Inside the chamber: a closer look at the ‘conversion therapy’ debate at Stormont

12, June 2024

by James Kennedy

Last week, the Northern Ireland Assembly debated a motion on ‘conversion practices’.

As I sat in the public gallery of the Stormont chamber, it was interesting to see the reactions and surprisingly conciliatory tone between MLAs. A similar debate three years ago ended in nasty quarrelling and apparently even played a part in the ousting of NI’s then First Minister Arlene Foster.

Each participating MLA was given only three minutes to speak, with the exception of the proposers and the responding Minister. The arguments were rather fragmented as a result, and didn’t get into the detail.

(You can read the transcript of the full debate here.)

Ultimately the motion, which calls on the Communities Minister to bring new legislation, was passed by MLAs (41 voting in favour and 25 voting against). A DUP amendment would have clarified that prayer is not an abusive practice, but it was lost despite support from four UUP members, one TUV and an independent.

But there was a shift in rhetoric from the 2021 debate. Many members emphasised that they didn’t think a new law was about prayer and pastoral care. Christian freedom should be protected, and the furthest extremes of LGBT activists’ rhetoric denounced.

Isn't abuse already illegal?

It was impossible to tell what it was that members wanted to outlaw. The opening speech from Colin McGrath MLA (SDLP) said that “stigmatising, highly damaging and valueless practice endures”. It is, he says, “a brainless practice that is pushed sometimes openly, sometimes quietly, but a practice that always fails the people who are at its heart”.

But what is it? No one appeared able to describe any practices that should be made illegal, that are not already. That is clearly a problem, since so many of those calling for a law target ordinary Christian beliefs. Is there anything else in their sights?

The DUP’s Brian Kingston MLA introduced the Party’s amendment. He began by explaining that “no Member of the Assembly would ever defend any form of abuse or coercion”, but, he said: “Those extreme examples of conversion therapy are already illegal in the UK.”

“It is also clear that there are instances of individuals from a faith background who approach friends, parents, ministers or their small group for pastoral support and deeply personal conversation on matters relating to their sexuality. The pastoral support that I am referring to is genuine pastoral support”.

He explained that the motion did not distinguish between abusive and non-abusive practices: “the motion calls for: 'an effective ban on conversion practices'. It does not make any distinction. We seek to ensure that support that is given genuinely and lovingly in response to someone seeking personal support cannot be misinterpreted and become the grounds for prosecution.”

Stuck in the past?

I was surprised by the opening of the UUP Leader Doug Beattie’s contribution: “I am a straight man. I was born straight, and there is no fix or cure for me…”. As MLAs scrunched up their faces trying to work out what he was getting at, I immediately recognised this strange wording from the debate three years earlier. On that occasion he was proposing the motion – this time around he abstained.

He explained: “Those are the words that I used when I opened the debate on conversion therapy in 2021. The motion passed. It passed because we spoke, looked at people's concerns and addressed them. … I go back to that piece to say that we need to work together. Does this motion bring us forward from when we had the debate in 2021, or does it leave us stuck in another argument? My genuine concern is that it may not bring us forward.”

He continued: “I understand people's concerns about religious freedom. The right to pray and preach and to give counsel and pastoral care to someone who seeks support should not be diminished.

“I do not believe that private prayer about sexual identity, conducted in a private, supportive and affirmative way, is conversion therapy unless it is subversive and harmful. I do not believe that pastoral care is about changing someone's gender identity unless it deliberately targets the young or the vulnerable with the intent to do so. I really do not.”

I think I can see what Doug Beattie is getting at. He has been fiercely committed to a ‘conversion therapy’ law until now. But he argues that those now pressing for a new law have done nothing to address concerns, particularly those of his many Christian constituents. In certain quarters there has been a lot of noise about this sort of law; but very little in-depth consideration of how it might impact innocent people.

Gaping holes in the debate

I had hoped that MLAs would point out concerns about how a new law could impact gender-confused children. Other parts of the UK have struggled to make headway when a law will so clearly impact children and those who care for them. This would have fitted in well with Mr Beattie’s comments, since the public discourse on transgenderism has changed significantly since the previous debate.

As much as Mr Beattie’s position has improved since he called for a new law three years ago, it still very much has problems. For a start, he is still supporting the principle of a new law. Those who describe themselves as LGBT are already protected from verbal and physical abuse, just like anyone else in NI. The suggestion that there are strange yet legal practices regularly occurring in ‘religious settings’ has never been demonstrated. A new law simply isn’t needed.

Secondly, as much as he wants to assure Christians that he respects religious freedom, he caveats his idea of prayers that are acceptable as being “private, supportive and affirmative”. That could certainly be understood in several ways. Why does prayer need to be private? It very often isn’t. And whether or not prayer is deemed ‘supportive’ and ‘affirmative’ will depend on the eye of the beholder. Is it ‘affirmative’ to pray against temptation? To someone trying to live in accordance with the Bible, absolutely. But we know that many think the exact opposite.

