Why Northern Ireland’s gay cake row is more than a half-baked nonsense
I cringed when I did my daily check of the Northern Irish news on Wednesday morning. Details of over 2,000 people rallying at a concert hall in Belfast topped the headlines, the attendees there to support a homophobic bakery’s refusal to create a pro-gay marriage cake.
Not that I was surprised. My home province is rarely seen as forward-thinking in terms of equality. But from the perspective of my adopted home in Scotland, I felt keen embarrassment that Northern Ireland was yet again showing itself up as a small-minded, insular, unwelcoming backwater – everything I try to convince people we are not.
Known as the ‘gay cake row’, a quasi-humorous moniker that could only arise in Ulster’s absurd political landscape, the latest wrangle highlights deep-rooted prejudices that linger in the province, long after the rest of the UK has made great strides towards equality. We’re talking about a cake. A cake topped with a picture of Sesame Street characters. A cake with a pro-gay slogan on it. But still, a cake.
The order was placed by Queer Space, a Belfast-based voluntary organisation with the aim of increasing visibility for the LGBT community. The bakery, Asher’s Baking Company (not affiliated to Jane, I should add), refused said order on the basis that it would promote a cause which contradicted their strict religious beliefs, ie that two men who love each other should be allowed to enjoy the liberties of their straight counterparts. I find so much wrong with the standpoint of the bakery – most of which hardly needs to the pointed out to a rational reader – that I’m not surprised that the Equality Commission (the public body overseeing equality law) is taking the owners to court. Quite right, too. But the bakery is also being backed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the majority party in the devolved Assembly with a fundamentalist Christian ethos – which is using the controversy to propose a ‘conscience clause’ in equality law which would effectively give businesses the right to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation.
But where could this lead? Could laundrettes suddenly refuse to wash the garments of known members of the gay community for fear of promoting a sense of style? Could we be denied access to a bus if the driver felt he might be facilitating a re-enactment of Priscilla Queen of the Desert? Who knew a vanilla sponge could hold so much power?
I’m being churlish, of course. But the idiocy of the argument calls for it. Highlighting the absurdity of 2,000 people using a never-baked cake to publicly oppose a minority section of the community is like holding up the harshest mirror to Northern Ireland, its people and the people who lead them.
Tuesday’s rally was instigated by an organisation known as the Christian Institute. A quick look at its website tells me that it exists for ‘the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the UK’ and ‘the advancement of education’. How valiant.
While the Christian Institute might profess to be here for the greater good, its web pages tell a different story. Four of the main news items are anti-gay in message and tone (including one heralding the views of Fionola Meredith, a pro-gay marriage columnist who apparently sympathises with the bakery), betraying a quite single-minded agenda, while its ‘Who we are’ page portrays the sunny image of its Director, Colin Hart. He, incidentally, also heads up the fundamentalist lobbying group Coalition for Marriage, whose sole aim is to oppose same sex marriage.
The Christian Institute is also the same group who threw the weight of their support behind Iris Robinson, an Assembly member and wife of its First Minister, Peter. She’s the one who, in 2008, branded homosexuality ‘disgusting, loathsome, nauseating, wicked and vile’. Sickening comments by anyone’s standards, and certainly not akin to any values I understand to be Christian.
In fact I’m still in disbelief when I write about Mrs Robinson’s vitriol. Let’s make it clear – she wasn’t the victim of a tabloid sting, nor did she accidentally reveal her views in an off-the cuff-remark. Her comments were made with confidence and conviction on a radio programme. And no apology was ever made. This is the 21st century; and this is the United Kingdom: that the wife of the province’s most senior politician would even consider behaving like this is disturbing.
And this is the root of the problem in Northern Ireland. Her comments were not an isolated case and it seems to be the done-thing for leading politicians to base decisions on ultimately homophobic bias masquerading as religious ideology.
Step forward Edwin Poots. The Assembly’s minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety has worked tirelessly to make life difficult for Ulster’s LGBT community. He banned gay people from making blood donations, and opposed a ruling that would have brought laws around LGBT couples adopting children in line with the rest of the UK.
Then there’s his colleague Ian Paisley Junior, son of the late First Minister, Ian Senior, and himself an assembly minister. When in a 2007 interview he admitted to being ‘repulsed’ by gays and lesbians , no Christian compassion was spared for the young people struggling with their sexuality in an already hostile society, on which his words could very well have had a damning effect.
So, as First Minister Peter Robinson takes his own slice of the gay cake row by implying that the Equality Commission is wasting money on its legal action, it is vital that the fair-minded people of Northern Ireland –and the UK as a whole – make their opposition known. We can’t assume that sense will prevail, and the annals of history show that in Northern Ireland we often have to wait an age for that to occur. While it’s true that future generations will probably mock the narrow mindedness of the politicians, the Christian Institute, the 2,000 people at Tuesday night rally, even the misplaced words of Fionola Meredith, it is our duty today to face the hostility with an equal strength of resistance and tolerance. In Northern Ireland, it seems, there is still so much to do.
Brian Campbell is a freelance writer and editor from Northern Ireland. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as The Sunday Post and QS Magazine. He currently lives in Edinburgh, and can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.