The Scottish National Party has been criticised by equality campaigners after it emerged that one of their leading Holyrood candidates “expressed concern at promotion of homosexuality in schools” and also stated her opposition to both same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples.
Sophia Coyle, who is currently serving as a councillor for the Airdrie North ward, has been selected as third on the SNP’s regional list for Central Scotland. However, if – as expected – Social Justice minister Alex Neil and Christina McKelvie retain their seats, Ms Coyle will effectively become the top list candidate is is likely to secure a seat in Holyrood at next year’s election.
She has previously stated, in a 2010 interview for the Plains Evangelical Church blog, that she would have been willing to defy the party whip on adoption and marriage: “marriage was something that existed between a man and a woman…She also indicated that she is not in favour of homosexual partners being given the right to foster and adopt. She confirmed that had she been in the Scottish Parliament when this Bill was going through she would have voted against her party whip to oppose it.”
Ms Coyle also added that churches should be free to refuse to hire their premises to those who did not have “a christian ethos”, and was “concerned to make sure that Christian groups were free to speak and act according to their Christian conscience.”
The Herald reports that she also supported a pro-life campaign that opposed pre-marital sex, and believed “tradtionional” marriage to be “the most important unit for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all”.
The Glasgow-based newspaper has attempted to contact Ms Coyle to ascertain whether she continues to hold these views. The councillor refused to comment, but the SNP responded with a statement that described her as being “entirely comfortable” with marriage equality. However, while the party pointed out the five years have elapsed since the interview, no-one has denied the that Ms Coyle actually made the statements attributed to her.
The Scottish Green Party has already claimed that such views call into question Ms Coyle’s “suitablility as a public representative”. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Scottish Greens said: “While it’s for the SNP to judge the calibre of its candidates, it’s disappointing that they’ve selected someone who would restrict the rights of citizens of certain genders and sexual orientations.”
With the issue of abortion rights set to be devolved to Holyrood, there is likely to be concern at Ms Coyle’s stance. While the Scottish government has confirmed it has to intention to change existing law, Ms Coyle’s previously stated willingness to defy the party line on “moral issues” has already created anxiety in some quarters.
The Herald claims that a number of SNP members in North Lanarkshire have expressed concern, with one going so far as to say it would be a “total embarrassment” if – as seems very likely – she is returned as an MSP.
Ms Coyle is well connected within her party. She has previously worked as a parliamentary assistant to Richard Lyle, the Central Scotland MSP who is most notable for defying the party line and voting against same-sex marriage in 2011. Lyle and his colleagues John Mason, Bill Walker and Dave Thomson were condemned by many, both within and outside the SNP, for supporting a counter-motion stating “while some in society approve of same-sex sexual relationships, others do not agree with them…no person or organisation should be forced to be involved in or to approve of same-sex marriage.” SNP MEP Alyn Smith publicly criticised Lyle and his three allies, saying: “What is in the small, mean, angry heads of bigots is a matter for them. I have never asked for their approval, but I demand equality.”
Ms Coyle is also the daughter of Michael Coyle, a fellow councillor on North Lanarkshire Council who is currently the convenor of the Airdrie and Shotts branch of the SNP, and who works as a caseworker for Alex Neil MSP and Neil Gray MP.
She has previously attracted controversy for her expenses and poor attendance record, and following acusations that SNP internal elections were “rigged” to allow for an influx of family and friends of senior local figures.
Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network, told KaleidoScot: “There is obviously a range of opinion in any party. But if Sophia Coyle’s views are as reported in this blog, they are well out of line with the clear position of her party on LGBTI equality issues, and very different to the views of most of her party colleagues. We would be disappointed if in 2016 there were still MSPs in favour of rolling back many of the gains towards LGBTI equality made over the past 20 years. Scotland can be proud of its record on improving LGBTI equality, but if we followed the policies attributed in the blog to Ms Coyle, that would take us straight from the top, to close to the bottom of the league in western Europe for equality and respect for LGBTI people.”
An SNP spokesperson commented: “Sophia Coyle held this meeting five years ago and like the majority of people in Scotland, is entirely comfortable with marriage equality. As the First Minister has made clear, the SNP Scottish Government has no plans to change the law on abortion and Shona Robison has written to women’s groups confirming this.”
A gay SNP activist, who spoke to KaleidoScot anonymously, said: “While I don’t know Sophia Coyle personally, I am concerned that she has not distanced herself from the views she expresed five years ago. She is of course entitled to those views, but whether she should be entitled to represent the SNP is another matter entirely. People will be voting for the SNP because of our progressive views on equality and because of our record in making same-sex marriage a reality. I certainly find it disappointing that we’re discussing this.”