Upper Bann MLAs  Eóin Tennyson and Jonathan Buckley in heated online X debate on Relationships and Sexuality Education

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An online row has erupted between the DUP and the Alliance Party following a heated debate on Relationships and Sexuality Education at the NI Assembly.

Alliance MLA Kate Nicholl brought forward the motion on RSE which asks the Assembly to recognise the ‘value of compulsory, standardised, inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education as a means of empowering and preparing our children and young people for life’.

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Upper Bann MLA Eoin TennysonUpper Bann MLA Eoin Tennyson
Upper Bann MLA Eoin Tennyson

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The Government recently introduced legislation for pupils in NI to receive age-appropriate information about access to contraception and abortion services.

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During a debate on the motion DUP Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley said he had been contacted by ‘many’ parents who were ‘shocked, alarmed and disturbed by the Alliance Party's attempts to impose itself on their children's upbringing’. He also said he found accusations of being on the ‘far right’ ‘hugely insulting and offensive’. A number of meetings have taken place in recent months, many attended by the DUP, called ‘let kids be kids’ and opposing the RSE legislation.

Fellow Upper Bann MLA Eóin Tennyson of the Alliance Party, who is gay, told the NI Assembly a poignant story about his childhood and relationship and sex education.

Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley.Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley.
Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley.

He said: “I was at school not that long ago and more recently than most Members in this place. I have two poignant memories of relationships and sexuality education in school — it was so rare that I can actually remember those occasions. On the first occasion, a religious facilitator was brought into the school to preach abstinence, to tell us that sex was for marriage and that that was our only choice.

"As a young LGBT person at school who, at that stage, could not get married, I knew that that facilitator was not speaking to me, that I was invisible and that that lesson and that education were not for me. They did not deal with my kind there. That is not an experience that any young person should have in 2024 in Northern Ireland. Yet, it remains a reality for too many of our young people. I am proud to be a member of a party that comes to the Chamber, against all the bile and rhetoric from others, to advocate change.

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"On the second occasion, the facilitator who came into the school, in fairness, tried to administer some level of fact-based RSE. There was one — one — fleeting reference to same-sex couples, which was met with laughter from teachers and pupils in the school. Can you imagine how it feels to be a young person struggling with internalised homophobia, scared to tell your parents, relatives and friends who you are, only to have your sexuality laughed at in a public forum? That is not good enough, Members, and it is incumbent on all of us in the Chamber to change it.

"A number of assertions have been made, and I have taken note of a few of them. I would say, first, that my experience was indoctrination. It was not education. I was not given all the information that I needed to be able to make an informed choice in line with my ethical values. Someone else's ethical values were imposed on me. That continues today with RSE in schools being outsourced to religious organisations. If the science curriculum was outsourced and a religious organisation refused to teach the theory of evolution, we would not stand for it, so why do we accept an approach to RSE in some of our schools that is not evidence-based? That is not good enough.

"We heard a lecture from Mr Brooks about the imposition of ethical values. I take great exception to that, given that the DUP, of all parties, is the party that, for too many years, has inserted itself into the lives of women — their bodily autonomy — and the lives of LGBT people — their right to marry. The DUP is in no position to lecture those of us on these Benches about the imposition of values or about human rights or equality.

"There was talk about evidence. I will take my evidence not from the DUP, which does not have a good record on that either, but from the NSPCC, the Children's Law Centre and the Children's Commissioner, which have safeguarding at their heart and are experts in their field. Again, I make no apologies for that.

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"We have heard about the balance of parental rights and children's rights and about the family unit. I agree that there is a balance to be struck. It is, however, also true, tragically, that the family unit is one of the most common places for sexual abuse to happen. We have a responsibility to those children to ensure that they are empowered to protect themselves, to spot the signs of abuse and to go to a trusted adult and report it. If we cannot do that, we are failing those children. I ask Members to think on that.”

The row spilled onto social media. Mr Tennyson said: “The DUP is in no position to lecture anyone on human rights, equality, or the imposition of values. We will take our evidence on RSE from the NSPCC, the Children's Law Centre, and the Children's Commissioner, among many other experts in the field.”

Also on X, Mr Tennyson said: “The DUP’s “let kids be kids” campaign is a disgusting dog-whistle to the far-right. Information is power. Access to comprehensive, factual and age-appropriate RSE is the best defence our young people have against abuse and coercion - be it in childhood or later in life.”

However DUP Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley said: “I take great exception that 600 people in the Seagoe Hotel would be called far right. Parents, teachers and governors. People Mr Tennyson is trying to silence with slurs! Some in that meeting are known to Mr Tennyson. In fact some of them would have been his former voters!”

Mr Buckley said at the NI Assembly debate: "The point is this: the Alliance Party is very keen to slur parents, politicians, governors and concerned citizens. It is reckless and dangerous in the extreme. I assure you that the public will not be taken for fools. At a time when the education sector faces complex needs assessments and serious funding pressures and parents face spiralling childcare costs, what are the Alliance Party's priorities? They are gender ideologies, puberty blockers — and attempts to strip away parental rights. Not in my name.”