There is no doubting that Ian Paisley was one of the biggest characters that Northern Ireland politics through the troubles and in the years of peace since the end has ever seen. He founded his own party which is now the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly and also founded his own Church the Free Presbyterian Church in Ulster which maybe not surprisingly is disproportionately strongly represented within the DUP.
We do have him to thank for the return of devolution to Northern Ireland in 2007 and the longest continuous period of devolved power here since the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament and return to direct rule in 1972.
Today his wife Eileen has announced that he has passed on and therefore our thoughts are with her their two sons, three daughters and grandchildren for their personal loss.
However, we know that he took decades to catch up with many in Northern Ireland to realise that the only way to end conflict in our wee country was to sit down with Sinn Féin and accept that the will of the people some 6 or 7 years earlier to accept the Belfast Agreement was the only way for Northern Ireland to progress. Sadly for the LGBT community there is some progress that he never seemed to make and for us the legacy within his party is that they are still fighting to “Save Ulster from Sodomy” which is another organisation that he set up.
Of course on 25th October 1982 he has his turn in Westminster to speak against decriminalising homosexuality here in Northern Ireland. Part of his speech was:
“I regret the fact that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State were not prepared to listen to the strong representations made to them by many deputations. Each person in Northern Ireland has a right to his own conviction and some people there believe that homosexuality is not only a defiance of human law but a defiance of divine law. [Hon. Members: "Oh"!] I make no apology. I shall maintain in the House, no matter what point of view shouts, the right to say what I think needs to be said.
“The things that have been brought into the order that need not have been are matters that the Secretary of State, when he heard these strong representations, could have given in to. Instead of that, he was prepared to go on and present this matter as it has been presented.
“The House should know the strong feelings in Northern Ireland, and that those feelings do not come from one particular party or one particular religion, but from across the whole strata of Northern Ireland society. The one thing that binds society together is the family unit. Those who say that the family unit is ignorance, are welcome to that sort of belief. I believe that the family unit is the basic cement of society. This order, legalising homosexuality, attacks the very cement of society. It weakens not only the moral but the social fibre of society. Those of us who believe in the sanctity of the home and in the strength and moral power of the home must voice their opposition to the order.”
However, in the same speech some 22 years before the introduction of Civil Partnerships in the UK and over 30 years before the introduction of same-sex marriages it may be that Ian Paisley was one of the first to raise the possibility of these happening. Of course he was anti when he raised the issue but in the same speech he did say:
“If the nations of Europe go further and say that points must be given for homes for those who enter into a homosexual relationship on marriage, what will the House’s attitude be to that?”
Paisley may well therefore have been one of the first MPs to allude to equal marriage in the House of Commons. But of course currently it is not the nations of Europe that have gone further and called for same-sex or equal marriage but those of the Union a word that appears within the name of the party he formed.
When Civil partnerships were up for discussion he said it wouldn’t prove significant in Northern Ireland:
“The census of 2001 found only 288 same-sex couple households in the whole of Northern Ireland. The Government say that only 5 per cent. of same-sex couples will commit to civil partnerships. Well, 5 per cent. of 288 is 14, so 14 couples in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity provided by the Bill, even though a majority of people who have a view on the matter across the political and religious divide oppose it. Their voices were not heard or taken into account. The basis of family law in Northern Ireland is to be changed for the sake of 14 homosexual couples.”
Well to the end of 2012 there were 727 Civil Partnerships carried out here in Northern Ireland, so clearly this was something that mattered to far more than the 14 couples Dr Paisley thought it was a concern for or the 288 couples who in 2001 were bold enough on the census to list themselves as in a relationship. But of course these people hadn’t just appeared since 2001 the situation in Northern Ireland since then has merely made them more likely to be open and honest about who they are. Most of those who were adults and cohabiting in 2001 would have been children or teenagers at the height of the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign. Many of them will have internalised their identity or fled Northern Ireland to be able to live openly as who they are. With the change in Northern Irish society being more able to accept otherness they have opened up or returned.
The extended coverage on Northern Ireland television today is talking about his faith, his decision to come in from the cold and enter the executive but it is skirting around the elephant in the room. Sadly it is an elephant that still stamps through the DUP. While they are a party that believes now that Roman Catholics can be trusted in positions of power LGBT people cannot be trusted to not ruin families, society and Northern Ireland if they are allowed equality.
He turned around on working with Sinn Féin and though his language may have softened down the years, his presence protesting ever LGBT step out from behind closed doors no longer evident, he never really stepped