Ex-Tory minister says transgender activists have been allowed to act like 'thought police' as news emerges of push-back from civil servants

Northern Ireland-born Tory MP Conor Burns, formerly a trade and Northern Ireland minister (Photo: /)
Northern Ireland-born Tory MP Conor Burns, formerly a trade and Northern Ireland minister (Photo: /)

Sir Conor Burns made the comments to the News Letter after news emerged of a letter sent by 42 staff to the civil service top brass, complaining that the beliefs of activists are now being treated as fact, and that any dissent is viewed as a form of ignorance or bigotry.

The letter had been signed by employees in 16 departments, some of which had undergone disciplinary procedures over the matter, and all of whom were keeping their identities anonymous on the basis that it would harm their careers if they went public.

Their letter, according to journalists at The Telegraph who first broke the story, warned that the “impartiality” of the civil service is at stake.

Sir Conor, who until recently was a junior minister for both international trade and Northern Ireland, said activists had been allowed to patrol the opinions of civil servants like “thought police”, and declared himself “extremely pleased civil servants are now starting to challenge this”.

As the News Letter has previously reported (and has been alone in doing so), there are now at least 14 registered charities and non-profit outfits campaigning on transgender matters in Northern Ireland, largely funded from the public purse.

On top of that, the NI Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission have devoted time to transgender matters, alongside dedicated LGBTQ+ associations that are active within the trade unions Unison, Unite, NIPSA, and PCS, plus “staff networks” working within public bodies such as the PSNI's LGBT Network and the LGB&T Forum for NHS staff.

Meanwhile the NI Education Authority officially advises schools to accept students’ self-declared gender, while the NI civil service has adopted guidance effectively ordering staff to use someone’s self-declared pronouns or face disciplinary action (including possible dismissal).


In basic terms, transgender ideology could be described as revolving around three main ideas:

  • Firstly, that sex and gender are different things (with sex describing someone's biology and gender describing their true inner spirit);

  • Secondly, that if a male declares himself to be a female then he really is a female, and has always been a female (or vice versa);

  • And, thirdly, that there are no firm definitions of the terms male and female, because instead of being "binary" gender is really a "spectrum".

“Not everyone shares this belief, yet it is often treated as undisputed fact, and those who disagree are characterised as uninformed or hateful," said the letter from civil servants, according to The Telegraph.

“Many of us have experienced some form of professional disadvantage because we do not believe that the concept of gender identity is meaningful, or that it is more important than sex.

"Several of us have been through stressful and intrusive employment disputes…

“We are concerned that the widespread incorporation of the concept of ‘gender identity’ into the language and internal policies of the civil service constitutes a significant breach of impartiality.”

It also stated that the culture in the civil service “distorts the operation of government in many ways, and it is reasonable to be concerned that it could improperly influence government policy”.

News of the letter to cabinet secretary Simon Case broke last week, although the letter was actually sent in April.

The Telegraph reported that "it is highly unusual for civil servants to write directly to the Cabinet Secretary with their concerns, and even more unusual for such letters to become public knowledge".

A response to the letter reportedly came in late June from Fiona Ryland, the "government chief people officer", saying she said she was “concerned” about the points raised.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The Cabinet Secretary and senior Civil Service leaders take the issues raised in the letter seriously.

“Our response outlines how the concerns that staff raised are being addressed, including through updated Impartiality Guidance.

“It also says that it is important that civil servants recognise the diversity of opinion on these issues.”


Born into a family in nationalist north Belfast, Sir Conor has been Tory MP for Bournemouth since 2010.

He was junior minister at the Department for International Trade in 2019, 2020, and 2022, and the Northern Ireland Office in 2021 and 2022.

He briefly lost his ministerial status and was suspended from the party in 2022 after a member of the public complained that Mr Burns, a gay man, had touched another man’s leg late one night in a pub.

The Tory Party ultimately said it had looked into this “incident” and “concluded that there was no basis on which to investigate further”.

Asked if he was familiar with the kind of concerns raised in the letter, he told the News Letter: “There is a sort of tendency to outsource all rational thinking on these issues to Stonewall, who frankly – have become like a sort of thought police.

"The chasing of Stonewall certifications of compliance and excellence and all the rest of it is now pervading not just the civil service but the NHS and parts of education as well.

"It's become a really, really serious problem."

This is a reference to the UK charity Stonewall, which countless departments and public bodies use as a benchmark for judging how “inclusive” they are.

Many of them pay Stonewall to perform a kind of audit of their organisations, with Stonewall then scoring them on their progress towards meeting its own “inclusion” targets.

"There is a growing disconnect between what elements of the civil service think should give dominance and priority to, versus what the people who we're all ultimately accountable to and work for would regard as the priorities they'd expect us to focus on,” he said.

"I always remember a very lovely phrase of Lady Thatcher's, that 'there is nothing more obstinate than a fashionable consensus'…

"I'm very grateful we have Kemi Badenoch as the equalities minister who is extremely competent and secure in her views on this, to challenge the growing pervasion of this sentiment and I'm extremely pleased civil servants are now starting to challenge this."

He criticsed the “lazy” conflation of transgenderism with sexuality, and said that “a tiny minority” of activist had been quite successful in advancing the acceptance of their “very niche position” on gender.

In particular, Sir Conor said society has an “obligation” towards young people, “who have more than enough to contemplate growing up and coming to terms with the world in which they're living”, not to be “burdening them and confusing them with this subject too early on”.

Stonewall was contacted, but has not replied.

With the exception of The Nolan Show, the News Letter has been the sole daily news outlet in Northern Ireland to have regularly covered the issue of transgenderism over the last several years.