See this punter? His name is Adrian Watson, and he’s the mayor of Antrim. Why are we interested in him? Allow me to recap.
So, the Unionist Party has formed an electoral bloc with the British Tories, which goes under the catchy name of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. From “Dave” Cameron’s point of view, the UCUNF arrangement provides him with eighteen candidates in the north at a cut price, and the possibility of one or two Unionist MPs pledged to support him in a hung parliament; from Reg Empey’s point of view, it provides him with a Big Idea (non-sectarian pan-UK civic unionism) and a little Ashcroft money. Since the Big Idea seems mostly to be of interest to four or five Toryboy bloggers, one presumes Reggie is more interested in the bottom line.
There are also minuses on both sides. From Cameron’s point of view, he’s now stuck with the Unionist Party, which as any Tory grandee could tell him is more trouble than it’s worth. From Reggie’s point of view, it means having to give a leg up to the 250 or so Ulster Tories and whatever dingbat candidates they came up with. It also meant a commitment to run in all eighteen constituencies, which ruled out arrangements with the DUP to run pan-Prod candidates in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast. (This didn’t, however, stop them playing footsie with the DUP over electoral pacts, and managing as a result to mislay the two Catholics who had been induced to become Tory candidates.) Moreover, there’s been the small matter of the sole Ulster Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who unfortunately for Reggie is a Labour supporter and adamantly refused to stand under the Tory banner.
However, despite such small hiccups, the laborious UCUNF candidate selection process has proceeded. A couple of weeks back, the first nine were announced, including TV’s Mike Nesbitt, rugby legend Trevor Ringland, Daphne Trimble and Norn Iron’s top Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry. We were then told the other nine would soon be forthcoming, and yea, we have eight of them. Thereby hangs a tale, but first, who are the eight?
Firstly, in the two seats that have been the subject of megaphone diplomacy with the DUP, Tom Elliott is nominated in Fermanagh and the scarily energetic Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast. That means no pact with the DUP, and both parties can continue tearing lumps out of each other on the subject of who’s most in favour of unionist unity.
Secondly, there are only two Tories, and I’m not sure one of them counts. The completely unknown Irwin Armstrong is a candidate in North Antrim, but that will be fought out between Ian Óg Paisley and Jim Allister, with Irwin a mere supporting attraction. The other, entering a very crowded field in North Down, is local councillor Ian Parsley.
Come on, you remember Ian Parsley. He was a candidate in last year’s Euro-election. For, er, the Alliance Party, who were evidently pitching for the votes of dyslexic DUP supporters who thought Ian Paisley was on the ballot. He did reasonably well. Then a couple of weeks later he defected to the Tories. This was entirely a matter of principle, and had nothing at all to do with him getting a job at Iain Duncan Donuts’ Centre for Social Justice. And now he’s standing in North Down for UCUNF – to be more precise, he’s standing in front of stuff. Indeed, there has been a little joshing at Westminster about young Mr Parsley.
And what of the vacancy? That would be South Antrim, which is a DUP marginal; the sitting MP, Rev Willie McCrea, is not too popular in the area (basically because you can’t dig him out of Magherafelt and get him to visit South Antrim) and a TUV candidacy could hand the seat to UCUNF. So why no candidate? Perhaps this might explain:
Adrian Watson, the mayor of Antrim, has been chosen by his constituency association as its candidate for the UUP in South Antrim this May. He caused outrage within the gay community in Northern Ireland after saying he would not allow gay and lesbian couples to stay in his family-run bed and breakfast.
In 2006 the UUP councillor told a local radio station: “This is a bed and breakfast in a family home with three young children. Common sense has to prevail. There is no difficulty with members of the gay community phoning up and booking a room. The difficulty would arise because of the logistics of the bed and breakfast – if it was a same-sex couple – and because my wife has strong Christian views she felt it was difficult to facilitate that.
“It is difficult because my 14-year-old daughter helps out immensely. And the obvious question: ‘Why are two men, or why are two women, in a double room?’”
Watson has also been accused of racism towards Ireland’s Traveller community. A year before his remarks about gay couples, he described Travellers at a local halting point in the Antrim area as “scumbags” and “scum of the earth”.
Now, this is very much out of step with “Dave” Cameron’s resprayed Tories, who have been ferociously courting the pink vote and trumpeting their gay candidates. (Nobody seems to have objected too strongly to Mr Watson’s views on Travellers.) And so, the rumour has it, Tory HQ has put the kibosh on Watson, as someone who might be a bit of an embarrassment on the campaign trail. Furthermore, national treasure Peter Tatchell has spoken out, and you really don’t want Peter dogging your footsteps during an election. Best to neutralise the Tatch by getting rid of the candidate.
But the Lord loves a trier, and Mr Watson is not giving up. He’s not the first local politician to say something incautious on Stephen Nolan, and learning from the example of Iris Robinson, he has rushed to say that his original argument was purely hypothetical, and anyway, it was his wife who had the problem:
“I have a completely live-and-let-live attitude to gays and I know that many gay people support our party [I am not sure that Steven King and Jeff Dudgeon count as “many”, but we'll let that go] which has a far more tolerant view than the DUP, which has been tainted with homophobia through the interventions of the First Minister’s wife, the then MP and MLA, Iris Robinson.
“I would never discriminate against gay people and, if elected as the MP for South Antrim, I can honestly say that I would work for my gay constituents as energetically as for any other constituent. The gay community has absolutely nothing to fear from me.”
Well, perhaps. As a B&B owner, Mr Watson might also be aware that under New Labour’s Sexual Orientation Regulations, that sort of thing can get you into trouble. Indeed, from now on, holding an opinion deemed unfashionable by Mr Ben Summerskill could get you into quite serious legal difficulties. I suppose, if you wanted to mount an entirely grudging and half-hearted defence of Mr Watson, he’s probably more progressive on such matters than Willie McCrea.
But here’s an interesting point. Over recent months, the Tories have been taking a little heat about their exotic allies in the European Parliament – Czech climate change deniers, Belgian flat-taxers, and those wacky Latvian SS veterans. One of the lightning rods has been one Michał Kamiński, a Polish MEP who – weirdly enough – looks like Johann Hari’s evil twin, and who belongs to the Law and Justice Party. There has been a lot of argument about exactly what Mr Kamiński may or may not have said about the Jews at various points in his past; what’s not seriously disputed is that Law and Justice takes a line on Teh Gayz that would not be wildly out of place in the north.
Perhaps Mr Cameron could explain why what’s unacceptable in Antrim is perfectly all right in Warsaw. But don’t hold your breath.