What if gay people can change unionism and Northern Ireland faster than any other social or political movement in its short history?
Laugh if you will, but wiser heads know the question has more urgency than you might expect, and more potency too.
Looking over the border at their neighbors in the Republic, unionists have watched a society and politics utterly transformed, so it would be foolish indeed for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to dismiss the growing rainbow threat to its own hegemony.
Who you oppress often reveals more about you than who you are oppressing. No one can deny that the DUP has a special opprobrium for its LGBT citizens. The question is why?
The answer is that, aside from its religious underpinnings, Unionism mission statement has always been to protect its own hegemony, not share it. It’s the design flaw coded into the program. It sees everything unlike itself as a systemic threat. It says no, not yes.
So Unionism treats every request to share power like a computer virus that threatens the operating system (feeding the crocodiles, as Arlene Foster put it). It’s self-isolating, self-replicating and ultimately it’s self-defeating.
In recent decades the moderate and progressive Unionist vote has collapsed, subsumed by the reactionary, outwardly religious Democratic Unionist Party. Unionism has apparently decided that to go forward it must go further back into it’s own past.
In the nationalist community something strikingly dissimilar has happened. Sinn Fein has hoovered up the votes of social and economic conservative Irish nationalists, broadly unifying them behind a much more progressive politics as the Northern question enters its endgame.
Demographics don’t lie, in 15 years or less there will be more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that they will immediately vote to reunite Ireland, but it does mean that a historic rapprochement between unionism and nationalism is increasingly in the interests of both.
History teaches us that is not how the DUP intends to govern, however. Ulster Unionism has tough questions to ask itself now, but as usual it has shown itself extremely unwilling to entertain the new political reality even when it's staring them in the face.
What sort of society does it want Northern Ireland to be in this new century? Is it content to remain a small, sea-divided, oft-ignored poor relation of the wider United Kingdom (where the majority of British voters consider it a stone age throwback) or will it work harder to become a confident, power sharing, and outward looking player within the wider European Union?
Thanks to Brexit and demographics, it can no longer be both.
Interestingly, we already have most of the answer. The unionist leadership has never been shy about iterating its key demands. What they want more than anything is to protect their top dog status in determining Northern Ireland’s affairs, which Theresa May’s government in their desperation to cling to power, has very unwisely handed them.
In the UK the DUP are in the main seen as anti-abortion, anti-gay, and climate change denying religious extremists. They are rejected by their own host, if you will.
But this fact is of no concern to the DUP, they have always felt they were fighting for “themselves alone,” and since 1971 their leaders have traditionally derived a satisfaction of sorts from their pariah status.
But last week an unprecedented march for marriage equality for Northern Ireland’s LGBT citizens did something no other community there has ever been able to successfully do. It united Planter and Gael, liberal and conservative, Christian and agnostic, all marching behind a rainbow banner. It really mattered.
In Northern Ireland, despite the nonsense spouted by politicians and community leaders, parades are undertaken to draw lines and mark borders. They’re the semiotic equivalent of a dog raising its hind leg. They’re overwhelmingly male, militaristic and underpinned by centuries of blistering sectarianism.
In contrast LGBT pride parades are all-inclusive, colorful, gender balanced, welcoming, often riotously funny and supremely non-threatening. They’re the antithesis of a loyalist march, in other words. They’re a reminder that another kind of society, another way of approaching diversity, is possible and frankly preferable.
No wonder the DUP feels the threat of them and wants to contain them. They will fail however, as all quasi-theocratic responses to gay rights always do. Where once unionism had sniffed at their priest ridden, socially backward neighbors to the south, now they have become entrenched and inward looking themselves, an illustration of the old saying, what you fear you find.
In the 1970’s the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote of the nationalist people of the North as feeling “besieged within the siege.” That was certainly true then. Now in 2017, it’s unionism that is feeling increasingly besieged by modernity. They have not adjusted to this new age of social media and gay rights and rapid demographic shifts.
Proof that they feel the growing rainbow pressure arrived this week when DUP leader Arlene Foster spoke (surrounded by her colleagues) of the importance of “not allowing one community to have cultural supremacy over another.”
That jaw-droppingly tone-deaf statement, cynically pitched at voters in the UK who may not know the DUP’s real history, led to critics claiming they have passed beyond parody.
What are all these bonfires if not an expression of supremacy, critics demanded? What were the DUP moves to prevent the Irish language act from being enacted?
And why, if we are suddenly being sensitive to cross community sentiment, has Belfast City Council been actively storing thousands of large wood pallets for loyalist bonfires? What indeed is the nature and aim of the over 2000 yearly orange marches?
In March unionism lost their Stormont majority and the petition of concern they had used to stifle calls for marriage equality in the North. By July they had done a temporary deal with the Tories for an already rapidly dwindling payday, but Price Waterhouse Cooper predicts the new 1 billion deal will be no magic bullet, predicting just 1% growth.
Given the challenges they're facing how long will Arlene Foster be able to meet with the UK and the Republic and EU leaders as the head of an increasingly pariah party that agitates against full LGBT equality?
In Europe the degree of rights afforded to LGBT citizens has become an important benchmark of a functioning democracy. How will it look to preside over the last part in the UK and indeed Western Europe that refuses to provide LGBT citizens those basic guarantees, including the right to marry?
If you grew up in the North during the Troubles you will know what an unmooring and destabilizing threat LGBT rights offers to unionist culture and to loyalism in particular. One embraces all that the other rejects.
To the DUP gay rights looks like a computer virus that unravels the dominant operating system. But the truth is the call for gay rights has already arrived and it's already rapidly transforming Northern Irish society.
It comes from the left and the right, from progressive and conservative quarters, from evangelical and non-practicing homes, from every social class and walk of life, even from within your own homes, and it grows strength from and agitates for all of them.
It's an opponent like no other that unionism has ever faced. Soon the DUP won’t know what’s hit them.