The belief that any thing progressive can come out of the new power sharing Executive should have been punctured by Ian Paisley Jnr’s recent rant at gays and lesbians. In an interview with Hotpress magazine he is quoted as saying: "I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and - without caring about it - harm society." He included the usual weasel words about not hating them as individuals only "what they do". However, this week disclaimer does not take away from the discriminatory and inflammatory thrust of what he said.
What makes his statement significant is not just what he said, but the fact that he is now a junior minister in the office of the First and Deputy First Minister. This government department is responsible for promoting human rights and tackling discrimination. Ian Paisley Jnr’s comments put him at complete variance with the duties of his office. They were a clear breach of the ministerial code. In any liberal democratic political system he would have been forced to resign.
However, the Assembly and power-sharing executive do not conform to such norms. They are a sectarian carve up in which parties get into office on the basis of the support they can muster in their respective communities. The DUP is the Protestant party and Sinn Fein the Catholic party. While there is formal equality between the two, in practice the unionists have the whip hand.
The row that followed the Ian Paisley Jnr’s homophobic rant illustrates this well. Ostensibly, Ian Paisley Jnr speaks on behalf of the department that includes Martin McGuinness. However, the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister was powerless to censor him. He was reduced to claiming that Ian Paisley Jnr was "speaking for himself" while in the next breath saying that the "responsibility to deal with this is with the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFDFM), it lies primarily with Ian Paisley Snr". Did Martin McGuinness really expect the man who led the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign to censure his son for making homophobic comments? His record shows that that Ian Paisley is in full concurrence with such views.
The fact is that nationalists have no power of censure over unionists. It is they, Sinn Fein in particular, who are the subject of censure and sanction. Unionists have to demonstrate this inequality to their supporters. The homophobic comments of Ian Paisley’s Jnr are a small example of this. They weren’t just off the cuff or careless remarks, they calculated to show that the DUP will stamp down on anything that even faintly hints of human rights or equality whether that be for gays, women or especially Catholics.
The most disappointing reaction the controversy over Ian Paisley Jnr’s comments was from gay groups. Rights campaigners campaigner Andrew Muir refused to call for his resignation, instead calling for "dialogue and discussion". That such conflict resolution-speak can be trotted out so thoughtlessly shows the degree to which the politics of the peace process has permeated popular consciousness. There is a belief that the process will deliver a more equal and liberal society in the north in spite of the DUP being in the driving seat. This illusion will take time to dispel. But we know it must, if only for that fact the unionists are compelled to dash such hopes in order to secure their own position.