The death of the Reverend Ian Paisley is occasion for reflection upon the United Kingdom’s most famous religious firebrand, and certainly one of the most memorable and divisive political figures of modern times.
He will rightly be remembered for his hardline and extreme unionist stance throughout his political and religious career, for his extreme brand of Loyalism and premillenial Protestantism, which informed all of his political career – and also for the mystery of why, in 2006, he agreed to power sharing in Northern Ireland, given his rejection of the Belfast Peace Agreement in 1998.
But Paisley’s life was testament to a deeply painful social history. Northern Ireland’s society and politics have been synonymous with deep and bitter religiously orientated sectarianism, violence, conflict, militarism, and seemingly intractable community schisms since the late 1960s. And for much of that time, Paisley was one of the most vocal and most recognisable forces behind its continued division.
And yet the seemly intractable oppositions within Northern Ireland appeared to come together in remarkable unanimity on one particular issue, which Paisley almost made his own: the question of male homosexuality, and of sexual minorities in general.
No, no, no!
The Northern Irish parliament stoutly resisted any attempt to impose the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which had partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. Even after the imposition of direct rule and the ending of devolved government in 1972, opposition to any attempt by the Northern Ireland Office to introduce this legislation was voluble and intense.
A high-profile case brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Dudgeon v United Kingdom, eventually forced the United Kingdom government to impose the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982. Indeed, it was a landmark case at the ECHR itself. It was the court’s first case to be decided in favour of LGBT rights, and it now forms the basis in European law for all member states, in particular new states joining the EU.
Opposition to decriminalising male homosexuality appealed to many across the sectarian divide, but the real impetus to keep gay sex criminal came from the evangelically inspired and highly popular “Save Ulster from Sodomy!” campaign, headed by Paisley, Peter Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party in the 1970s and the 1980s and targeted at lesbians and gay men.
Out of Ireland
In Paisley’s worldview, Ulster, the hallowed province, had to be made fit for the second coming of Christ, and therefore needed “saving” from sodomy. In a society riven by male-dominated violence and religious conflict, LGBT people would at the very least be wary about exploring their sexuality, and certainly emotions of guilt shaped and directed their lives. And for most Irish LGBT people, the only way to lead normal lives has long been to leave Northern Ireland.
It’s remarkable to recall the extent to which the Roman Catholic hierarchy gave its tacit support to this campaign, and the ways in which paramilitary organisations on both sides of the conflict came to view LGBT people as “natural betrayers” in their midst. More than anything else, religion and sectarianism shaped the lives of LGBT people in Northern Ireland until the peace process of the late 1990s.
And yet still, Paisley’s legacy of continuing homophobia in Northern Ireland is palpable to this day. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the DUP-dominated Stormont parliament has vetoed the gay marriage bill multiple times; evangelically motivated politicians of all stripes feel free to make outright homophobic comments on a regular basis.
Northern Ireland’s society is also unique in Western Europe in the intensity and the extent of its homophobic attitudes. In a huge research project into bigotry in Western countries conducted in 2007, Northern Ireland was the most homophobic of 23 territories surveyed, topping the list along with Greece.
Paisley’s legacy for the Northern Irish sectarian conflict is hugely complicated in itself – but his broader impact on Northern Ireland’s society also endures.