Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Arlene Foster deserves credit for reaching out to NI's LGBT community... but like Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meeting with the Orange Order, the real question now is: what happens next?

The DUP leader has made a good start, but the voices in her party resisting change must be firmly, if politely, faced down, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Thousands attend Belfast Pride
Thousands attend Belfast Pride
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Orange Order, on a visit to Belfast earlier this month

It would be churlish not to welcome Arlene Foster's new readiness to reach out to the gay community in Northern Ireland. She's been urged to do so countless times. Dismissing it in advance as a meaningless PR gesture, as the Angry Brigade has predictably been doing on social media, is the very definition of negativity for its own sake.

It would be equally naive, however, not to maintain a certain degree of scepticism as to how serious the DUP leader is about changing the culture of her party when it comes to such matters.

The former First Minister has been here before, after all.

It's as if she periodically recognises that something must be done to repair her own, or her party's, relationship with some particular group, before snuggling up to them to a chorus of praise - only to forget to follow up on it afterwards, meaning all the good work is undone and it's quickly back to square one.

Previously, it was Irish language speakers after the whole "crocodile" debacle.

Now it's gay people.

The good news is that there's no downside whatsoever to the DUP leader's decision to join other party leaders at an upcoming meeting at Stormont to celebrate the contribution made by the local LGBT community.

Whatever her motives, it's an important acknowledgment that every person in Northern Ireland has a right to expect that the Assembly, should it get up and running again, will represent them equally, whatever their sexuality.

The interview that Mrs Foster gave in which she acknowledged that her party "may even have" gay and lesbian elected representatives was also long overdue.

Indeed, it's a wonder that her comments should even be considered controversial. Of course there are gay DUP representatives.

There's no "may" about it.

There are also gay Orangemen, gay Free Presbyterians and gay clergymen, just as there are gay teachers and PSNI officers, doctors and nurses.

A person's sexuality is only a part of who they are and not necessarily the most interesting part at that.

Why would any party want to alienate potential voters, particularly with the political scales so finely balanced?

It's not as if there's any known link between being a unionist and only feeling attracted to the opposite sex.

Even when those with more traditional views on sexuality do make an effort to show respect towards gay people, they often approach it as if it's equivalent to Christ sitting down with sinners and that's not exactly a helpful attitude.

Ultimately, it's a matter of deciding which is more important - defending the Union against the many forces that currently threaten it, or clinging on to a distaste for other people's sex lives that most unionist voters consider almost comically old-fashioned.

Mrs Foster seemed to understand all this in her recent speech in London, when she staked a claim for pro-Union opinion as an inclusive, welcoming philosophy, arguing: "Unionism is at its best when it is confident, outward-looking and welcoming," she said.

If these latest moves are designed to build on that commitment, it would definitely be the right way to go.

This is because the best, and indeed only long-term defence of the Union is through making the case that remaining part of the UK works to the advantage of all - regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

The DUP is the largest unionist party, but it simply doesn't represent the views of ordinary unionists when it comes to these issues, as polls consistently show. The last survey, by the Equality Commission found that 83% of people here have a positive opinion of gay people, up from 57% in less than a decade.

Things have come a long way from Ian Paisley's 1970s' campaign to Save Ulster From Sodomy. Fewer than one in five of us now opposes same-sex marriage.

Ignoring those numbers is why Northern Ireland gets an undeserved reputation for being hopelessly stuck in a less-tolerant past, producing headlines such as this from the BBC: "Is Belfast the worst place in the UK to be gay?"

The answer to that question, of course, is no.

There are far worse places to be gay - even in Northern Ireland.

But with almost twice as many gay people here requiring medical help for depression and anxiety than in the rest of the UK, the DUP's provincial version of Britishness has long looked out of kilter with Britain as a whole and that gap is only set to widen in the future.

The latest poll, by Lord Ashcroft, shows local support for remaining in the UK dropping to just under 50%, with 44% ready to vote for a united Ireland. Critics will quibble with his methodology, but it's another shot across the bows and unionists would be foolish to ignore it.

Right now, the DUP is fighting on too many fronts. It's resisting moves towards same-sex marriage, the extension of abortion rights and a larger role for the Irish language; it's also fighting those who wish to overturn, or soften, Brexit.

It's like an octopus with boxing gloves on each of its eight tentacles and something will have to give eventually.

It's much easier for disparate campaigners to put pressure on the DUP than it is for the DUP to keep up rearguard actions against them all. Arlene Foster's apparent willingness to wind down hostilities on at least one of those fronts ought to preserve strength for bigger battles.

It's just not worth dying on the ditch of theological orthodoxy when it comes to what people get up to between the sheets.

Now she just needs to stick at it and build on that first move, just as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar needs to follow up on his recent visit to the home of the Orange Order by showing he really does appreciate and value the unionist point of view.

Both were the first in their respective offices to cross those barriers, but breaking bread with a few Orangemen, or LGBT representatives, is only the start.

There will be voices in Mrs Foster's ear demanding that she change course and no party leader can afford to ignore, or disrespect, factions in their own ranks, because that's how resentments build. Her insistence that the party's opposition to same-sex marriage will remain is probably an attempt to soothe worries that her attendance at an LGBT event is the thin end of some scary, permissive wedge.

But all the evidence is there to show that those people don't represent modern unionism or its supporters.

They're a small and dwindling minority - and they need to be politely, but firmly, faced down.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph