Friday, 19 December 2014

Can the DUP answer a simple question?

Yesterday on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show (about 34:30) Paul Givan, the author of the conscience clause bill, was asked a rather simple question.

"Do the DUP still want to make gay sex illegal?"

He did all he could to squirm out of answering it, saying he was dealing in the real world, even saying it was irrelevant to his conscience clause. He said his party didn't want to go back 20 years, although his conscience clause does go some way back removing some of the protections established here only 8 years ago.

But it is a relevant question, there have been slips through the years. Sammy Wilson, then the Minister for Finance and Personnel on 1 Oct 2012 said:

"I do not agree with the Civil Partnership Act 2004. As Mr Allister pointed out, that was the toe in the door and a means for pushing the boundaries even further in a direction that I, and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, do no wish them to be pushed as fas as changes in society are concerned."

It is hard to determine if the later Sexual Orientaion Regualtions to the Equality Act were part of this pushing the boundaries as these comments did come in the first Equal Marriage debate in the Assembly.

Today we have Edwin "Keep the Blood Ban" Poots trying to defend his party to claims of bigotry from Stephen Fry. Saying:

"While the debate takes place we can keep putting out a message that this isn't about an attack on people's rights, it's actually a defence of people's rights.
"I think that is part of the problem – every time someone says something it is put out there we are taking rights away from people but that's not what it's about."

There is therefore concern that I cannot recall one incidence of a DUP elected representative actually standing up and speaking in favour of any LGBT equality issue. By that I don't mean saying something like "the law says" in making a statement but actually saying "I or my party support the right of LGBT people to...". I also do not recall (and I have checked through Hansard both at Westminster and Stormont) a single DUP vote in favour of LGBT legislation.

There is a pattern of behaviour from the DUP of which Mr Givan's bill is just the latest manifestation, that at every step they have opposed LGBT equality. Whether the decriminalisation, civil partnerships, equality act provisions, blood ban, adoption, marriage.

So therefore a very relevant question for the DUP to answer is "Does the DUP still want to recriminalise gay sex?"

Because if so their conscience clause in the words of Sammy Wilson above is just a toe in the door and a means for pushing the boundaries even further in a direction that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland would have a conscience objection to if they were to know the end desire.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Today could have been the day I became married

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that today could have been the day that I got married.

While I was over in Scotland there was a serious relationship with another man the talk did get towards the stage of should we look towards a civil partnership. In the end our lives took over and we ended up not having enough time for each other and drifting apart, on this occasion it actually wasn't me in an election year that led to the lack of time.

So it is possible that in some alternative universe he and I could today be converting our Scottish civil partnership into a marriage. It would seem appropriate for someone who campaigned to get equal marriage as a policy for the Scottish Liberal Democrats including the conversion of CPs to do so on the first day. As it is I am sitting here in Northern Ireland single and knowing that my friends here who are in civil partnerships will not be able to convert them. Worse I know that all those recently converted CPs into marriages, and those in England and Wales already and those from Scotland from 15 days time who were never in a CP but married will find themselves in a civil partnership if they come over here.

The fight for equal marriage in the UK is not yet complete.

First the recognition of same sex marriage is still not being recognised by the politicians that represent about half the electorate in Northern Ireland. It is almost as if protestant, unionist and loyalist LGBT people do not exist. Tell that to Julie-Anne Corr.

But then we do have to expand it so that humanists can have a tailor made wedding ceremony to fit them if they desire, rather than the bland heavily regulated and scripted prescribed civil ceremony that town halls offer.

We need to deal with the issues facing Transgender people, ending the spousal veto, restoring lost years from the forced dissolution of marriages and civil partnerships before transitioning was allowed to take place.

There is also the fact that civil partnerships remain and make equality skewed. If we are to keep them we need to open them up to mixed sex couples who do not want to have a marriage for whatever reason, but have the protections and rights under laws that other long term committed relationships have both in live and death.

