Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Arlene Foster has a duty to protect DUP's first openly gay councillor - in word and deed

Party's making progress but leader cannot give homophobia within the ranks a free pass, says Fionola Meredith

Alison Bennington celebrates after winning a council seat
Alison Bennington celebrates after winning a council seat
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Does the election of Alison Bennington, the DUP's first openly gay councillor, mean that the party is finally getting over its bizarre hang-ups over homosexuality?

Fulminating about the supposed evils of being gay was once the party's calling card, going right back to the days of 'Save Ulster from Sodomy'.

Being aggressively anti-gay assumed a vast symbolic importance: like opposition to abortion, it became an integral part of the DUP's purity myth.

Even then, it was not entirely clear why the idea of men being attracted to other men, or women liking other women - though they never seemed quite so bothered about the ladies snuggling up - got the DUPers in quite such a puce-faced tizzy.

I mean, what did any of this have to do with preserving the Union?

In more recent years, the party's weird compulsion to promote itself as 100% heterosexual has manifested itself less in offensive language.

Fortunately, it's been a while since anyone has felt compelled to gulder the word 'abomination', at least in public. None of its representatives, since Iris Robinson, have called up radio shows to suggest that gay people seek the services of a "very lovely psychiatrist" to turn them straight.

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Instead, trenchant opposition to same-sex marriage has provided a convenient hook for the party to hang its favourite obsession.

But now we have Ms Bennington proudly taking her seat on the benches of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council. It's a facer, for sure.

Some people have quite reasonably asked why a lesbian would want to join, let alone represent, a party which has such a grotesque history of anti-gay action and rhetoric.

Yet it's hard to disagree with Bennington's assertion that her private life, including her sexual orientation, should be irrelevant to her ability to be an effective, hard-working councillor and representative of the people who elected her.

Who any councillor - gay or straight - goes to bed with at night is their own business, nobody else's, no?

But there have always been certain DUP stalwarts - perhaps nostalgic for the old days of saving Ulster from you-know-what, and all the manly swaggering and macho posturing that entailed - who seem to feel honour-bound to stick their prudish noses into these very private, personal matters and to express their pious outrage.

First out of the blocks, to nobody's surprise, was Jim Wells, who didn't even wait until Ms Bennington was elected before he began complaining that the Rev Ian Paisley would be "aghast" at the decision to run her as a DUP candidate.

Then it emerged that Ballymoney councillor John Finlay had taken it upon himself to write to party officers to complain about her selection, claiming that Rev Paisley "must be turning in his grave".

The image of a dead person turning in their grave is pretty macabre, when you think about it. The idea is that the deceased is so apoplectically outraged by events occurring in the world that they have left that they briefly resurrect themselves, zombie-like, in order to flounce about in frustration, presumably before expiring again.

It is glaringly obvious that Wells and Finlay have no complaint to make about Ms Bennington's ability or otherwise to do the job of a councillor; possibly they don't even know her.

Their opposition to her appointment lies solely in her sexual orientation. She's gay, so she can't be in our club: that seems to be the unspoken mantra.

This is outrageous and entirely indefensible. A more blatant example of anti-gay prejudice is hard to imagine.

By contrast, party leader Arlene Foster welcomed Ms Bennington's victory and previously spoke warmly about how "we value and cherish people from every background" in the DUP.

So my question is this: why are Wells and Finlay still representing the party? Why have they not been immediately relieved of their duties following these unjustifiable attacks on their fellow party representative?

In making the decision to champion Ms Bennington, as an openly gay candidate, Foster and her senior colleagues knew they were taking a radical step away from the party's history.

Perhaps they surmised that a gay woman would cause fewer ructions among the party faithful, and receive a softer landing, than would be the case with a gay man.

Nonetheless, it's a decisive move in the right direction.

It is Foster's particular responsibility to defend Ms Bennington from bigotry, from both within the party and without, if she genuinely values and cherishes her contribution.

The Paisley days are dead and gone. However much the Reverend may spin in his grave, he is not coming back.

Now the DUP must decide if it is moving towards a more enlightened future, or remaining stuck with one foot in the benighted past.

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