Belfast Telegraph

Walking gay daughter down the aisle was a radical move by Orange Order leader Beattie

A father's love allowed the Grand Master to see the benign reality of same-sex marriage, says Fionola Meredith

The decision by Spencer Beattie, Grand Master of the Orange Order in Belfast, to walk his daughter Lesa down the aisle would not be remarkable, but for the fact that Lesa's bride was a woman. Mr Beattie's presence at the ceremony in Carrickfergus, where Lesa and her partner Melanie pledged their lives to one another, was clearly the act of a loving father who wanted to play an active part in the most important day of his daughter's life.

But because of Mr Beattie's senior role in the Orange Order, which is notoriously opposed to same-sex nuptials of any kind, and has indeed barred the door to gay or transgender people in its ranks, the occasion took on much wider symbolic significance.

This wasn't just a proud dad, smart in a white tie and white rosebud button-hole, taking his daughter's arm for the procession down the aisle, or chatting amiably to family members, or ligging about, sticking his tongue out when another guest snapped his photograph.

This was also a leading Orangeman publicly endorsing the union of two same-sex people.

And that's not the sort of thing that happens every day in Northern Ireland.

It would have been unthinkable even just a decade ago.

Mr Beattie's decision to give his daughter away, in the old-fashioned phrase, is a game-changer because it demonstrates to his fellow brethren and to conservative Christian society as a whole that gay marriage is not evil.

It isn't a deplorable sign of moral degeneracy, hot with sin, some dread harbinger of a universal collapse in traditional values. It's just two people who love each other, standing up in front of their families and friends and making a solemn promise to care for one another always.

Life is a strange, uncertain journey, punctuated with both joy and suffering. It's better to do it with somebody you love at your side, holding your hand, watching your back.

I suspect that those who are most ferociously opposed to marriage equality see it in the abstract, as a hated symbol of all that is wrong with modern society and its profane, licentious ways.

But when it is your own son or your own daughter who wants to marry their same-sex partner, then it's not a symbol any more. Instead, it's all about the deeply-held wishes of an individual, somebody you dearly love, and as Mr Beattie may have found, love suddenly matters more than any abstract principle.

Reaction to Mr Beattie's appearance at the ceremony has been fairly positive, even among Orange Order stalwarts like David McNarry, former assistant Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. He reiterated his opposition to marriage equality but admitted that he would probably have done the same thing himself, had the circumstances arisen. "I think that my love for my daughter would far outweigh that position that I would have," he said.

But perhaps Mr Beattie had no such scruples, no dark night of the soul in which he wrestled with his own internal opposition. Maybe it wasn't a case of putting his principles aside.

After all, he told the Sunday Life that he is "all for equality and people having the right to make their own choices".

Does that mean that he actively supports same-sex marriage?

If so, then equality campaigners now have an important ally at the heart of the Orange Order, demonstrating by his actions that gay nuptials are nothing to get your knickers in a twist about.

Look, I'm not saying that we will see a joint Twelfth/Pride parade any time soon - though the two celebrations do share a similar love of noise, pomp and colour - but change is certainly on the way. Even the Orange Order is starting to realise that it's not 1690 any more.

Gestures like this are powerful, when they are genuine and not done for show. They have real impact because they transcend the usual stultifying boundaries that divide us - whether orange or green, gay or straight - and make people connect on a deeper level. Former UUP leader and Orangeman Tom Elliott's decision to attend the funeral of murdered Catholic police officer Ronan Kerr was another striking example, as was Arlene Foster's applauded attendance at Martin McGuinness's funeral.

For a moment you get a glimpse of how the world could be if we acted from the warmth and generosity of our individual human hearts, and not according to the cold, dead rules of the tribe.

Belfast Telegraph

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