Party has inflicted hurt on LGBTQ community … members have a lot of work to do
IT wasn’t quite the ‘mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’ that the LGBTQ community deserve from the DUP, but it was a start.
Saying sorry isn’t something that comes easily to the party so the apology offered by deputy leader Paula Bradley for “absolutely atrocious remarks” by some of her colleagues in the past was welcome.
But now we need to see the colour of the DUP’s money. Its leading lights won’t be at the next Pride parade wrapped in rainbow flags, but there are still significant and symbolic moves they could make.
Last month when Edwin Poots was party leader, Bradley went further than any of its representatives previously in supporting a woman’s right to choose on abortion. A U-turn swiftly followed.
A senior DUP source said she was “pressurised” into it, although the party denied that. But, this time, Paula’s position was supported.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said she was speaking with the authority of the party when she apologised to the LGBTQ community which conflicted with Jim Wells’ claim that she was doing so only as an individual MLA.
But there is much more the new DUP leader can do. Allowing a conscience vote for MPs and MLAs on certain social issues would be a massive step forward.
Sir Jeffrey has himself voted against same sex marriage and abortion but, in his keynote address last Thursday, he said the DUP must be anchored in the political mainstream, and not the margins.
He has spent a quarter of a century in Westminster. He knows his party’s position on these matters is out of step with mainstream British politics.
And, at home too, that’s also increasingly the case. “The pace of social change this past decade cannot be ignored by those who wish to represent a majority of the people who live here,” he acknowledged in his speech.
A hectoring socially conservative agenda would be a millstone around the neck of unionism in a future border poll campaign, and the wiser heads in the DUP know that.
Allowing its representatives a conscience vote on social issues could also open up a significant talent pool to the party.
Many gifted young people from the unionist community are put off joining the DUP because they can’t sign up to its views on these matters. That’s one of the reasons why the party’s MLA team is so stale and male. Arlene Foster was set to become the first DUP leader to meet with LGBTQ groups when she was ousted. Sir Jeffrey now needs to step up to the mark, but it goes beyond that.
Paula Bradley said that most of the offensive comments about gay people were made by DUP politicians who have since departed the scene. Those still around had “learned their lessons” and accepted that their language had been wrong. Is that actually so?
Does Ian Paisley regret saying he was “repulsed by gay and lesbianism” whom he believed “harm society”?
Is West Tyrone MLA Tom Buchanan sorry for telling a group of secondary school pupils in Omagh that homosexuality was an “abomination”?
And what of Ballymena DUP councillor John Carson who last year said the Covid pandemic was God’s punishment for the introduction of same-sex marriage?
Will Sir Jeffrey work to ensure as best he can that no similar utterances are made by DUP figures in future and, if they are, the representative is sanctioned and censured?
In 2018, Arlene Foster refused to say sorry for the vicious words uttered by her party about gay people over the years.
“Well, you know, we could get into a round of apologies, and I don’t think that’s fruitful for anybody frankly,” she said. So the new DUP leader and deputy leader have moved forward. Given the hurt, harm and humiliation the party has caused over the decades, the response of prominent LGBTQ figures was magnanimous.
In his keynote address, Sir Jeffrey quoted only one politician. “As President Kennedy reminded us 60 years ago, ‘Civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof’,” he said.
Those are words the new DUP leader must live up to if he’s to even begin to heal the wounds his party has inflicted on the gay community.