Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Arlene Foster takes major step forward in the evolution of DUP

Anyone who expected DUP leader Arlene Foster to herald a policy change on same-sex marriage at last night's LGBT event at Stormont was always going to be disappointed.

She is engaged in an exercise to demonstrate that unionism is - as she said earlier this year - open and welcoming.

In recent times she has met with the Muslim community, attended a GAA match in the Republic where she stood for the Irish national anthem, visited a Catholic grammar school in Newry and met students learning Irish.

This is all part of a carefully choreographed outreach programme to change the image of her party, which is often seen as dour, introverted and at odds with general public opinion on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. She has shown a willingness to engage with what traditionally would have been seen as non-DUP organisations.

But the absence of any hint of policy change does not diminish what she set out to do last night. Just being there and listening to the views of LGBT activists is a quantum step forward from the days of the Rev Ian Paisley's strident Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign.

Her words were conciliatory - we are all valued members of this society - and also showed something she has been accused of lacking: leadership qualities.

As the leader of the largest unionist party she heads a very broad church in a manner of speaking, ranging from the fundamentalists of the Free Presbyterian founders of the party to its more liberal or modern wing.

Politics is the art of the possible and the first imperative of any party leader is to maintain as much unity as possible while subtly encouraging the party to evolve and remain relevant. In Mrs Foster's case her task is made more difficult through the 'confidence and supply' arrangement that is keeping the Tory Government in power. The DUP's attitude to abortion reform and same-sex marriages is at odds with political and public opinion in the rest of the UK and Ireland.

She may have been encouraged to adopt a relatively high-profile outreach programme to allay criticism at Westminster, although she has stressed that it is the right thing to do.

Recalling her brush with death at the hands of the IRA 30 years ago when a bomb exploded on her school bus, Mrs Foster said that on that day it did not matter what the race, religion or sexuality was of anyone on that bus. They were simply children with their lives ahead of them.

And so it is with people of differing views in Northern Ireland. All have a part to play in the future of this province. As the demographics continue to stack up against unionism it is in the DUP's interests to appeal to as wide a range of voters without diminishing its existing core support.

In a region where practically every move is politically charged and minutely parsed we should applaud the DUP leader for the steps she has taken to engage with people of widely divergent views.

Of course, the political engagement everyone really wants to see is between the DUP and Sinn Fein, in the hope that they could find some compromise that would end the political stasis and begin tackling the mounting problems facing us, including reform of the health service, investment in education and the economy and tackling the infrastructure deficit. To use Mrs Foster's own words, we want meaningful engagement rather than megaphone diplomacy

Belfast Telegraph

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