Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Arlene Foster's efforts to move DUP on from toxic past encouraging

Arlene Foster at an event to mark the end of Muslim holy month of Ramadan
Arlene Foster at an event to mark the end of Muslim holy month of Ramadan
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

After Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dropped into Belfast gay bar Maverick on his visit to the city a fortnight ago, the management issued a tongue-in-cheek invitation to another politician.

"@DUPleader, if you'd like to pop in for a sherry and a chat about marriage equality any time you'd be very welcome," they tweeted.

Arlene Foster hasn't quite gone that far in her attempted bridge-building with the LGBT community, but it's clear that she genuinely wants to forge a better relationship with them.

On Thursday week she will attend the PinkNews summer reception at Stormont. In 2018 - even in Northern Ireland - this most definitely shouldn't be news. Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance leaders will be there. But the DUP's open hostility to gay rights in the past guarantees this is a headline-setting event.

Some utterances from the party's elected representatives in the past haven't just been unwise, they've been shameful.

Saying homosexuality is "viler" than child abuse, calling it "an abomination", and claiming that a hurricane that killed 1,300 people was God's revenge for a gay parade are three examples that spring to mind, but there are many more.

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Anybody expecting the DUP leadership to apologise for these remarks will, I suspect, be waiting a long time. But Mrs Foster is evidently trying to move on from that toxic legacy.

It's not one to which she has personally contributed.

When I first met 25-year-old Arlene Kelly, it was in a south Belfast hotel enjoying the craic with a fellow Young Unionist who in those oppressive days was one of the few out and proud in Northern Ireland politics.

As Mrs Foster herself acknowledged yesterday, gay people (although admittedly not in huge numbers) vote DUP, join the DUP and even become DUP elected representatives. There is nothing intrinsic in unionism that means it should be at war with gay rights.

The DUP leader has been making a whirlwind of gestures over the past week with outreach exercises involving the GAA and the Muslim community. It is quite evident that she is paving the way for a fresh round of dialogue with Sinn Fein later this year.

The exposure of the DUP's views on social issues in the London media has undoubtedly also encouraged the leadership to embrace change.

There are some in the party's base who will be deeply uneasy at the development. But there are far more in wider unionist grassroots who will say: 'It's about time this happened'.

When Belfast's Orange Order grand master Spencer Beattie walked his daughter down the aisle at her same-sex civil partnership earlier this year barely an eyebrow was raised in his community.

Mrs Foster's gig at Stormont next week doesn't represent any dramatic policy shift. The DUP still opposes same-sex marriage.

Yet this is an initial step on the road to a kinder relationship.

Belfast Telegraph


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