Arlene Foster defends decision to go to landmark LGBT event and says DUP may have lesbian and gay representatives
Arlene Foster has strongly defended her decision to hold a landmark meeting with the LGBT community - and has revealed that her party may have gay elected representatives.
The DUP leader was speaking as her decision to attend an event paying tribute to the LGBT community's contribution to Northern Ireland was widely welcomed.
However, the Belfast Telegraph understands that two DUP councillors voiced concerns internally about their leader's LGBT meeting. Both representatives declined to comment when contacted yesterday.
DUP Ballymoney councillor John Finlay said: "If you want any comment, see the press office."
Bangor councillor and farmer Alan Graham said: "Speak to the press office."
Mr Graham was at the centre of a worldwide media storm in 2011 when he called on pop star Rihanna to cover up as she filmed a video in a state of semi-undress in his field.
The DUP leader was backed by North Belfast councillor Dale Pankhurst who tweeted: "Fully supportive and behind Arlene Foster in reaching out to people from a variety of traditions and beliefs. As we head towards 2021, everyone must and will feel inclusive in a strong and vibrant Northern Ireland."
Mrs Foster is to join the leaders of Northern Ireland's other four main parties at the Stormont event hosted by PinkNews on June 28. She was invited by CitiBank. DUP sources said she was not set to speak at the event.
LGBT advocacy group The Rainbow Project said it hopes her presence will be the start of bridge-building with the community.
Veteran gay rights' campaigner and Belfast Ulster Unionist councillor Jeff Dudgeon welcomed the meeting, but said it wasn't enough and the DUP had to now move to facilitate same-sex marriage.
Speaking on UTV last night, Mrs Foster said: "Over this past couple of years there has been a perception of the DUP as people who don't value the LGBT community. I just want to make sure that the LGBT community are aware that I do value their contribution to Northern Ireland.
"The fact that we disagree on the definition of marriage of course is an issue.
"But that shouldn't stop me from saying I value these people as citizens of Northern Ireland and thank them for the contribution they make on a day and daily basis."
Mrs Foster acknowledged that the "perception" that the DUP didn't value the LGBT community was "sometimes caused by things that have been said in the past". She continued: "There are many people in Northern Ireland who vote for the DUP who are lesbian and gay. In fact, I'm quite sure we have lesbian and gay members in the DUP. Who knows, we may even have elected representatives in the DUP who are lesbian and gay."
Gavin Boyd of the Rainbow Project said: "It will be the first time that a DUP leader will attend an LGBT event and it's great to see Arlene Foster taking this important step. I hope that it will be the start of bridge-building.
"I hope it will be the start of a process of reconciliation between the DUP and LGBT people in Northern Ireland who have had to bear the brunt of the DUP's hostility and bigotry here over the past four decades. There is room for trust and respect to be built."
In her statement disclosing that she would attend the LGBT event, Mrs Foster said her party had sometimes been subject to vile abuse by a minority in the LGBT community.
Mr Boyd said he hoped that she would not use the Stormont event to lecture gay rights' activists on their criticism of her party.
If she did so, they would have to remind her that in the past DUP representatives had described being gay as worse than sexually abusing children and had claimed the existence of gay people had caused God to send hurricanes to earth.
Mr Dudgeon noted that Mrs Foster's gesture to the gay community followed similar outreach to the GAA and Muslims in the past week.
"Arlene seems to be clearing the decks in preparation for a new round of talks with Sinn Fein in September," he said.
"I welcome her attendance at the Stormont event but if she is serious about recognising the rights of gay people, then she must tell Theresa May to allow the necessary time for an equal marriage bill in the House of Commons. Equal marriage is the touchstone of whether you are truly willing to accept diversity."