DUP leader Arlene Foster to meet LGBT activists at PinkNews summer reception in Belfast

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster will speak to members of the LGBT community at an event hosted by PinkNews this month.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without equal marriage due to opposition from the DUP, which has blocked progress on the issue for several years.

But Arlene Foster MLA, who took over as DUP leader in 2015, will attempt to improve the party’s relationship with the region’s LGBT community at a parliamentary summer reception at Stormont in Belfast on June 28.

All party leaders in Northern Ireland were invited to meet with and address LGBT activists at the event.

The DUP leader confirmed on Monday that she would accept the invitation to the reception in a move that surprised many LGBT activists.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster (Jack Taylor/Getty)

Foster will be joined by Michelle O’Neill MLA, leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann MLA, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Colum Eastwood MLA, leader of the SDLP and Naomi Long MLA, leader of the Alliance Party.

Foster set out her plans in a speech to the DUP executive last week. It will be the first time a DUP leader has addressed an LGBT event.

She said: “[We must] re-engage and re-energise our people, and yes, we must take our message to places that perhaps may not be traditional to our cause.

“I want to genuinely reach out to our minority communities and show them the hand of friendship, recognising they have made Northern Ireland their home.”

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster (Charles McQuillan/Getty)

She added that the party would not be shifting from its position on same-sex marriage.

Foster added: “I believe I can hold to my principled position, particularly in reality to the definition of marriage, while respecting the diversity across our society and recognising that sexuality is a matter for the individual.

“All I ask in return is that my, and our views, are also respected and not the subject of the vilest of abuse as has sometimes been the case by a small minority.

“Just because we disagree on marriage does not mean that I can’t say that we value those who are LGBT in our society, and they should not be the subject of hate because of their sexuality.”

The news has been welcomed by LGBT activists in the region.

John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project, said: “We welcome the decision by Arlene Foster to attend this important PinkNews event.

“This is the first time a DUP leader has attended an LGBT+ event and we hope it is the first of many such invitations that will be accepted.

“While I and many in our community have been hurt by comments and actions by members of the DUP over many years, the only way we can achieve a Northern Ireland that is welcoming of all people is through dialogue, learning and of course listening.

“While this action cannot erase the decades of hurt experienced by LGBT people and their families I hope it is a first step towards a new relationship between the LGBT community based on respect.”

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill (L) and (DUP) Democratic Union Party Leader Arlene Foster (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

Benjamin Cohen, CEO of PinkNews, said: “We are so pleased that Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, is attending the PinkNews Belfast event at Stormont later this month, to acknowledge the LGBT+ community’s contribution to society.

“PinkNews has always taken a cross party approach to political engagement and has been delighted to welcome the Prime Minister, the First Minister of Wales, the Leader of the Labour Party, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Leader of the Scottish Conservatives and the Mayor of London in recent years to PinkNews events.

“The decision by Arlene Foster to attend the first PinkNews event in Belfast is an important step towards encouraging a dialogue in Northern Ireland and we’re delighted that there will be a number of other senior cross-party representatives attending and speaking.”

PinkNews’ summer receptions will see MPs, party leaders, celebrities, charities and businesses come together to debate key topics ranging from LGBT+ education to same-sex marriage in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London. These receptions will engage with leaders across the UK, ensuring the promotion of LGBT+ rights issues nationally.

The first reception was held earlier this month at the Welsh Assembly, attended by First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones and other prominent politicians.