Time and time again political parties set the agenda on sectarian lines. Supporting or opposing policies not on their individual merits but simply to act in a contrary manner to their opponents. Instead of engaging on often nuanced, complex matters through debate and development of policies, the win/lose mentality drives political output.
Because unionists – in the main – support leaving the European Union, then republicans – in the main – support remaining within it.
Republicans back the Palestinians. Unionists are shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel. And so it goes on.
Similarly, diametric views can be found in the areas of the Irish language, the military, legacy and now LGBT rights. Because Sinn Fein openly supports equal marriage and the LGBT community, it feels like the DUP factions must oppose it. I’m generalising. But for me, a proud unionist, I find this disturbing in several ways, not least the fact that political labelling means I am automatically lumped into that group that opposes things like same sex-marriage (SSM).
Such stereotyping ignores the subtleties of life. You join a political party because you believe in the broad thrust of its policies and its approach. You do not join to be subjugated and hamstrung by it.
I believe my party – the Ulster Unionists – is better than most. I support SSM. Not all of my colleagues do. But at least we share opinions. Different perspectives are voiced, heard and respected. In that sense we reflect society and the wider debate going on beyond Stormont. And the words are matched by deeds.
On social issues like SSM the party allows free votes. Members follow their conscience, not dictatorial party lines. Any objective assessment must conclude that such enlightenment is missing in the Alliance Party, SDLP, DUP and Sinn Fein.
The Ulster Unionist Party recognises that not all unionists are the same and give everyone a voice. Anyone wanting to join the party will find they have an unrestricted voice on these matters. Yet by having this broad church approach we find ourselves increasingly under attack.
I believe that if a vote on SSM was brought before the Assembly again today it would pass and I would celebrate that. But winning would be hollow unless you bring all of society with you. Therefore I also believe that if all political parties gave their members a free vote on SSM it would still pass and would set the real conditions for change.
The politicians of Northern Ireland can act on behalf of all citizens who share this space or they can act on behalf of only those whose vote they can secure in order to retain power. Right now, Sinn Fein supports SSM purely because it is a vote winner while the DUP opposes SSM for the very same reason.
If both parties, along with other political parties in Northern Ireland, followed the UUP lead and allow a free vote it could take away the win/lose mentality on SSM we are so overwhelmed by.
- Doug Beattie is an Ulster Unionist MLA and writes in a personal capacity