The UUP leader was not alone in seeking to protect prayer while, at the same time, implying that it might not be okay in certain circumstances. Sian Mulholland MLA of the Alliance Party said that “non-coercive conversations, prayer, spiritual guidance, teaching and counselling where consenting, non-vulnerable adults question their sexuality or gender identity — are not conversion therapy and should not be criminalised”.

Clearly, Ms Mulholland is correct that these ordinary church practices are not ‘conversion therapy’. But what about the practices she specifically excludes? Her comment gives the impression that pastoral care and teaching for children and vulnerable adults is fair game for new legislation. Will Sunday schools now be investigated for teaching the Bible? Will people have to sign consent forms for prayer? That isn’t protecting Christian freedoms at all.

Ms Mulholland continued: “Individuals should still be free to request non-coercive prayer if they wish to explore their sexuality or their gender identity. It is the coercive and abusive practices with a predetermined outcome of changing someone's identity that we want to see banned.”

Again, we can’t know what she means by ‘coercive’. Why does a person have to be ‘exploring’? Can a person who has made a firm commitment to live in accordance with the Bible not be prayed for?

Her last sentence uses the language of the ‘predetermined outcome’ to imply something nefarious is going on in some churches. It is not abusive or coercive to pray for repentance and conversion. But Christians could certainly be accused of having a ‘predetermined outcome’ when they pray in this way.

An attack on prayer

The TUV member, Jim Allister, was strongest in his opposition to the motion. He aimed fire at an academic study mentioned in the motion, which had been published just two weeks prior. He said: “that report is a conglomerate of pretty confused stories from 10 individuals, one of whom complained that they experienced prayer, Bible studies and teaching”.

Those who had brought the motion were shaking their heads, but Mr Allister continued: “That is offered in the report as an example of conversion practices. If that is what conversion practices are, and that is what the motion seeks to outlaw, the motion is wholly wrong-headed and inappropriate.”

This concern was raised again by Tom Elliott MLA (UUP). He asked the proposer of the motion, Matthew O’Toole MLA: “Does he accept that… the report by Professor Ashe and Dr Mackle that he referenced conflated the issue with private prayer?”

Mr O’Toole replied: “We note the report's findings because it was commissioned by an Executive Minister as research to inform policy. That is what it does. Will every line of it be converted into policy or legislation? No. I do not think that the motion's noting of the review's findings is a reason to not support it.”

This was one of the most helpful clarifications by the motion’s proposers. The vague wording of the motion could have been used to argue that MLAs were in support of new legislation modelled on the activists’ work. Those who wrote the motion accept the study had its limits, though it would have been good if more MLAs spoke about quite how limited it is.

What’s next?

Of course, it was the Minister for Communities’ contribution that everyone was most keen to hear. The DUP took the Department for Communities from Sinn Féin when the posts were last divided up. The previous Minister, Deirdre Hargey MLA, had put the Department to work on a Bill, even in her last days in office providing public funds for the useless research project by LGBT activists.

The new Minister, Gordon Lyons MLA, now has to plot the route forwards on legislation his own party has argued against. Can a Bill be written that respects the clear desire of some MLAs to do something while protecting the rights of those who won’t affirm LGBT ideology?

The Minister began by explaining that the definition of ‘conversion practices’ is problematic: “Members will recognise that this is a hugely complex issue, which is due in part to the ambiguity that exists as to how we define conversion practices”.

In contrast to those who pressed for immediate action, Mr Lyons said that much work must be undertaken before new legislation could be tabled. “I want to warn Members that this is a complex and cross-cutting issue.

“The development of legislation to ban those practices will require careful analysis of all the elements that are involved. Indeed, if we do establish a definition of what conversion practices are, we also need to examine whether there is a gap in the law and how best we can fill that gap in a way that is compliant and consistent with human rights legislation.”

Legislation of this sort has not been implemented elsewhere in the UK. Mr Lyons said: “The extent of the complexity of any potential ban is evidenced by the work in other jurisdictions on this issue. There is, currently, no existing legislation that exclusively bans conversion practices in the UK or the Republic of Ireland.

“The UK Government have previously committed to bringing in a ban on conversion practices, which will extend to England and Wales, although the timetable for introduction is currently unclear. A Scottish Bill is being prepared, with consultation on policy proposals just completed, and legislation to ban conversion practices is being progressed in the Republic of Ireland.“However, each of those jurisdictions has experienced difficulties in arriving at a precise definition of conversion practices and of what a potential ban would include. The matter of freedom of rights is a significant one that also has to be carefully considered, and it is a matter that we have to approach cautiously as we progress policy on this issue.”

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See also: ‘Conversion practices’ study authors cannot answer BBC interviewer on prayer

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