Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

Gay cakes and the politics of conscience

2 Mar

A fascinating ethical and practical issue is playing itself out in Northern Ireland at the moment, but it has much wider implications. The issue started with a family owned and self-declared ‘Christian’ bakery refusing to bake a cake that would be adorned with a pro-gay marriage slogan. Lots of media and political commentary followed that showed how Northern Ireland – like many other societies – hosts very diverse views on moral issues. While some voices are at the forefront of a progressive equality mission, others remind us that biblical literalism is alive and well.

The issue has made the news afresh because a member of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has proposed a ‘conscience clause’ in equality legislation that is due to come into force. The Catholic Church – often the target of DUP ire – has come out in support of a conscience clause. A case of social conservatives sticking together, I suppose.

My first inclination was to be abhorred by the notion of social conservatives coming together to discriminate against certain groups in society. Especially abhorrent was the cynicism of specifically applying the conscience clause to equality legislation that is there to protect discriminated-against groups. Let us face it, the Catholic Church and the DUP social agenda often seem stuck in centuries past. And some of their respective representatives seem prone to practising what they do not preach in relation to sex and morality. The notion of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (or race or religion etc.) is despicable, and the fact that this is even an issue is embarrassing.

But the notion of a conscience clause, and particularly the politics of conscience, got me thinking. We all have a conscience, or think we have one. It often engages with the very core of our being – drawing on intuition and our affective dimension. It is not wholly subject to our rational self (or I suspect that to be the case). Moreover, the idea of conscience moves us away from the thinking of ideologues who follow a particular ‘line’ regardless of the issue. Conscience might free us from that and reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions that most of us harbour. It also frees us (and politicians) from the weird rule that political parties must be obeyed by their members and that one subscribes to all parts of a manifesto. In thinking of a conscience, I am thinking of politicians who may want to deviate – on moral grounds – from party policy on issues like the death penalty or experimentation on embryos.

So the idea of the politics of conscience (as opposed to the cynicism of a conscience clause) is attractive (I am indebted to discuss with Professor Marie Breen-Smyth for differentiating between a conscience clause and the politics of conscience). It seems liberating and humane and gives space for agency and the individuality that is often excluded from orthodox politics. It is also a reminder that politicians are (or can be) individuals with a conscience.

But then we come back to the case we opened with: the right of a business owner to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation (or race, religion etc.). It offends my liberal sensibilities that anyone would discriminate on such a basis. But then I thought of my own practice – both professionally and privately. I withhold my labour in political ways. For example, I think twice about cooperating with colleagues at Israeli institutions lest I support apartheid. I have engaged in strikes for better conditions, and avoided dealings with some other institutions when they were involved in labour disputes. Personally, I alter my shopping habits on the basis of politics and conscience. None of this is to give the impression that I am some sort of ethical saint. I am not. But it does underline how conscience plays a role in our everyday practice and worldview.

As any good liberal would be, I am tortured over this issue of conscience and the implications it has for discrimination and social conservativism. In the case of public services one can see how they should be open to all, without discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion etc. In the case of privately run businesses, I am not so sure, even though that brings me to a morally very uncomfortable place. On the one hand, do we really want to live in a society with a series of no-go zones for sections of the population (but then we already have that in reality – especially in relation to economic ability)? On the other hand, do we really want to force individuals to do things that they find (for reasons we might profoundly disagree with) morally abhorrent?

What we are probably seeing in Northern Ireland is the cynical use of a conscience clause to dodge the responsibilities of equality legislation. That should not detract from allowing space for individuals and societies to develop a politics of conscience.

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Welcome to Britain in 2015. The Minister of the Environment denies that climate change is linked to human activity. The Minister for Health outlaws abortion. The Minister of Education decrees that creationism (that the world was made in seven days) is taught in all primary schools.

5 Jan

You might think that this is some sort of weird fantasy. But there is a possibility – after the May 2015 UK general election – that the Democratic Unionist Party (a Northern Ireland group of hard-line social conservatives) goes into coalition government with the Conservative Party.

There has been much commentary and speculation on the forthcoming UK General Election and the likelihood that either of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives – will be unable to form a majority. Much of the commentary has been on possible coalition partners and the deal they would extract in exchange for keeping a government in power. Commentators have mainly focused on two scenarios. In the first, the United Kingdom Independence Party – a Eurosceptic group of Britain-firsters – would form an alliance with the Conservatives. In return the Conservatives would hold a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. But since Prime Minister Cameron has already said he would hold such a referendum, he would have to give something more to appease UKIP – possibly just a straight exit.

The second scenario that has been mooted in the media has been the Scottish Nationalist Party holding the balance of power and extracting promises linked to their independent Scotland agenda. The SNP are on something of a roll, having marshalled an amazing 45 per cent of Scottish voters into voting to leave the UK in the September 2014 referendum. The SNP is widely expected to make serious gains in the Westminster election at the expense of a Labour Party that is seen as remote and London-orientated. So, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the SNP could hold the balance of power in the UK after the May 2015 general election.

But let me introduce a third scenario – one that is rarely discussed in the UK media: a Conservative-Democratic Unionist Party coalition. The DUP are Northern Ireland’s largest political party and currently have eight seats. They will probably gain a few more seats in the general election. If the election is as close as many commentators believe, then it could be that just a small number of additional seats are required to allow one of the main parties into power. The Conservatives are the natural bedfellows of the DUP: right wing, unionist, unsympathetic to the state as a provider of welfare, Eurosceptic …

So what would a Conservative-DUP coalition look like? Well, the Conservatives have been steadily shifting to the right over the past few years. In part, has been as part of an attempt to outflank UKIP. It is also a reflection of candidate selection of right-wingers – essentially Thatcher’s children who believe in rolling back the welfare state, killing off the National Health Service, and allowing their friends in the City of London to exploit a low-wage economy. So the Conservatives are a known quantity.

The DUP, however, deserve scrutiny. They are well known in Northern Ireland but with the peace process largely out of the headlines, many people in the UK know little about them. They were founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley, boycotted the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and now their leader – Peter Robinson – is the First Minister of Northern Ireland’s powersharing Assembly.

Rather than give a political history of the DUP it is probably best just to highlight a few beliefs of their representatives. Then leave it to your imagination to think through the possibilities if these people were in power in the UK:

– The DUP Mayor of Ballymena said that Hurricane Katrina in the American South was an act by God to prevent a gay parade that was due to take place in New Orleans two days after the hurricane struck. He also blamed AIDS on the ‘filthy practice of sodomy’.

– A senior DUP member, Sammy Wilson, regards climate change debates as ‘a con’ and ‘uninformed hysteria’. He is sceptical that humans are responsible for climate change. Mr Wilson is an MP in the Westminster Parliament and a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

– Iris Robinson, the wife of the DUP leader and herself a former MP, believes that homosexuality is worse than child abuse. She was quoted as saying: ‘There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”

– First Minister Peter Robinson was forced to make a bizarre apology when he defended a Belfast Pastor who called Islam ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’. As part of his apology, Mr Robinson said that he would trust Muslims to ‘go to the shops for him’.

Presumably the real concessions that the DUP would seek to extract would be related to their Northern Ireland agenda. The vast majority of citizens in the UK would not care about this so the DUP would be able to extract a hefty price in terms of their agenda over parades, policing and the administration of justice. But the real fun would start when a Conservative-DUP coalition was faced with issues of conscience, sexuality, morality and medical ethics. Many DUP members are firmly rooted in the seventeenth century in terms of their social outlook. Would the Conservatives be prepared to enter into such a bargain to get their hands on power? The answer, I suspect, would be yes.