Belfast Telegraph

Significant step for DUP as Arlene Foster breaks ice with Northern Ireland gay community

By Ivan Little

It stopped short of hugs and kisses as Arlene Foster followed up her GAA groundbreaker at the weekend by going to a gay event in Belfast last night - but the DUP leader's embracing of the LGBT community was still hailed as a hugely significant stride away from her party's past.

A summer love-in it was not. But any thoughts that the PinkNews summer reception at Stormont would be nothing more than an informal meet-and-greet icebreaker were quickly dispelled as Mrs Foster refused to back down from her opposition to same-sex marriage, and she and the DUP came under fire from other politicians at the event in the Great Hall.

Several observers described Mrs Foster's speech to the several hundred guests as a "missed opportunity" because it contained no surprises and no apologies for the party's stance on marriage equality.

Significantly, her address was met with only a ripple of polite applause, whereas other speakers like Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and even the Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann were cheered to the rafters.

On her arrival in the Great Hall, Mrs Foster, the first DUP leader to attend such an event, chatted with - and had several robust debates with - members of the LGBT community and campaigners for same-sex marriage.

She had a long discussion with Adrianne Elson, a transgender woman, who said: "I welcome Mrs Foster's presence here.

"I consider myself a unionist and I feel LGBT unionists are quite marginalised and excluded. It's as if we haven't got a tribe or a camp - we're seen as neither one thing nor the other."

Mrs Foster made it clear in advance that her participation at last night's reception didn't signal a softening of her opposition to same-sex marriage.

There were whispers among the audience that there could be heckling or walkouts during Mrs Foster's address, but while some of her comments brought raised eyebrows and mutterings, she wasn't interrupted.

The DUP leader, who was marking the "difficult" 30th anniversary of the IRA bombing of her school bus in Fermanagh, started by telling the audience that she looked at them as her neighbours and fellow citizens.

And she said she looked forward to a time when her attendance at an LGBT event was unremarkable.

Mrs Foster said that just because the DUP disagreed with the LGBT community over same-sex marriage, it didn't mean she didn't value their community.

"I want to acknowledge the contribution of the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and to recognise the reality of diversity among our citizens," she added.

She went on to say that some of the brightest and best people in Northern Ireland were part of the LGBT community.

"For my part - and it will not be agreed with in this room tonight - I believe I can hold to my principled position particularly in relation to marriage whilst respecting diversity across our society," she said.

"It is not a zero-sum game, as it is sometimes presented.

"All I ask in return is that my, and my party's views, are also respected, if not agreed with."

Mrs Foster's assertion that everyone in the Great Hall was equal was immediately challenged by the leader of the SDLP Colum Eastwood.

"Not everybody is equal in this community. That is the sad fact. That is the sad reality," he said.

"And until everyone is equal the people in this room won't stop campaigning. And we won't stop campaigning with them."

Mr Eastwood added that 50% of LGBT people had considered suicide and the same percentage of LGBT schoolchildren said they didn't feel safe in society. Stormont may still be in mothballs but Mr Eastwood called for the eventual reform of the Assembly's petition of concern, which has been used by the DUP to block same-sex marriage

Mrs Foster listened as Sinn Fein vice-president Mrs O'Neill said that any new power-sharing government here must deliver rights for all, vowing that her party would play no part in what she called "state-sponsored discrimination".

And without naming the DUP, she accused "a minority of Assembly Members" of mounting a political blockade to true equality for the LGBT community.

Mrs O'Neill said that their resistance was not sustainable.

"It is running out of road," she said. "As legislators we must put citizens' rights before our personal beliefs in order to fulfil our public duty, and to protect everyone equally before the law.

"This means ending the veto, in particular, to marriage equality, but it also means addressing issues relating to gender recognition, adoption, transphobic and homophobic bullying, the reporting of domestic violence as well as employment equality."

Ulster Unionist leader Mr Swann said he was proud of the contribution to the LGBT debate by his party's gay political activist councillor Jeff Dudgeon.

He added: "I recognise that the relationship between the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and elements of political unionism has often not been an easy one.

"For my party's part I want us to be a comfortable home for LGBT members of our society, whether activist or elected representative, and one they can be proud to vote for."

Listening to the speeches was Stormont's first openly gay MLA John Blair from the Alliance Party, who will replace his former party leader David Ford after he announced his retirement earlier this week.

After the addresses, Benjamin Cohen, the editor-in-chief of PinkNews, which organised the reception, said Mrs Foster's attendance was an important step forward towards encouraging a dialogue on LGBT rights.

He added: "Arlene Foster didn't come here expecting to be a gay icon. She came here to start a conversation, and that conversation has started. And she did take time talk to members of the LGBT community and activists. That can only be welcomed."

Mrs Foster told the Belfast Telegraph she had been received "very well", adding: "I want to thank the organisers for putting a lot of thought into looking after me.

"My message in terms of same-sex marriage isn't universally welcomed, of course. But I wanted to come here to say that I value LGBT people as citizens of Northern Ireland and it was important to do that."

Mrs Foster said the lukewarm response to her speech didn't surprise her.

She said she hoped her visit would be the start of a conversation where "we can all understand each other".

"And I hope that some of the harsh words and abuse that has come from both sides will stop and that there'll be a more measured engagement."

Her latest reconciliatory gesture came just four days after she became the first DUP leader to go to an Ulster GAA final.

But while the former First Minister's native county were beaten by Donegal in Clones, commentators said there were no losers last night as Mrs Foster reached out to the LGBT community.

However, outside Stormont a small group of placard-waving LGBT campaigners staged a protest and demanded "action not words" on gay, lesbian and transgender rights. 'Change, not canapes', read another.

"Several of us were invited to the event, but we're not going in," said Ruth McCarthy.

"We support what our community have done and it is about a celebration. But this shouldn't just be about people getting up and doing a bit of PR spin.

"Arlene Foster has already said she's not changing her mind on equality. But unionism needs to move on. "

Belfast Telegraph

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