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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The new technocrat DUP can't afford to sound off like cranks

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

The good news for the Democratic Unionist Party, whether you agree with its policies or not, is that it has played a blinder on the big issues since Peter Robinson took over. It is projecting itself as a modern technocratic party which, although it has strong ideological roots, is pragmatic and ruthlessly efficient.

The bad news is that too many of its elected members are using their position to project their wacky theories on everything from homosexuality and the age of the world to the death of Princess Diana and global warming. It's amusing to fly kites in opposition, but you can't afford to look carefree and irresponsible in government.

Robinson, often caricatured as the angry man of Ulster politics, has shown a remarkably cool head and good judgement this month. The first test was Sinn Féin's threat to derail his appointment and force an election unless he agreed the devolution of policing powers, an Irish Language Act. Instead of hitting the roof as might have been expected, Robinson faced them down and left them looking a bit silly as they settled for a six-hour meeting with him in Downing Street.

Robinson behaves well under pressure and managed to wring some advantage from the situation. He made a joint pitch with Martin McGuinness for more funds without conceding anything in return.

Last week he was handed a golden opportunity when Brown faced a rebellion in the parliamentary Labour Party over plans to introduce 42-day detention powers for police forces dealing with terrorist suspects. The DUP could have credibly voted either way. It is traditionally a law and order party and could quote Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI Chief Constable, as being in favour of the powers. On the other hand the DUP voted against 90 day detention powers on the basis that they were excessive.

This gave them leverage and they played it right down to the wire, meeting the prime minister, requesting security briefings, humming and hawing until the last minute. Then they swung their nine votes behind Brown, the exact margin he needed to save the day.

There may or may not have been a formal deal but there is no doubt that during the life of this parliament the DUP will be punching well above its weight at Westminster and will in a great position to secure economic concessions which will make them look good to voters worried about the recession. As Jeffrey Donaldson, said "We have shown how valuable unionism can be at Westminster. We now have the Prime Ministers ear."

That is an influence Sinn Féin doesn't enjoy. In theory the republican party has a very useful five seats at Westminster, but in practice they don't count because of their policy of abstentionism. That may yet have knock on effects for Sinn Féin support at the next Westminster election, an outcome much desired by the DUP.

We have been here before. In 1919 a Sinn Féin landslide gave them 73 seats but effectively removed nationalist influence from the House of Commons, allowing the unionists led by James Craig, with his 26 unionists, to become the voice of Ireland at Westminster. Winston Churchill, who dreaded an alliance between Irish nationalists and British radicals, "rejoiced in the blessed abstentionism of Sinn Féin". So, one might imagine, does Gordon Brown, who now doesn't have to worry about them linking up with the Scottish or Welsh nationalists to put the screws on him every time there is a tight vote.

Abstentionism was based on what Dr Martin Mansergh called "preposterous nonsense" – the claim that the IRA army council was the legitimate government of Ireland and therefore attending Westminster, Stormont or indeed Dáil Eireann was a treasonous act. The absurd theory is now well past its sell by date. Sinn Féin takes its seats in Stormont and Leinster House and the IRA army council looks likely to disband. Still the policy lingers, depriving Sinn Féin of influence it could otherwise deploy.

The DUP has its own hangovers from the party's Paisleyite roots. Unless these are tackled, they have the capacity to hog-tie the party, making it a laughing stock and limiting its potential to unite unionism and create a modern, secular ideology that can be trusted to govern.

Of late the worst offender has been Iris Robinson, the first minister's wife. Last week her comments about homosexuals drew unfavourable comment around the world, and many of the floating voters regarded them as wacky and vindictive.

Iris Robinson seems to see herself as a modern day version of Mary Whitehouse, the clean up television campaigner who died in 2001. Her controversial radio appearances began as a defence of Whitehouse's memory against criticism, and then she mentioned in passing her belief homosexuality an abomination because that is what it said in the Book of Leviticus, which also considers the eating of shellfish, pork or camel meat as an abomination.

Instead of letting the issue rest, she went back on air to explain what abomination meant. By the time she had finished, she had called homosexuality loathsome and disgusting and had claimed that people who opposed her were opposing the Bible. She claimed that it urged kindness to homosexuals by telling her to "hate the sin and love the sinner". In fact Leviticus says active homosexuals must be put to death, along with adulterers, and the "hate the sin" quote comes from Mahatma Ghandi, a Hindu.

Elsewhere the Bible describes apparently homosexual relationships in positive terms. The Book of Samuel has the future King David mourning his close friend Jonathan, saying that Jonathan's love for him surpassed the love of women.

Many biblical passages endorse the enslavement of foreigners and prisoners of war and specify genocide against conquered peoples. Even in the New Testament, St Paul's friend Philemon is a slave owner and Christian slaves are advised to obey their masters and not resent their position.

Taking the bible literally demands a good deal of selective reading and double think. Usually literalists prefer to stick to those quotations which suit their own opinions. The modern view is that moral standards, whether biblical or humanist, provide us with a challenge, and not ammunition to fire at people whose lifestyles we don't like.

Robinson's belief that homosexuals who want change can learn to prefer straight sex through therapy is regarded as potentially harmful by mainstream medical opinion. The chairperson of the assembly's health committee should be reticent about expressing such offbeat opinions, especially when she spices them up with incendiary words like abomination and loathsome.

Robinson believes that the British government not only plotted to kill Princess Diana but also circulated spiteful rumours about her own family life. Some of her party colleagues have urged the teaching of creationism and "young earth" theories in schools. They think that the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre should display material claiming the rock formation was created by God six thousand years ago rather being the result of lava flow.

Less exotically Sammy Wilson, the new environment minister, suggests that global warming is not due to human activity after all, and may not be caused by CO2 emissions. Wilson is a particularly able politician, but by flying in the face of the clear scientific consensus with his own private theory, he is casting doubt on the DUP's ability to handle environmental policy.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but stepping too far outside the consensus without good evidence invites mockery and that is fatal in government. Private citizens can say and think what they like. Politicians can't afford to unless they are prepared to sound silly.

June 16, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on June 15, 2008.