Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster praised for 'extraordinary' decision to attend an LGBT event

By Nick Lester

A Northern Ireland Minister has hailed Arlene Foster's decision to attend an LGBT event in the region as "quite extraordinary".

Welcoming the move by the leader of the DUP, the Tory frontbencher Lord Duncan of Springbank, who is openly gay, said it was "the beginning, not the end, of a journey".

He said he would be joining Mrs Foster at the PinkNews reception at the seat of Northern Ireland's suspended devolved parliament, Stormont, this Thursday.

Organisers have said her taking part represents an important step towards dialogue. It is the first time a DUP leader had agreed to attend, according to campaigners.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage is illegal.

Change is strongly opposed by the DUP, who argue civil partnerships are already available and believe marriage is between a man and a woman. The move comes amid the continuing political stalemate in Northern Ireland, with power-sharing suspended at Stormont.

Speaking at Westminster, Conservative peer Lord Hayward said while progress in the region was difficult in the absence of a devolved government, some could still be made and highlighted Mrs Foster's planned meeting with LGBT representatives.

Responding, Lord Duncan said: "Yes, that is quite extraordinary. It is the beginning, not the end, of a journey," he added.

Labour peer Lord Dubs argued that the lack of a functioning Assembly and Executive was "detrimental to the interests of the people of Northern Ireland".

Lord Duncan agreed and said it was "long overdue".

He added: "Right now, we have two parties who are inching closer to some sense of being back in the room. That is how we are making progress - not that we are getting an outcome from the room; we are just trying to get them back into the room.

"We will close off no doors in trying to ensure that we bring them back to the table and that they leave the table with a fully functioning, sustainable Executive."

Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon, said it was "a serious situation".

She asked: "How much longer can this be allowed to go on?"

Lord Duncan said: "I can be very frank and say that Northern Ireland will be suffering in the absence of an Executive, of that there can be no doubt.

"It is not for me to try to work out what is happening in the province of Northern Ireland, it is for the elected representatives, who listen to the voices of Northern Ireland, to move forward.

"The government do all we can to reach out to all those elected parties, but there is no functioning Executive. Until we have that, we cannot make the progress required for the people of Northern Ireland.

"She asks how long we can go on. The reality is - not much longer."

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