In the last 24 hours, I’ve been asked for my thoughts on the possibility that changes in the DUP signal a ‘lurch to the right’, as someone engaged in the campaign for reproductive rights. There is no doubt that the idea of the most socially conservative Christian fundamentalists taking a firmer grip of the wheel of the largest party in the north is concerning to anyone who believes in human rights, equality and social justice. Their reputation on issues that affect women, LGBT people and racial or religious minorities has been splashed across social media in recent days, with the spotlight on some of the front runners in the forthcoming leadership contest.
However, my personal concern over these events is tempered by two important considerations. Firstly, I find it hard to visualise how any organisation can lurch to somewhere they’ve been permanently settled for as long as I can remember. Shuffle a little perhaps, press their noses harder against the window to the promised land, but with all the room left on that side of the political spectrum, anyone trying to lurch might do themselves an injury. On the issue of abortion, in particular, the DUP has never given an inch. Despite there being liberal views among their membership and nuanced attitudes that have been expressed to me by some of their elected representatives, the leadership has enforced the party position emphatically. Not that the DUP are alone in this approach – I’ve lost count of the number of Sinn Fein representatives who think that assuring you they personally hold views on abortion that are more progressive than the official party policy somehow makes their shortcomings on this issue excusable. However, no other party has fought the liberalising of abortion law quite so ferociously as the DUP. Therefore shuffling the roles at the helm of their organisation won’t change much. The political mechanisms they use to try to deny women and pregnant people access to reproductive choice won’t change and neither will the democratic and legal mechanisms that we use to resist their interference in our lives.
Secondly, I am struck by the fact that despite the DUP’s consistent opposition to progressive social change it is happening anyway. Mistaking their political mandate as the Assembly’s largest party for grassroots endorsement of their conservative social attitudes has always been a mistake. Many Unionists vote DUP in spite of the religious fundamentalism, not because of it and the under 40s are rapidly losing the ability to hold their nose and swallow views that can be perceived as homophobia, misogyny or racism. The reality of the harm done by the Christian right is catching up with us all, mostly through the telling of stories and the willingness of a society finally ready to listen. It’s hard to oppose same-sex marriage when you know your son’s boyfriend is the best thing that ever happened to him. When you’re the one in three women who have had an abortion it might have come with complicated feelings but you’re glad you at least had the freedom to make that choice for yourself and you’re certainly not going to tell someone else that they can’t. The authoritarian, moralistic worldview of the DUP is not made for real life and so real people are leaving it, and them, behind.
Even within the sphere of Christianity, space they regularly claim authority over, their ideology is a marginal one. Northern Ireland has always had a broad spectrum of religious expression within the Christian denominations and a vocal progressive faith movement both within traditional church structures and outside of them. The intervention of progressive Christian organisation Left Side Up in the recent Assembly motion to ban conversion therapy drew significant attention from the media and provided leverage for elected representatives to claim their own identity as people of faith in the political arena, carrying with them a different set of religious values rooted in the inherent dignity of all people, equality, inclusion and the primacy of love above all else. Similar conversations are happening in faith contexts on the issue of abortion that will inject an important alternative voice into the public debate, one that is arguably more representative of ordinary people in the pews.
So let the DUP lurch wherever they want. They have lost the run of themselves and they have long since lost the ability to control the social landscape of Northern Ireland. My greatest concern in all of this is the harm that will be done to people as the new leadership inevitably ramps up their grandstanding on these issues. I’ve stopped being able to listen to Assembly debates on abortion; as someone who has been through the experience, I need to protect myself from the stigmatising language and the attempts to divorce the issue from the head, heart and body experiences of women like me. I sat in a Zoom call last week with LGBT folks the evening of the conversion therapy debate and it was painful not to be able to reach out and hug those in tears because of the re-traumatising narrative during the day’s proceedings. The media of course feed this unhealthy cycle of horror and outrage and I suspect some might relish the possibility of an Edwin Poots leadership for the endless hours of airtime or lines of copy that someone with his track record in audacity is bound to provide. But if we refuse to have our humanity diminished and commit to looking after each other, in the end, it is the DUP who will set themselves on a path to destruction.
Editors note: Please do not go off-topic and debate abortion and gay rights. Stay on the subject of the post.
Kellie Turtle is a Feminist Activist and PhD researcher at Ulster University.