Stormont stalled, but NI parties still argue over needless conversion therapy ban

19, July 2022

Since Northern Ireland’s election on 5 May, the devolved Assembly at Stormont has not been fully up-and-running. The DUP, now the second largest party, have refused to appoint a Speaker or Government Ministers until amendments are made to the ‘NI Protocol’ following Brexit.

Due to the way the ‘power-sharing’ agreement works, Bills cannot be brought forward and controversial decisions cannot take place. But a recent change to the NI Assembly arrangements means Ministers, though responsible for their Departments, are unable to proceed with new policies.

It makes it rather strange, then, that local politician, Colin McGrath MLA (SDLP), decided to attack Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA (Sinn Fein) over her apparent inaction on her highly-controversial conversion therapy proposals. He claimed: “It is unacceptable that we have yet to see a draft of legislation that would end this cruelty in Northern Ireland”.

‘No new legislation can be progressed’

But, as Hargey had explained in answer to McGrath’s own parliamentary question, in the “absence of a functioning Executive… no new primary legislation can be progressed”.

Alliance MLA Andrew Muir couldn’t resist joining the pointless row: “it’s extremely disappointing no consultation has yet commenced on proposals to outlaw the practice” he said, adding “the Department for Communities really needs to pick up the pace”.

However, despite these supposedly progressive politicians complaining about how long the Bill is taking, Hargey is, in fact, continuing work behind the scenes on the unnecessary ban. Her party, Sinn Fein, is keen to pass a new law as soon as possible (as Michelle O’Neill MLA, due to become First Minister, recently claimed).

Only LGBT activists represented

Just last week, Hargey told the Assembly that ‘LGBTQI+’ activist groups have been involved in developing her ‘Strategy’. She said “work is continuing to inform the drafting of legislation”.

But why do only LGBT groups have a seat at the table? Do Christians and feminists who have serious concerns about what a ban might inadvertently do not also deserve to be heard?

And what evidence is underpinning the Department’s work? Research commissioned by the Westminster Government showed the evidence-base on conversion therapy to be “weak”. Others have said the same. Can the Minister outline any cases of legal ‘conversion therapy’ currently taking place that must be banned? None have been offered so far.

The harmful experimental practices of the past are all thankfully outlawed now. Abuse and coercion are illegal. Activists are seeking a law which criminalises not conversion therapy, but the ordinary work of churches. They want to make it impossible to disagree with their ideological position. But disagreement is not abuse.

The ordinary work of churches

A year ago, activists took to the airwaves in Northern Ireland calling for a ban, but were forced to admit they thought prayer should be outlawed. Several NI politicians have said the same. Pastoral care, Christian parenting and even biblical teaching on ‘repentance’, are all directly in the firing line.

Does the Minister agree with these repressive, anti-religious activists? Hargey says the ban must be “robust and fit for purpose” – but what purpose?

Not one of these MLAs has called for better legislation. Instead they demand faster legislation – thankfully beyond the Minister’s gift for now at least. They have no interest in taking time to consider the concerns of those who could become criminals for upholding ordinary beliefs. They merely want to score political points.

This is no way to make good law.

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