David Ford, the thoroughly decent leader of Northern Ireland’s non-sectarian Alliance Party, is in a tight corner. That is not a consequence of his pig-in-the-middle role as justice minister, in a province where Catholics and Protestants frequently disagree on the distinction between a crime and an act of resistance. His dilemma is more personal, and reflects the Americanisation of Northern Irish politics.
Mr Ford supports same-sex marriage, an idea that was rejected in the Northern Ireland Assembly on April 29th by 53 votes to 42. The issue has cut strangely, and powerfully, across the province’s sectarian divide. Although both Catholic and Protestant churches broadly oppose gay marriage, many Catholic nationalist politicians supported liberalising the marriage laws, whereas Protestant unionists held firm. The result was the spectacle, bizarre for Northern Ireland, of Father Tim Bartlett, a Catholic spokesman, praising Protestant politicians for doing a better job of defending the traditional family.
Mr Ford is also a practising Presbyterian, who has been serving as an elder in his local parish, near Antrim. And the Irish branch of Presbyterianism is a particularly staunch supporter of the traditional family. In mid-April Mr Ford stepped down from active duties as an elder, although not from the post itself, to parry complaints from parishioners about his position on gay marriage. (His stance is a nuanced one: he would only support the change when amended with a guarantee that churches can define marriage as they choose.)
On May 5th Mr Ford elaborated further, explaining that his religious beliefs led him to think that heterosexual unions were a divinely inspired “ideal”. Still, he explained, this did not mean that same-sex unions were sinful, still less that homosexuals were not entitled to equality. In any case, he insisted, it was not his business as a legislator to impose his religious opinions on a diverse society. The issue would always pose difficult questions for “people who have close friends with very different views,” he concluded.
Even for a man used to treading tightropes, this is a wobbly moment for Mr Ford. Many feel he has made a good fist of defending the compatibility of traditional religious views with liberal political ones. But he has alienated people in the process.
Ironically, the liberal Ulster tradition that Mr Ford represents has roots in Presbyterianism, with its democratic governance and abhorrence of old hierarchies. Transported to America, this Ulster-Scots spirit helped inspire revolution. But like any truly democratic institution, Presbyterianism is fissiparous and volatile; its ethos can shift rapidly from liberalism to conservatism, as happened in Ireland 200 years ago, or vice versa. Mr Ford’s problem may be that he is evolving in one direction and some of his co-religionists in another.