Campaigners split on DUP leader Arlene Foster’s speech at PinkNews summer reception

Leading campaigners have expressed mixed reactions after Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster’s address before a crowd of the LGBT+ community at PinkNews’ summer reception in Belfast on Thursday.

Foster, the first DUP leader to attend an event focused on LGBT rights, said in her address that she deeply values the LGBT community.

The controversial leader also stated that her expressing regret over the DUP’s stance on LGBT rights would not help the issue.

Her speech, available in full here, drew mixed reactions from campaigners and members of the LGBT community at the event supported by Citi.

DUP leader Arlene Foster pictured at the inaugural LGBT+ reception at Parliament Buildings Stormont, Belfast. (Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye)

John O’Doherty, the director of the Rainbow Project, said that he was very disappointed by the DUP leader’s remarks.

He told PinkNews: “There’s no recognition of the hurt or harm that’s been caused to the LGBT community here in Northern Ireland by the actions and words of the DUP.

“While it is to be welcomed that she attended tonight, she didn’t do what she needed to do and many LGBT people across Northern Ireland are going to be disappointed.”

During the event, Foster also called for respect of her views and the DUP’s position on same-sex marriage and LGBT issues.

Foster’s party has been responsible for blocking same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, making it the only part of the United Kingdom to prevent gay and lesbian couples to marry.

In reference to the DUP’s history on LGBT rights, O’Doherty added: “Arlene has asked us to respect the DUP’s position on LGBT issues.

“I, for one, don’t know what their position on LGBT issues are. It’s stood against every LGBT equality measure, is that still the position today?”

Foster addresses the event (Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye)

Other campaigners were more positive, praising Foster’s decision to speak at the event as a step towards LGBT equality in Northern Ireland.

Alicia V Perry from Trans Pride NI said: “For her to come here tonight and for her to speak to our community, that is amazing. It’s a major thing.”

Colin Flinn, board member at Cara-Friend, added that Foster’s appearance at the PinkNews event showed her willingness to work on LGBT issues, despite the views of many in her party.

Flinn said: “I thought she went as far as she could. I think the problem’s not with Arlene, I think the problem’s with the party.

“I think if she was left to her own devices, she would go ahead – I’m not sure about the equal marriage thing, but certainly in respect of everything else.”

Foster at the reception (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

PinkNews CEO Benjamin Cohen praised the event as the start of important conversations between the DUP and the wider LGBT community.

“I think this was the beginning of a conversation,” Cohen said.

“She said to me as we came downstairs ‘don’t expect the world’ and she’s not going to do everything in one go, but I think it was really important that she was here, speaking at the PinkNews event.

“Let’s hope that the conversations can continue.”

Thursday’s summer reception was the third of many regional receptions held by PinkNews to bring politicians and campaigners together to discuss achievements and shortcomings of Northern Ireland in terms of LGBTQI+ rights.

Foster announced her intention to attend the event earlier in June to her DUP executive, saying that she wants to engage with minority communities in the country.

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 said 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.”

Foster was joined at the PinkNews summer reception 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.

The PinkNews summer reception in Belfast was supported by Citi.