexual / romantic two person relationships above all others is simply discrimination. Indeed one could truly call it perverse.

    If we want equality we should mean it and not simply have different discrimination.

  • Zeno

    Our local Assembly don’t have the power to call a binding referendum and that would require a change in the Law by Westminster. Makes you wonder if the call is yet another Trojan Horse?

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Z – I’d trust the man sweeping the streets in Belfast to take a more rounded and intelligent view than the boys sitting in Stormont. Someone, I think it was Chris, pointed out that only in NI do you get a farmer running the Department of Health and a chef running the Department of Education. I could count on the fingers of one hand the assembly members I have any respect for – intellectually, socially, whatever. They are laughable in their incompetence. And unfortunately they represent us. What an awful reflection…..

  • Zeno

    This is exactly my view. I wonder how democracy (government of the people by the people) came to mean choosing the lesser idiot to lead you, and marking an X beside his/her name on the ballot paper. I don’t think I’m over fussy, but to me a leader is someone with a level of competence that allows him to use a bit of common sense when making a decision. Someone who has the foresight to see that decisions have consequences. It also helps if he can talk coherently and isn’t racist or sectarian.
    You can see why I never vote.

  • Pete

    Yes, I agree with your broad point. If marriage is no longer one man one woman, then why not three men? What would be the logic in permitting two men but banning three men?