DUP minister refuses to say if delay to LGBT strategy is due to religious concerns within party

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Democratic Unionist Party minister Jonathan Bell has refused to be drawn on whether religious concerns among DUP members may explain a six-year delay in the launch of an LGBT government strategy.

Speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday, Mr Bell sidestepped the question by Dolores Kelly, the MLA for Upper Bann.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) MLA asked Mr Bell to confirm or deny whether the delay in the strategy, dating back to 2007, was due to the religious beliefs of some DUP members.

Mr Bell answered: “The important thing is we have a strategy that addresses the needs that I have outlined.”

He said the strategy would aim to promote an environment free from harassment and bullying and to tackle homophobia in all forms including violence and abuse in Northern Ireland.

However, it is not clear when a consultation for the strategy will begin.

The BBC reports Mr Bell told the Assembly: “We have asked officials to commence public consultation and the strategy will be published once the public consultation process has been completed.”

The DUP MLA said he had spoken out a number of times against bullying.

In January 2013, Mr Bell called for a “tolerant and inclusive” Northern Ireland, whilst at the same time stating his opposition to equal marriage.

He said: “Marriage is defined, and has been from 1866 in law since Hyde vs Hyde, as a union between a man and a woman” adding that “in terms of equality, in terms of human rights everything that is in marriage is available to a gay couple through civil society, there is no need to redefine marriage to have a tolerant and inclusive society.”

The DUP is known for its public statements against LGBT equality and has repeatedly blocked motions to debate legalising equal marriage at Stormont.

DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots unsuccessfully fought against extending adoption rights to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland and remains in favour of maintaining restrictions on gay men donating blood in the province.