"I’ve been told I’m going to hell. People don’t realise I don’t believe in it."
Q&A with Boyd Sleator, development officer for Northern Ireland Humanists .
Northern Ireland has been in the headlines recently, after the surprise election result led to unexpected negotiations between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Suddenly, in other parts of the UK, the DUP's regressive policies and staunch religious ethos came under new scrutiny. In Northern Ireland, politics is still dominated to a great extent by old divisions between unionist and republican, Protestant and Catholic. Although it does not have an established church - unlike England and Wales - it is far from being a secular environment. All of this means a whole different set of challenges for humanist campaigners. It's a mixed picture - recently, after a court battle, the first legal humanist wedding ceremony took place in Northern Ireland. But conversely, women in Northern Ireland do not have equal reproductive rights as other UK citizens. We spoke to Boyd Sleator, development officer for Humanists Northern Ireland about the challenges and successes.
Can you tell me about the humanist marriage case?
We went to court last month. We were taking the general registrar to court along with the department of finance, also the Attorney General stepped in. The judge came back with a full judgement, which was very good. We thought "great, we’ve got a victory". That was the day I set off for the Humanist UK conference. By the time I landed, the Attorney General had appealed the case. We went back to court again, about three days before the wedding. The appeals court decided that they needed to look into the judgement more and they wanted a full appeal on the 11th September. They did say that they’d allow this one wedding to go ahead as a humanist wedding.
In theory we did win, we manage to have the first ever legally recognised humanist wedding happen in Northern Ireland but we still have to go back to court on the 11th September for a full appeal. We’re very confident. We feel the case is very strong, plus they’ve set precedent in allowing this one marriage to go ahead so we are very confident we’ll have legal recognition of humanist marriage.
The way the law is set up in Northern Ireland is very similar to Scotland [where humanist marriages are legally recognised], and that’s why we took the case. In England and Wales the law is different in that you have to have a registered building to be able to conduct marriages in.
You campaign on many of the same issues as humanists elsewhere in the UK – equal marriage, reproductive rights, and so on. What different challenges do you face in Northern Ireland?
We campaign on abortion rights, humanist marriage, equality in marriage for same sex couples and around the collective act of daily worship in schools and religious education curricula. Religious education syllabuses are written by the four main churches, it’s very strange, that is the only part of our curriculum not written by education professionals.
Here and in England and Wales, humanists campaign for decriminalisation of abortion. Our campaign is much more difficult in that we are campaigning for free, safe and legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland, and we don’t have any access to that. We’re still using the 1876 Offences Against the Person Act to prosecute women, whereas in England and Wales you have the 1967 act.
Our main party is the DUP and they’re very much against allowing women to access abortions. We have had some victories. In the last week, now England’s NHS will allow women from Northern Ireland to have free abortions. In the past they had to pay. But it’s still the case that women who travel to England have to pay for flights and accommodation, so it directly affects women on lower incomes. In Northern Ireland over the last year and a half, we’ve had a couple of women charged for accessing abortion pills. In one case, the woman was prosecuted and got a three year suspended sentence. That’s on her record now for life. She was very young. With all the campaigns we carry out, for me personally, this would be the one that that makes me most angry - we’re denying women the right to heir own sexual and reproductive health. They should be free as a health issue, rather than a criminal or justice issue.
Since the election, there has been a lot of coverage of the DUP. How important is religion in politics in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland and Wales are secular at least in constitution because we don’t have a state church like England does. Technically we’re a secular part of the UK, but we’re probably the least secular.
Before I took on the role of Humanists UK, I started an organisation here, Atheists Northern Ireland. We wanted the same platform as religious people. At that point I met with a BBC producer who said they were doing a segment that was going to go in the news about the religious make up of the MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in Northern Ireland. He said they had eight MLAs who said they were nonreligious, but seven wouldn’t go on camera to say that. The other one, the party she belonged to wouldn’t allow her to go on camera to say it. That was Anna Lo and her party was the Alliance Party. It took eight weeks of discussions for her to go on TV and say, I am nonreligious. That gives you an indication as to at least how MLAs themselves and their parties feel about discussing nonreligious views.
