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Coalition on Sexual Orientation  -  the weakest link

Gerry Fitzpatrick

18 May 2009

Some time ago, its management committee switched off the life support for the Coalition on Sexual Orientation (CoSO). It had been comatose for about a year following the series of notorious outbursts of homophobia from the Stormont Health Committee chair – Iris Robinson. Unable to stop her or her control of the health committee, the organization moved closer and closer to breakdown as it found with each passing month, that it had no support in the government - apart from the vainglorious Stormont tea party organized by Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein (a good illustration of the meaning of the Belfast Agreement – you may be attacked by bigots – but Gerry Kelly will give you tea and sympathy!). So when the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions both let it be known last month that Iris had no case to answer, CoSO – the body set up to monitor and implement gay equality under the Belfast Agreement went into meltdown. 

The collapse was accompanied by the usual acrimonious mumblings that took precedence over the main issue of its effectiveness as a quasi-government organization. But beneath the berating and pointless accusations there is a real story to be told and it is an instructive one.  Right from the start it contained people who were determined to make the organization work. These included supporters and members of most of the current Stormont parties, the SDLP and the Alliance Party being the main political groupings. In the beginning very few were sceptical. It became clear almost immediately that the new body and it’s leadership was very much opposed to radical and old style campaigning, for being officially installed ‘at the top’ of the government bureaucracy, it saw no need for building campaigns from the ground up. They became openly hostile to campaigners who made the charge that despite CoSO’s direct consultations with government, law officers and the PSNI they were not helping protect defendants brought up on indecency charges - that they had in effect produced nothing of substance. 

A mortal blow was dealt to the committee by the fact that the government they were attached to in the shape of Iris Robinson put an end to any mistaken belief that the DUP in power was interested at all in reform or civil rights or ‘homophobia,’ apart from propagating that it is. 

The first public outburst on the BBC’s Nolan radio show (when she advised a young man who had been beaten up in a homophonic attack to see a psychiatrist she knew to ‘cure’ him), was followed by other public statements in her own defense making it plain that she considered herself above censure.   

Following traditional practice in the North, the state, in the shape of the Director of Public Prosecutions, then found the Unionist politician to be above the law. And that despite 50 serious complaints to ‘equality’ bodies the state would not be pursuing the matter any further.  After the issuing of that judgment CoSO ceased to have any meaningful existence. The ‘new’ equality of the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements had proved to be an illusion.


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