Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster at PinkNews event: Credit to DUP's Foster for again leaving her comfort zone: Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

The Arlene Foster Summer of Outreach tour played its toughest leg last night. Appearing before the LGBT community at Stormont, the former first minister could, at best, hope for a respectful, not rapturous, reception. She had to balance a message of acknowledging the contribution of the LGBT community to Northern Ireland with fidelity to her party's support for 'traditional' marriage.

Foster placed her appeal within the context of respect for all beliefs. She insisted that her view that marriage is a union between a man and a woman did not mean she was anti-gay or lesbian.

Foster is not given to dissembling so there is no reason to doubt the sincerity. But such messages are invariably a hard sell to those most directly affected. The Orange Order insists it is not anti-Catholic but is merely opposed to the doctrines of the Catholic Church, but the nuance of the distinction is often lost. Foster, likewise, will have a tough time convincing some that her party is not anti-gay, only their marriages.

Foster arrived at last night's reception no doubt acutely aware of DUP history. 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaigns long preceded the DUP leader's UUP past, but she joined a party still keen to ban blood donations from gay people and one prone to vituperative outbursts about homosexuality from some of its members.

That a dialogue took place last night is important. As with the GAA foray last Sunday, Foster deserves credit for straying beyond her comfort zone. She leads a party two-thirds of whose members stated, in our membership study, that 'homosexuality is wrong'. Those disappointed that she did not hint at a softening of DUP policy on same-sex marriage need to bear in mind the difficulty of shifting a party. David Cameron is often lauded for shifting the Conservatives in favour of same-sex unions but only a minority of his own MPs ever voted for such change.

The DUP has used a Petition of Concern in the Assembly on five occasions to block same-sex marriage. In November 2015, the Assembly voted in favour of same-sex marriage for the first time, by 53 votes to 52. It had rejected same-sex marriage by 49 votes to 47 in the previous vote, in April 2015, and more decisively repudiated change in previous votes. The tide has turned and a revived Assembly or an interventionist Westminster may yet force the issue.

And the DUP cannot alone block same-sex marriage in any revived Assembly, being two MLAs short of the 30 needed to lodge a Petition of Concern. But if backed by enough MLAs, such a Petition would mean change needs 40% support from both unionist and nationalist MLAs.

However, only four of the 53 unionists who voted in November 2015 indicated assent to same-sex marriage - far short of what is required. At the last Westminster election, slightly more DUP voters supported same-sex unions than opposed.

It might be asked how a veto on change is representing unionist concerns. But I still would not expect rapid change in DUP policy.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph

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