Is secularism on the political agenda in Northern Ireland?
In their recent manifesto, the Green Party here in Northern Ireland – which is not linked to the Greens in England and Wales, more to the south of Ireland – have declared they are a secular organisation and they want to see a secular Northern Ireland. It took quite a while for them to add that in. Over the last few years, secularism has become a dirty word. It’s not good. Even those people who see themselves as secularist wouldn’t call themselves it. A number of years ago we had a politician who was running in the east Belfast election, she said something on Twitter like, "I don’t believe in secularism but I don’t think religion should be in politics and everyone should be able to practice their beliefs". What you’ve just described is secularism! There is this apprehensiveness in Northern Ireland, at least within politics, to declare "I am nonreligious". At the same time there is no apprehension for members of the DUP and other organisations, political parties, to say "I am a Christian, a practising Protestant or Catholic". Or to say "I am a member of the Orange Order", which doesn’t allow people of other faiths in.
What role do religious organisations play in public debate?
If you look at some of the very conservative organisations in Northern Ireland, like the Free Presbyterian Church, or the Caleb Foundation, only a small percentage of the population are affiliated to them – a smaller percentage than those who are nonreligious, but they have extremely deep pockets and extremely loud voices. The Free Presbyterian Church and the Caleb Foundation also have links to Stormont and MLAs. These MLAs don’t seem to be able to leave their religious views at the door. You’re allowed to be religious and conservative but as a politicians, you’re meant to be working for the people of your constituency, and that means you have to leave your biases behind and think about things on evidence and reason and on what statistics are available. That doesn’t happen. People double down here on their religious beliefs. MLAs voted in favour of same sex marriage and because we have this thing called petition of concern, to stop minorities from being abused, they can use it to block and veto, which is what they did here.
The amount of times I’ve been told I’m going to hell. People don’t realise I don’t believe in it. It gets to the stage where it’s kind of funny. We have to keep battling.
How religious is the population?
If you look at the statistics in the last census, it said about 11 per cent of the population were nonreligious. When you ask that question differently, what religion if any do you belong to, it goes higher – maybe 24 per cent of the population. We are much more conservative than England and Wales but I think that’s starting to change. You have to remember that I’d still be labelled, even by friends, as a Protestant, because my mother and father came from a Protestant background. I’m a second generation atheist, my mum was an atheist, I always have been an atheist, but because of where I or she grew up, I’d be labelled a Protestant, just as friends who are not religious but grew up in west Belfast are labelled Catholics. That’s a legacy for people in Northern Ireland.
Even for employment, we have positive discrimination, which means that you have to say what religious background you come from, if you’re going into a company of more than 10 or 15 people. I refuse to fill in the form. They lump you into Catholic or Protestant categories depending on your name or school. Those things were needed to force balance, but we’re now at the stage where we shouldn’t need that.
With leaving the EU, will those divisions get more important?
In Northern Ireland we have the Good Friday agreement which brought relative peace. But those divisions still exist. If you look at the EU, Northern Ireland was one of the areas that voted to stay in. People were very rational, in that Northern Ireland is a farming country and most people realised this is not good for them, as subsidies come from the EU – and the vast majority of people here are against having a hard border with the south of Ireland. Can we leave the EU and have an island split in two with half of it being part of the EU?
If you had a hard border again, you’re dealing with border towns where you have a lot of active, or previously active, paramilitary groups. If you put a border there, it has to be secured in some way. If it’s secured by the police or army, something will eventually happen there, someone will get shot or murdered or attacked and we could potentially see ourselves going back down the route we were 20 years ago. This is something our politicians and the people of Northern Ireland have to be very vocal about. We don’t want to go back to that time where people were getting shot all the time and feared for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Although as a charitable organisation we are not political, we do have some responsibility to try to bring people together. Although humanists have different ideas to religious people, something that will bind us together is that we are no interested in political or religious violence anymore. We want to move forward, discuss things and argue them but without bombing or shooting each other.