This article is written by Stuart Duffy whose personal views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of this organisation.
Arlene Foster arrived in my hometown of Cowdenbeath, Fife today to speak at one of the largest Orange Order marches I’ve ever witnessed.
Since I was a wee boy I can remember these marches with the flutes playing and drums banging as they passed right outside my childhood home. Coming from a mixed family (my dad was Catholic and mum was Protestant) we rarely paid much attention, apart from the odd expletive from my dad when a march passed at 9am on a Saturday morning!
Fast forward to 2018 and an expected 6000 people gathered today on the playing fields of my former High School, adorned with their orange sashes, colourful uniforms and the unmistakable sound of drums being heard across the town.
Being an out gay man and LGBT campaigner, I knew Arlene Foster, and more generally her political party the DUP, were no favourites of our LGBT brothers and sisters across in Northern Ireland.
There are well documented examples of anti-LGBT views held by individuals in her party, but most importantly in recent years, the DUP’s opposition to equal marriage in Northern Ireland has left the community angry and frustrated. Opposition assembly members at Stormont have said they hold resolution of this matter as key to bringing devolution back to Northern Ireland.
So it was somewhat surprising for me to hear this week that Arlene Foster had chosen to accept an invitation to an LGBT reception from Pink News in Belfast, and chose to speak of her acknowledgment for the ‘value’ LGBT people bring to society.
During that speech she also addressed head-on the issue of equal marriage and her continuing ‘principled position’ to oppose same-sex couples getting married in Northern Ireland, saying:
“I want to recognise that some of the brightest and best in this country are part of the LGBT community. I wanted to use this platform to encourage meaningful engagement rather than megaphone diplomacy. We need to be in a space where we accept each other for who we are and we respect people’s conscientious position. Just because we disagree on equal marriage does not mean I don’t value the LGBT community and it’s not a zero sum game as it’s often portrayed.”
But people took to social media to call out her comments as ironic, given the utter disrespect shown to the LGBT community over several years by members of her party. How can we easily expect LGBT people to trust that she leads a party which doesn’t still hold these views?
So today, as I stood amongst thousands of people in sun-baked Cowdenbeath, feeling most definitely like the black sheep in the field, I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. Was this really a new, conciliatory Arlene Foster, positioning her party as a more progressive force in order to bring power back to Stormont and to reach across social and political divides?
Well the words used by Foster, and their sub-text, seemed to signal a new tone. A rapturous crowd of Orangemen (and some women) were certainly more hushed when the DUP leader proclaimed they should learn from King William and to be more accepting:
“This country needs to be a shared place where people are free from intolerance and hatred. Such bigotry was not part of King William’s mindset and it should not be part of ours – nor directed towards us either.”
And this new tone took a literal twist when Ms Foster called for the Orange Order in Scotland to support the idea of a bridge linking Northern Ireland and Scotland, literally about building bridges between nations, to much applause from the crowds.
But for me, and plenty others, actions speak louder than words.
Foster’s DUP have previously blocked the majority will of the Stormont assembly who were in favour of equal marriage, using a technical element of the Good Friday Agreement known as the Petition of Concern. But how long can this continue in a country increasingly frustrated by a lack of effective devolved government and where LGBT folk dont have the same rights as the rest of us?
And there’s an issue of numbers in the Assembly too, with the DUP unable to pass another Petition of Concern as she needs 30 votes and only has 28 currently, a point she conceded to The Guardian today in Cowdenbeath.
If the DUP and Arlene Foster are really coming to the end of a dark chapter of anti-LGBT opinion and their ‘journey’ to true equality has taken longer than most, the next steps should be clear for them. Apologise for the hurt and vile abuse of LGBT people in the past; engage positively with LGBT organisations in Northern Ireland regularly; and don’t block any vote on marriage equality.
I’ll continue to stand in solidarity with those in Northern Ireland who are still fighting for a right that we now accept as the norm here in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
I just hope Arlene Foster can follow those words with actions – actions that truly improve life for LGBT people in Northern Ireland.