A row has broken out in the Cabinet over how far the Government should go in outlawing discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has pushed through regulations in the province that will be tougher than the Government plans for England, Wales and Scotland. He has defied a call by Ruth Kelly, the Cabinet minister responsible for equality, to hold fire until a common approach has been agreed.
Allies of Ms Kelly have accused Mr Hain of pandering to Labour activists to enhance his prospects in the election for the party's deputy leader next year. His liberal approach may derail sensitive negotiations between the Government and church leaders, who are urging ministers not to put the rights of gays above the rights of Christians. But gay rights campaigners are urging Ms Kelly to extend the Northern Ireland rules to the rest of the UK.
Ms Kelly, a devout Catholic, is sympathetic to pleas by the Anglican and Catholic churches, who claim that tough anti-discrimination laws could force their adoption agencies, youth and breakfast clubs to close, their bookshops could be sued if they refuse to stock gay literature and hotel owners with strong religious beliefs could be fined if they do not allow gay couples to share a room.
New rules will take effect in Northern Ireland on 1 January, when it will become illegal to discriminate in the provision of goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation. The harassment of gays will be specifically outlawed and the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will have the power to intervene without receiving a complaint of discrimination. Ms Kelly plans weaker rules for the rest of the UK with some exemptions for religious groups. They will not take effect until 6 April.
Mr Hain has insisted he is implementing a pledge in Labour's election manifesto last year. He argues that the Government might have missed the chance to legislate in Northern Ireland if it had waited until April, by which time devolved government may be restored to Ulster's politicians. The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, is due to become First Minister and is unlikely to bring in tough anti-discrimination rules.
Another cabinet minister said: "Ruth Kelly has gone ballistic because Peter Hain went ahead even though she told him not to. He has brought in a progressive set of rules but he has made her position more difficult."
Ms Kelly's aides denied a rift with Mr Hain. "Peter is doing what is right for Northern Ireland, where there is a different history and system. We will do what is right for Great Britain," one said. Her Department of Communities and Local Government said: "We are absolutely committed to bringing forward proposals that provide effective protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
In Northern Ireland, a religious group may seek a judicial review in an attempt to block the new rules. The Christian Institute claims they will allow gay rights groups to "harass" Christians over their beliefs, and could result in court actions over lessons about marriage in schools and religious magazines which refuse to take ads from gay groups. Mr Hain denies this.
Colin Hart, the institute's director, said: "Peter Hain talks about equality. But he should read his own regulations, which elevate gay rights above all other rights for religious people, and rights on the grounds of age, sex and disability. It is a preferential status which will drive a coach and horses through religious liberty."Reuse content