Today's news in Scotland is welcome and I look forward to the first marriages without conversion on Hogmaney. But there is still work to do and some in this great country of ours to make all things equal.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Equal Marriage was never just about gay rights

Apparently number 10 Downing Street are about to ignore overwhelming support to a public consultation and block opening the right to carry out marriage to humanist celebrants in England and Wales.

This would have brought England and Wales in line with Scotland where since 2005 humanists have been able to marry mixed sex couples. It would also put them at the forefront along with only USA and Australia in having humanists able to carry out marriage at all. It is a sign that those of use who were fighting for marriage equality were not only thinking about it as a gay rights issue.

Sadly the Conservatives in Westminster have already diluted some of the aspects that the Liberal Democrats recognised when we formed policy on marriage equality in 2010 with relation to transgender people, so this is an attack on the other thread of what we understood and vote for in relation to equal marriage.

You see equal marriage isn't only about allowing same-sex couples to marry. It was about those people who are transgender not having to divorce or dissolve an exisiting marriage or civil partnership and not losing the years that before now would not count while they transitioned if their partner remained with them. It is about expanding who can carry out marriages further than the established church, to other denominations and faiths to also include humanists in our society. It is also about opening civil partnerships to those of mixed gender who do not want a marriage but want civil protections for their partner in the event of their death, life, illness or creating new birth.

Equal marriage is not just a gay rights issue. It is an equality issue.

The Conservatives just think it is about ticking one box but actually it is deeper than that and I am proud to have been part of the process to seek to give that equality to others when it does not affect me directly.

Note: This is what differentiates a humanist wedding from a mere civil ceremony

Friday, 12 December 2014

Parties cancel trip to brewery

DUP and Sinn Féin are sorry to announce that the planned piss up at Hilden Brewery this weekend has had to be cancelled.

Find out more here.

Today's letter in the Newsletter

This morning the following letter of mine was published in the Newsletter.

I read Rev Kirkland's letter (11 December) with dismay. He claims it is right to bring balance to an unbalanced provision with the conscience clause.

The Sexual Orientation regulations within the Equality Act in 2006 were the means to bring that balance to a then unbalanced provision. This conscience clause is step back to how things were for LGBT people in Northern Ireland before that time. It was the reason I and many other LGBT people left Northern Ireland as soon as we were able as adults to find more tolerance in Britain.

However, this conscience clause uses some pretty strong language and some pretty open interpretation of three key words. It states:

"Nothing in these regulations shall make it unlawful to restrict provision of goods, facilities and avoid endorsing, promoting or facilitating behaviour or beliefs which conflict with the strong held religious convictions."

I not that this is added solely to the Sexual Orientation Regulations and not the Equality Act as a whole. So matters of conscience that the bible mentions far more than same-sex relationships are clearly not a matter of conscience that people of faith want to restrict provision to. This therefore makes it only an anti-LGBT change to the Equality Act.

But what is meant by endorsing, promoting and facilitating those beliefs and behaviour?

Part of most people's behaviour is to go out and enjoy a meal in a restaurant. Are a same-sex couple enjoying a romantic dinner to be turned away by restauranteurs for they are endorsing same-sex romance?

If I walk into a store wearing a Pride T-shirt could I be refused service as the owner would not want to be seen endorsing Pride and the LGBT community?

Could a Christian landlord throw an LGBT person or couple out from their flat as he does not want to facilitate what he thinks is happening under his roof, while he legally cannot do the same to an unmarried couple without just cause?

This is not about the conscience of those of faith, as some of them are actually supportive of LGBT people, this is blatant direct discrimination that actually removes the balance in the Equality Act.

It is giving people of faith the right to come up with a reason to refuse one group protected under the act, that is LGBT people, goods, services and facilities with full protection under the law. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Correspondence with Gordon Dunne

I wrote to my MLA Gordon Dunne after his question in the Assembly this week. It is somewhat of a shock that I actually heard back so promptly, this is an MLA who has failed to answer me on a whole number of previous correspondence. I do not think I am breaching any confidence by publishing his full response:

"Your comments are noted!"

Yes there is an explanation mark at the end of his short reply so I am taking that to be a terse reply.

For the record here is the email I wrote to him.

