The Democratic Unionists – Our New Friends

‘Let’s get to work,’ says Theresa May, suggesting that the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, her friend and ally, are an ideal fit.

So I’d like to introduce you to the Democratic Unionist Party – or at least the former Democratic Unionist Minister of Health and assembly member, Jim Wells…

Mr. Wells, the Democratic Unionist MLA, is a very interesting man. I met him a few years ago at Stormont, in his Parliamentary office. He is utterly charming, self-deprecating, and genuine. He is deeply committed to various charitable foundations, at home and abroad. He is critical of Northern Ireland’s lax planning laws, and very serious on the subject of the environment. His is not a sentimental interest – it is a rational, practical and forward thinking concern for the state of the planet.

All of this makes his views on other matters disconcerting. He tells me that homosexuality is ‘an abomination’, and as he says it, his whole manner changes from boyish enthusiasm to righteous anger. He glowers and raises his voice.

I am not sure that anyone has ever used the word ‘abomination’ in my presence before, and I cannot imagine a serious English politician taking a similar stance. But then, Wells’s party, the DUP, is not like any English party. Launched in the bombed ruins of the Four Step Inn on Shankill Road, it is the biggest political party in Northern Ireland, and it is – and always has been – the party of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church. Jim Wells is actually a Baptist, but the vast majority of the party’s politicians are Free Presbyterians, and their brand of unionism is subtly different to that of the Ulster Unionist Party. Whereas an Ulster Unionist might express total fidelity to the union with Britain, a member of the Free Presbyterian church will place his fundamentalist Protestantism before his loyalty to his country. And since the Irish Republic is an expressly Catholic country, the surest means of protecting his Protestantism, is through adherence to the union.

Such subtle difference in approach explains why, in 1971, Ian Paisley was able to tell Irish journalists that, were the Irish Republic to scrap its constitution, and change certain of its laws relating to the influence of Catholicism, then ‘the Protestant people would take a different view’ on unification. Northern Ireland’s most notorious unionist was – briefly – willing to question the union.

Northern Ireland is a place of contradictions, and one in which religion rarely seems far from the surface. Which brings me to my most surreal exchange with Jim Wells. As our discussion of human sexuality continues, he leans in to me and asks in a low voice, ‘Do you know how many transexuals there are in Northern Ireland?’

I have no idea.

“At least seven…”