Two Lagan Valley MLAs have clashed over the ‘conscience clause’ proposed by Paul Givan at Stormont.
Mr Givan has proposed that a clause should be introduced into equality law to allow businesses to refuse to provide some services if they clash with their religious convictions.
The Private Member’s Bill was drawn up by Mr Givan, after a Christian-run bakery faced legal action for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.
Ahead of a debate in the Assembly on the clause, it was reported that Lagan Valley NI21 MLA Basil McCrea would join with Sinn Fein and the Green Party to lay down a petition of concern, effectively blocking the clause altogether.
Mr McCrea said he did not wish to comment on the conscience clause at this time, a reaction that has sparked indignation in his fellow Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan, who has questioned why Mr McCrea does not wish to voice his opinion on the matter.
“Within Lagan Valley I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received from so many people and I welcome the engagement that is taking place,” said Mr Givan. “This is an issue that is being discussed but concern has been raised with me why local MLA Basil McCrea has reportedly pledged his support to a petition of concern that would deny the Assembly from carrying out detailed committee scrutiny of these proposals.
“Sinn Fein has claimed that Basil McCrea will join forces with them to block these proposals and he needs to explain his position. The Green Party has confirmed their sole MLA will sign a petition of concern as a blocking mechanism but Basil has remained silent leaving only Sinn Fein’s Catriona Ruane to claim his opposition and support for a petition of concern.
“Basil McCrea has in the past made a virtue of not signing petition of concerns and criticising others for using it but if Sinn Fein is correct this will be a change of position and Basil McCrea owes it to the people of Lagan Valley to explain himself and explain how he would find a solution to the very real concerns that exist from people within his constituency.
“It is disappointing that before my finalised proposals are even brought before the Assembly for consideration there are parties determined to block this effort without even knowing what will be brought forward to the Assembly.”
Lisburn Ulster Unionist Councillor, Alexander Redpath, also hit out at Mr McCrea, a former Ulster Unionist MLA, who is on record as being opposed to petitions of concern. “Mr McCrea believes there are far too many petitions of concern lodged in the Northern Ireland Assembly,” said Mr Redpath.
“As recently as last April he joked that petitions of concern where lodged over whether assembly members have one or two sugars in their coffee.
“Yet here we see Mr McCrea joining with Sinn Fein to stifle proper debate on this issue.
“I suggest that Mr McCrea’s opposition to petitions of concern blows with the wind.”
The war of words came in the same week that the Bishop of Down and Conor, Noel Treanor, visited Stormont to lend the support of the Catholic Church.
Following the meeting with Mr Givan, the Catholic delegation said that any change to the law would have to be carefully defined, to prevent it from leading to spurious claims of religious conscience.
However, Bishop Treanor said politicians must accept there was a real problem that needs to be addressed.