Dear Gordon,
I was rather disappointed in your question during topical questions to OFMDFM yesterday.
Firstly the Equality Commission have to operate independently of political interference from any Executive Department or the Assembly as a whole, as they may have to make decisions on actions from within the Assembly. Therefore you were quite rightly told that this is the case.
On the matter of legal proceedings these have to be based on the law as it stands at the moment and the time of the incident in question. Proceedings cannot be halted while any Government is in the process of changing the law. 
But there is no Assembly Bill to change the law, there is a private member's bill which is at the consultation stage. Has yet to be assess for an equality audit under the conditions of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act or be voted on in the chamber.
I know that the history of consultation on matters that concern LGBT isn't great, the first on a sexual orientation strategy occurred in 2006 under direct rule and we are still waiting for the imminent publication of the actual strategy and action plan.
In hindsight, it might have helped if at some point in the last 8 years such a strategy and action plan had actually been published to supplement the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regualations (Northern Ireland) 2006. It may well have be able to help the Equality Commission to determine where the regulations stood on the expression of something promoting a topical political discussion and people of faith running a business for commercial purposes.
I have read the consultation document on the conscience clause with all its leading questions and narrative. I'm also rather shocked at how badly drafted it appears to be, relating commercial enterprise to regulation 16 which relates directly to religious bodies, rather than regulation 5 which relates to goods, facilities and services. I shall be making a formal response in due course.
However, I am wondering if the wording of your question is an indication of shift in DUP policy and practice. Is your party trying to stall members of the LGBT community seeking recourse through the courts by introducing legislation; claiming such governmental proceedings should have precedence over legal action?
As with my points above:
(a) legal proceedings should be free from political interference(b) legal proceedings must be based on present law, not hypothetical changes in future(c) legal proceedings must be timely and not subject to delays caused by drawn out legislative process.
Therefore I hope this is not the case of a DUP strategy. It is interference in legal proceedings and like the conscience clause is not about freedom of conscience but about the right of some to find ways and means to act homophobically with the protection of the law.
I hope that you do read this and will actually take time to respond.
Yours Sincerely
Stephen Glenn 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Gordon Dunne yesterday in Stormont

Yesterday in Stormont one of my MLAs for North Down Gordon Dunne (DUP) asked the following question to OFMDFM:

Mr Dunne asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they believe that, given the launch today of a private Member’s Bill to include a conscience clause, the Equality Commission should now withdraw legal action against Ashers Bakery pending the outcome of the legislative process. (AQT 1861/11-15)
The response seeing as it was the Deputy First Minister answering the questions (although he deferred to his junior minister was actually better than if it had been left to the unionist side of OFMDFM I suspect.
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, junior Minister McCann will answer this question.
Ms J McCann: I thank the Member for his question. I am aware that some discussions took place between the Equality Commission and the bakery prior to the civil case being taken. The main issue is the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious beliefs or political opinion. I think that the civil case will determine whether any discrimination has taken place.
Mr Dunne: I thank the junior Minister for her answer. Does she agree that the Equality Commission should withdraw its legal action pending against Ashers Bakery at this time?
Ms J McCann: It is not up to OFDMFM to agree or disagree with the Equality Commission. It is its own body and it has an independent role to advance fairness and equality for all. It is also responsible for implementing legislation on all those cases and challenging discrimination. We have to leave it to the Equality Commission because, at the end of the day, that will be where it will see whether discrimination happened. I am sure that the Equality Commission will have taken whatever measures it could have before entering into that case.

The point is that no matter what anybody's political persuasion the Equality Commission has to be allowed to operate independently as it is often testing the Assembly's own adherence to equality. Plus they have to act on the law as it stands at the moment.

Indeed surely the Assembly which has taken over 8 years in some consultations and still no action on activity cannot delay the legal process. But does this mean that this consultation and possibly never enacted Bill are a new stalling tactic that the DUP are using to prevent LGBT people from getting a determination in law if they feel their rights have been violated. If so, this is a new low even for the DUP and proves that the Conscience Clause is nothing of the sort but a get at LGBT people by a different means.