Belfast Telegraph

Window tribute to LGBT people has an obvious subject, and is staring council right in the face

Jeff Dudgeon has been strangely overlooked by those pushing case for gay recognition, says Fionola Meredith

It sounds like a great idea - a stained glass window in City Hall to celebrate Belfast's LGBT citizens. I like the thought of those pompous marble halls, once the preserve of people who chained the swings on Sundays, being lit up by a colourful tribute to gay life in this town.

And now it seems that the window will become a reality.

The council has voted to begin the process of designing and installing it. The motion was proposed by Mary Ellen Campbell, the gay Sinn Fein councillor and Deputy Lord Mayor, and seconded by Nuala McAllister of the Alliance Party.

Belfast Pride welcomed the initiative as breaking new ground for the city.

On the surface, then, this looks like a good news story - and a rare moment of forward-thinking in a place known for its backwardness. Poke a little below the shiny, progressive veneer, however, and you soon discover the same old pettiness and point-scoring.

For instance, I was astonished to hear that Campbell and McAllister, as proposers of the motion, did not consult councillor Jeff Dudgeon of the Ulster Unionist Party about their idea for a permanent tribute at City Hall to the LGBT community.

Have they forgotten who Dudgeon is? This is the man who took the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights over its continued criminalisation of gay men - and won.

As a result the law in Northern Ireland was changed in 1982.

This was, and remains, a victory of great significance. It was the first ECHR case to be decided in favour of LGBT rights and it continues to form the basis of European law for all member states.

So the failure to consult Dudgeon on the plan is a bit like not asking the late Rosa Parks or the black caucus in Congress about a memorial to the civil rights movement in America. In other words, a glaring omission.

Which makes me wonder what the motivation for the window was in the first place.

Is it really a tribute to gay people in Belfast?

Or is it just another form of virtue-signalling on the part of Sinn Fein and its allies in the Alliance Party? A way to announce how wonderfully principled, morally elevated and open-minded they are, in contrast to their benighted, bigoted enemies?

Belfast in the Seventies and early Eighties was a bleak and bloody enough place - and how much more oppressive it must have been if you happened to be gay.

A temporary exhibition currently on show at the Ulster Museum - Gay Life And Liberation - gives a sense of what life was like for those activists who were brave enough to challenge the law, enduring arrests, threats of exposure, seizing of personal papers.

What struck me most about this exhibition was not the misery of the time, however, but the sense of mutual support, hope and resilience. Photographs of young, smiling faces - out for dinner, sunbathing topless in the park, posing with broad grins in front of a Save Ulster From Sodomy poster. But where were Sinn Fein - and indeed the Alliance Party - during the decriminalisation campaign? Did either party lift a finger to help?

Personally, I find it difficult to take lectures on matters of principle, morality and respect from Sinn Fein, given the party's past as apologists for politically-motivated murder.

It seems that equality is being appropriated as just another weapon in SF's drive to advance its ultra-nationalist aims and to shame its opponents, not sought as a good in itself.

As for Alliance, enough already of the piety and right-on posturing, please! At the same council meeting that considered the LGBT window, DUP councillor Graham Craig gave a sexist compliment to council chief executive Suzanne Wylie about how nice she looked riding her bike, for which he later apologised.

Craig deserved to be called out on it, but Alliance went into demented overdrive, with councillor Emmet McDonough Brown calling Craig's remark "dehumanising" and Ms McAllister describing it as "absolutely horrific" and "vile". So much of our public discourse adds up to show without substance. Absurd pantomime politics and silly infantile display.

For the subject of the LGBT window, Dudgeon suggests Roger Casement or Montgomery Hyde, the Ulster Unionist MP for North Belfast who campaigned for law reform in the 1950s.

But to my mind, the most deserving and obvious candidate for the tribute is sitting right there in the council chamber. A man of principle and conviction, who brought gay freedom to this city: Jeff Dudgeon himself.

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