Unionism has nothing to fear from the LGBT community

Unionism has nothing to fear from the LGBT community

9 August 2017

JAMES McMordie is a unionist and Christian who happens to be gay. Having worked in Scotland for the ‘Better Together’ pro-UK campaign, he felt no problem fitting into that diverse political scene. Now back home in Saintfield, the question arises — who does he vote for?

Last weekend thousands of people took to the streets of the capital city to celebrate Belfast Pride and demand equality for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland. Among them were many representatives from political parties, proudly holding aloft banners and rainbow coloured flags.

However, there was no sign of any official unionist representation.

For James, “it’s a shame”. “Unionism has nothing to fear from the LGBT+ community and everything to gain by supporting it,” he says.

There is certainly plenty to lose according to a recent study that may be a wake-up call for unionism here.

Younger pro-union Protestant voters in Northern Ireland it seems are increasingly turned off unionist politicians due to their parties’ social conservatism on issues such as gay rights and abortion. While support among Protestants aged under 40 for staying in the UK remains at 82 per cent, a majority of them no longer vote in local elections.

Among the under-40 voters, 63 per cent are in favour of same-sex marriage, according to the University of Liverpool study. And for 18 to 40 year-old Protestants who don’t vote, the level of support is 72 per cent.

James (30) is a PhD student in the Department of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and is continuing his studies back in Saintfield.

“I was six years living over there and working on the Better Together campaign,” he explains. “Last summer I reached out to work with a UUP MLA in Northern Ireland. A number of Scottish politicians are openly gay, but I thought, do I have to be really careful here, with it being socially conservative? I was a bit nervous.”

James felt he had to let the MLA know his own background and was relieved by the response.

“It has not been an issue,” he says. “I was always treated with respect.”

Growing up in a rural, church-focused community in East Down, James says he is “no stranger” to the views of his opponents who see a strong biblical basis to their rejection of equal marriage. It’s a topic that can provoke polemical debate, especially online, but James has no resentment towards those who take a different view.

Coming out, he says was “difficult”.

“I am from Saintfield, my boyfriend is local as well,” he says. “Telling my parents was difficult for me and difficult for them. I was worried. I came out after I left Northern Ireland. I was 23 or 24.

“But then afterwards other people in the community were able to come to my mum in similar circumstances — how did you handle this? How do I respond?

“I feel I can go to church with my parents but I happen to go to church mostly in Belfast now.

“There is also a local minister I am still pals with.”

While not wanting to enter a theological debate on the issue, James interprets statements in the bible on sexuality differently and accepts others have different views.

“I have come to a place where I am content, where I am happy and I will talk to anyone about it, as long as people listen and engage and can have a respectful discussion,” he says. 

James decided to recently become a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, which, although not jumping up and down on the issue of equal marriage, allows its members freedom of conscience.

“I saw the rhetoric of the DUP and I thought, at least the UUP are producing some people who are making the right sort of sounds,” he says.

Considering the UUP’s recent performance in the local elections compared to the dominant DUP — and the potential ramifications of Brexit on Northern Ireland’s prosperity — he has clearly chosen the more difficult route.

“I think that it requires difficult conversations and good politics,” he says. “It’s about the party saying to people —‘We understand and respect that you have this religious view, as do a lot of us, but really this is about the union’. This should not be a wedge issue.”

James also doesn’t believe there is much difference in the views of those living in traditional rural nationalist areas compared to traditional rural unionist areas.

“However Sinn Fein and the SDLP have shown leadership,” he says.

“I am sure there are some in the DUP too who are looking to come out and support equal marriage.”

For James, the consequences are clear if the conversations don’t happen. And it’s something he wrote about for the Northern Slant website, which attracted media attention around the Pride festival.

“Otherwise people might look towards Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s first gay Taoiseach, who attended the Pride breakfast in Belfast,” he says.

“They might ask — Are my values really best represented by unionism?

“People might leave Northern Ireland.

“I have friends who vote for the Alliance and Green parties, even SDLP, who are young Protestants, though partly that would be tactical in places such as South Down. They say unionism is not progressive, backward looking and parochial.”

In James’s view, however, the union represents the chance to be part of a vibrant, multi-cultural society in which we are “greater than the sum of our parts”.

He isn’t ruling out entering political life at some stage in the future and in the meantime wants to continue to engage.

He says certain comments on equal rights for the gay community on social media can be hurtful but by now are “largely water off a duck’s back.” 

Among those hitting the headlines this week were the DUP’s Jim Wells who announced on Twitter that he was cutting ties with the National Trust over a number of issues connected to Pride. 

“If Jim wants to meet, engage, have a cup of tea, I’m up for it,” says James.