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Battle lines are being drawn in the North over sex education and hate crimes

After two years of dreary wrangling to restore devolution, most observers are glad of the diversion

Open culture war has broken out between the DUP and Alliance. An Alliance motion in the Assembly on Monday called on the DUP to implement a compulsory new sex education curriculum, introduced by the Northern Secretary under direct rule last year. Paul Givan, the DUP Minister for Education, replied it would be “fundamentally undemocratic” to overrule parental choice. DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley added “let kids be kids”, an emergent party slogan on the issue. There are suspicions the DUP chose the education portfolio specifically to have this argument. It had an understanding with Sinn Féin that it would take the Department of Finance when Stormont was restored in February, yet at the last moment it picked education instead.

Alliance is clearly up for the fight. It chose to bring Monday’s motion and to publicise it widely. The transgender element of the new curriculum is its most contentious aspect by far. This relates to another battle brewing over hate crime legislation, a point also raised on Monday from the unionist benches.

Alliance Minister for Justice and leader Naomi Long has been piloting a hate crime Bill through Stormont since 2020. It is similar to legislation in Scotland and the stalled Bill in the Republic, so it will presumably suffer the same problems. Last week, the Law Society of Northern Ireland, the professional body for solicitors, warned the Bill could undermine rights to free expression and privacy.

Alliance’s opponents smell blood but the party is standing its ground. The Bill is based on a judge-led review and extensive consultation. For those close to the legislative process, it remains a serious piece of work that rises above political grandstanding. That does not put it beyond electioneering, however.


The DUP and Alliance are each other’s main rivals in the upcoming general election, expected in the autumn. It is a high-stakes contest for both parties, more so since last month’s resignation of former DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. Alliance has a good chance of unseating new DUP leader Gavin Robinson in East Belfast and an outside chance of taking Donaldson’s seat in Lagan Valley, either of which would be calamitous for the unionist party.

Alliance’s only MP, its deputy leader Stephen Farry, faces a proxy battle with the DUP in North Down. His main challenger will be Alex Easton, who quit the DUP in 2021 in objection to Donaldson becoming leader. Unionists have portrayed Farry as the epitome of Alliance “wokeness”.

Culture war battles are an entertaining diversion for politicians, journalists and the public, especially after two years of dreary wrangling to restore devolution. Sex education debates have an almost nostalgic appeal to people who remember similar arguments in previous decades. During the Troubles, it was a form of political escapism for social liberals and Christian conservatives alike.

So media attention is assured, but will it swing any votes? Culture war questions barely register in UK opinion polls. They might be expected to sway even fewer voters in Northern Ireland, where constitutional preference trumps all. In addition, devolved issues of education and hate crime are theoretically irrelevant in a Westminster election. In reality, broad themes and party images play into every type of election. A direct confrontation between the DUP and Alliance is a fight for unionist-background voters, so constitutional preference need not trump all. There is strong evidence the DUP lost voters to Long’s party during the so-called Alliance surge of 2019, so it not fantastical to try to win some back.

Many Alliance supporters might feel the party has changed dramatically in the past decade. For most of its 54-year history it was seen as rather “churchy”, with a liberal Christian ethos. This was personified by Long’s predecessor, David Ford, a Presbyterian church elder.

Ford parted ways with his church in 2016 over his party’s support for same-sex marriage. He is firmly behind the leadership today, showing Alliance has always been more complicated than some of its supporters may have believed. But in the polling booth, it is what voters believe that matters. “Nice Alliance has gone woke” is a DUP attack line that might register with enough people to alter election outcomes. If so, unionism could win a battle and lose a war.

The Alliance surge has peaked at about 13 per cent. Anything less in the general election would start a narrative of decline, eroding the consensus view that unionists and nationalists are stuck in indefinite minority status and must woo the unaligned centre to advance their constitutional goals. This relatively recent paradigm has had a noticeable moderating effect on Northern Ireland politics. Everyone could regret its passing. Unionism in particular could regret peeling off Alliance voters if the remaining centre is seen as more nationalist-leaning, indicating a nationalist majority is within reach. The DUP risks imperilling the union to save itself. That culture has not changed.