It all began with Bert and Ernie.
Earlier this year, Asher’s Baking Company of Newtonabbey, just north of Belfast, refused a commission for a cake with a Pro Marriage Equality slogan above the titular Seasame Street dwellers. The bakery is now facing the consequences of the choice, as the Equality Commission informed the owners that unless the breach in law was acknowledged, and recompense was given, they would face legal action. The company’s solicitors made a statement that the ‘their view remains unchanged’ and they have no intention to offer recompense to the gay activist who made the order, due to the owners being Christian.
However, they now have some powerful allies, found in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the largest party in the Northern Irish Assembly. Jimmy Spratt, a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA, the Northern Irish form of an MP/MSP), branded the Equality Commission actions as ‘bullying, and some might even say persecution’. He further claimed that the company had a right to refuse the order on religious grounds. Of course it is bullying – you can’t just pay a bakery to bake you a cake.
The party seems intent to make Spratt’s claims of persecution a legal reality, as MLA Paul Givan, also of the DUP, announced his intention to introduce a bill which would allow religious people to legally discriminate against LGBTQ+ citizens. ‘We now are heading towards a community where it’s not just about live and let live – people are now saying, ‘you need to affirm my particular lifestyle and if that goes against your conscience, you have to do that. That isn’t equality, it’s persecution’.
Despite this politician’s lack of a basic grasp on the concept of persecution, it looks like he may be already gathering strong support for the proposed bill. First Minister Peter Robinson has already chimed in to give his backing, as well as calling for DUP member’s to donate to cover the bakery’s legal costs.
The question now is, how likely is this to pass?
At this extremely early stage, it is difficult to say, as the bill has not yet even been drafted. However, this would not be the first time that the DUP has used their power as the largest party in Stormont to persecute the LGBTQ+ citizens of Northern Ireland. For instance, just earlier this year they used their power of veto to prevent a Marriage Equality Bill passing for the third time. Not only do the party have a majority vote, but they also have the ability to block amendments to any proposed bill with a Petition of Concern – meaning that any proposed motion must be agreed on equally by both sides of the house, rather than a simple majority vote.
However, we are not totally fucked yet. The bill will take a year or more to become law and it is unlikely that it will be received warmly in Westminster or in the European political community. While there is no certainty of Givan’s plans as of yet, this does speak volumes about the Northern Irish political climate – the only place in the U.K. without legal abortion, marriage equality and Bert and Ernie cake.