Comment: Northern Ireland’s Health Minister will only be remembered for homophobia

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Writing for, Levi Greene says Northern Ireland’s Health Minister, Edwin Poots, is an example of someone with “distasteful views” being in a position of power.

Northern Ireland’s Health Minister, Edwin Poots, is fast joining the founder of his party, the Rev Dr Ian Paisley, as one of the most notorious homophobic politicians in recent Northern Irish history.

In his crusade to maintain the status quo, and keep heterosexuals in their place of privilege, Edwin Poots has faced and is facing three main opponents: The courts, the public, and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Courts

Edwin Poots, in his position as Health Minister has suffered repeated public humiliation at the hands of the courts for the past few months losing a string of court cases both in the Belfast High Court and the UK Supreme Court.

Last month Mr Poots lost his final appeal against same sex and unmarried couples adopting. The UK Supreme Court rejected his attempt to overturn the October 2012 Belfast High Court decision by Mr Justice Treacy. In that decision it had been ruled that the ban discriminated against same-sex couples in civil partnerships and breached their right to family life. Mr Poots’ court case was funded with tax payers’ money and cost around £40,000.

Also last month in the Belfast High Court, Mr Justice Treacy ruled that Edwin Poots’ decision to maintain a lifetime ban on gay men giving blood while accepting blood from England, Scotland and Wales (where they can donate via a 12-month deferral), was not only “irrational” but that he displayed a bias that went beyond religious beliefs and into the realms of prejudice. Perhaps most damningly, the judge also ruled that Mr Poots broke the ministerial code.

At the time, Mr Poots defended himself against the judge’s ruling saying he may have “unwittingly” broke the ministerial code. This week in Stormont he reiterated his belief that the blood ban was “purely about safety”, and that banning same-sex couples from adopting was in keeping with the “natural order”. Somewhat surprisingly for someone who believes in young earth creationism, he also attempted to explain that his opinions were supportable whether one believed in God or in evolution.

Unfortunately for Mr Poots, the court cases are not over yet. He is currently fighting a legal battle to keep secret the legal advice given to him regarding the blood ban. The Information Commission Office previously decided that Mr Poots must disclose the legal advice in response to a Freedom of Information request. In his submission to the court Mr Poots stated that the Information Commissioner “has given too much weight to the promotion of openness, transparency and accountability in the decision making process’.

Unfortunately, Mr Poots doesn’t seem to realise that the public appreciates openness, transparency, and accountability from our elected representatives. Indeed, accountability is meant to be an integral part of every democracy.

This court case is expected to be heard soon. Watch this space!

The Public

Edwin Poots was elected MLA for Lagan Valley with 7,329 first preference votes. He has a clear mandate from the people of Lagan Valley (the constituency where most of my family still lives), to represent them in Stormont. Unfortunately, in a democracy those with distasteful views can sometimes get elected to positions of power.

However, in his role as a government minister, Edwin Poots does not have the support of the public for his anti-gay policies. A recent petition calling for his resignation or removal has gained over 11,000 signatures. The petition was started by the youth wing of Cara Friend (Northern Ireland’s oldest and largest LGBT advocacy group), Gay and Lesbian Youth Northern Ireland and Cara Friend representatives intend to hand the petition to various political representatives over the next few weeks. It is one sign of the growing public sentiment against both him as a minister, and his policies.

Of course, one must be careful not to confuse the general animosity that many health ministers face, particularly in times of cuts, with the focused opposition Edwin Poots is experiencing solely due to his anti-gay stances. The Northern Irish public may lag behind the rest of the UK in terms of LGBT tolerance, but there is growing discontent, particularly amongst the youth, at the Minister for squandering approximately £80,000 on court cases that make little sense. Many also find his positions confusing given that his party wants to remain part of the UK, but to have different rights for its citizens. This is something which also extends to marriage equality. As the situation stands presently Northern Ireland may be the only part of the UK where gay and lesbian couples cannot be legally married.

The Assembly

Edwin Poots belongs to the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest party. It has a long history of anti-gay policies and was responsible for the “Save Ulster From Sodomy” campaign in the late 1970s. Publicly, the party has remained loyal to its Health Minister, but one wonders how long they will tolerate the embarrassment he insists on bringing them?

This week, during Assembly Question Time, Alliance Party MLA Trevor Lunn asked Mr Poots if he believed that homosexuality was a treatable illness or an abomination. Mr Poots replied that he did not believe it was an illness but that people could “resist urges”, his colleagues sat stony faced around him. The one small nod of a head to his left was barely visible, there was no ‘hear hear’. They say body language makes up between 50-70% of communication. From his colleagues body language, I’m guessing they would rather he had answered with a simple “no I don’t”.

Instead Mr Poots tried to justify his positions by explaining how all of the patients in the Midwifery led hospital unit he visited earlier in the day had been women, none of whom had been impregnated by women. One would hope our elected representatives could have ascertained these facts by themselves (although given Mr Poots’ history that might not be the case. In Feb 2012 while defending the gay blood ban in a radio broadcast, Mr Poots stated that he knew “people who are haemophiliacs as a result of receiving blood”. Haemophilia is a genetic condition, and is not contagious.

Outside of his own party Edwin Poots receives virtually no political support and on 5th November, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion calling on the Minister to end the blood ban or resign his post. So far, Edwin Poots has resisted the calls from his colleagues and passed the decision over the UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

So what does the future hold for the beleaguered Edwin Poots? So far as I can see there are few options. He can choose to remain in his post and willingly comply with the rulings of the courts (he should also throw in an apology to the British public for squandering £80,000 of tax payers’ money), or he can hold to his principles and resign, allowing someone else to bring about the progress he fought so hard to prevent. There is of course, the possibility that Mr Poots would be quietly moved aside in any future reshuffle at Stormont.

Whatever happens, change in Northern Ireland seems impossible for Mr Poots to avoid. No doubt, with time, he will look back with regret at a political career remembered less for his successes as a Health Minister, and more for his homophobic views.

Levi Greene is a volunteer with Gay and Lesbian Youth Northern Ireland, the youth arm of Northern Irelands Oldest LGBT advocacy group Cara Friend. He is also a qualified youth worker.