What the ‘gay cake’ case tells us about Northern Ireland’s fractured peace process

Ashers Bakery case just the icing on the cake. Brian Lawless/PA

The case of unlawful discrimination brought against Ashers Bakery for refusing to bake a cake featuring gay partners is more than it seems. More than an issue of gay rights in Northern Ireland, it is best understood as a reflection of the ambivalence of that country’s peace process.

It is ironic that the case was proven on the same day as the historic handshake between Gerry Adams and Prince Charles, for the message is exactly the same: people cannot let their personal feelings about others prevent them from doing what is right for progress within the constraints of the law. But this will not be the lesson taken by most supporters of Ashers Bakery.

The idea that businesses have human rights, or that businesses have a religious conscience that allows them to refuse lawful service because they disagree or dislike customers’ lifestyle, religion, race, or political beliefs, would in most other places result in outrage. But sadly, the case has been appropriated according to attitudes towards Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Legacy of the Troubles

The impact of the Troubles is replete throughout this case. At the simplest level, this is an example of homophobia within the conservative Christian community in Northern Ireland. I use the word homophobia deliberately since this is more than religiously motivated dislike of the practice of homosexuality.

It is perfectly permissible to hold religious beliefs that result in dislike of homosexuality on grounds of conscience, but quite another to discriminate against LGBT people. This was a case of unequal and discriminatory behaviour rather than religiously motivated attitudes towards a particular sexual orientation.

In Northern Ireland, though, supporters of Ashers Bakery represented the issue as one of religious freedom – the right not just to believe what you want about any category of person, but to act towards them on the basis of that belief so long as the practice is sanctioned by religious conscience. This represents a fundamental misreading of the law, if not also of Christian doctrine.

In a democratic society, the law cannot legislate for or against religious beliefs. But it should ensure equality of treatment for others who behave differently within the law because they hold other beliefs or none at all.

A powerful legacy. Fribbler, CC BY-SA

The case developed devotees, however, because it touched on two legacies of the conflict. First, the successful prosecution of the bakery demonstrates the success of the equality agenda established under Northern Ireland’s peace process. As a result, reaction to the decision is partly shaped by people’s feelings toward the equality agenda written into the peace process.

Some dislike the principle of equality because they see it as a concession to Republicans imposed by a duplicitous British government that wants rid of Unionists. Thus, upholding anti-discrimination principles is looked on differently when these principles are perceived to be essentially anti-Unionist.

There is a second legacy of the conflict at play in that Conservative forms of Christianity still dominate in Northern Ireland, whether in terms of conservative Catholicism or evangelicalism. The violence inhibited secularisation and liberalisation and by default created defensive religions, resistant to change, where religious practices were conserved as part of protecting sectarian identities that seemed under threat.

Everyday life brutalised

More significantly, the Troubles brutalised everyday life, turning it not only inward and conservative but violent and aggressive. This is still evident in the rise of race hate crime, where one occurs every three hours in Belfast according to police figures, as well as in the polarisation of community relations, the continued reproduction of sectarian identity politics, and high levels of suicide, substance abuse and use of antidepressants.

But religion, too, was brutalised, as shown in the emphasis in Northern Irish Christianity on the hectoring, judgemental, fire-and-brimstone God of the Old Testament rather than the empathetic, loving, merciful, forgiving Jesus.

The popularity of religious fundamentalism, conservative forms of institutional religion, and a conservative moral social agenda, need to be located in this wider context. And this why some Christians of a more liberal persuasion have responded to the case by asking where Jesus was in it all.

As Robinson noted, the attention placed on only some religious beliefs – in this case toward homosexuality – has made conservative Christians lose sight of the purpose of belief in Jesus in the first place. I would contend that the reason for this is partly to be understood as a result of the brutalisation of religion as one of the lasting effects of the violence on everyday life in Northern Ireland.