Northern Ireland divided over new rights for gays

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The Independent Online

Twenty-five years after Northern Ireland's gay rights campaigners first defeated Rev Ian Paisley's infamous quest to "Save Ulster from Sodomy", a new war against homosexuality is being waged on the streets of Belfast.

In 1982 Rev Paisley and his Free Presbyterian Church tried to stop the introduction of a gay age of consent. This time the church and its political allies are attempting to block new laws that will protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination by hoteliers and guesthouse owners.

Under changes that come into force today Northern Ireland is to trailblaze regulations which make it unlawful to refuse goods and services to people on grounds of sexual orientation.

In response, an alliance of church and political groups, has gone to the High Court in Belfast to try to have the law overturned, saying that they discriminate against Christians and their teachings.

For P A MagLochlainn, 61, who was at the forefront of the campaign to stop Rev Paisley and his crusade it is a case of history repeating itself.

"Before we had the age of consent the police would raid homes and guest houses and drag people out of their beds.

"If they couldn't find anyone in them then they would check for pubic hair. Even after 1982, when we won the battle, I still saw people being beaten up just for snogging in public," he said.

Mr MagLochlainn, and his Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, believes he is facing as determined an opposition as the "brimstone and treacle" rhetoric of Rev Paisley and his Free Presbyterian Church in the run up to the introduction of the age of consent.

One of the clerics leading the new church alignment is the Rev Eric McComb who has said that he is prepared to go to prison rather than see the new laws come into force.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: "The Pentecostal movement, on the basis of Holy Scripture, views homosexuality as being deviant and sinful."

The church is also being supported by some of Northern Ireland's politicians. Yesterday a Democratic Unionist urged the government to withdraw the law before it was too late.

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "I am deeply disappointed that the Government has decided to press ahead with this legislation in the face of strong opposition from Christian churches throughout Northern Ireland, including the four main denominations.

"I believe the Government should have taken note of that opposition and withdrawn the regulations to allow the Assembly the opportunity to discuss and debate these issues in more detail and to amend the regulations so as to protect the rights of Christians."

The age of homosexual consent was first introduced in England and Wales in 1967. But because of political opposition to gay rights in Northern Ireland it was not implemented in the province until October 1982.

This time the people of Northern Ireland are to have the new anti-discrimination laws first in what is being seen as an attempt by Labour to crush the fiercest opposition before bringing in the new laws across the country.

The Labour policy is being championed by Peter Hain, Northern Ireland Secretary, who has already defied a call by Ruth Kelly, the Cabinet minister responsible for equality, to hold fire until a common approach has been agreed.

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.

Mr MagLochlainn says Northern Ireland remains a "closeted" place for gays and lesbians. "Certainly among the professional classes it is still very difficult. I don't think there is one lawyer or doctor who feels comfortable enough to be completely 'out'."

Peter Tatchell, of OutRage!, yesterday condemned Christian opposition to the change in the law.

"This new law is long overdue. It gives lesbian and gay people the same protection that has been given to women and black people for many decades. The disparity has been a long-standing injustice. But the religious and political fundamentalism of Northern Ireland has often made life very difficult for lesbian and gay people."

He added: "The belligerent and hateful opposition by sections of the church is a very poor advertisement for Christianity. It bears no relationship to Christ's gospel of love, tolerance and compassion."

Bob Collins, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission said that although attitudes have been changing "we have to confront the reality that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people face unacceptable prejudice in their everyday lives".

He added: "We cannot call ourselves an inclusive society unless we give equality of opportunity to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

"We have to confront discrimination, challenge stereotypes and change attitudes, on this issue as on others, if we are to achieve a fully just and equal society. "