C’mon Arlene – Take action and start the journey of reconciliation with our community

Malachái O’Hara is the Green party rep for north Belfast, and LGBTQ activist. He was the vice chair of the equal marriage campaign and sits on the board of a suicide prevention charity. 

On Monday 18th June, the Belfast Telegraph carried a front page headline that Former First Minister and current DUP leader Arlene Foster would attend an LGBT event. Despite repeated years of invitations by local LGBTQ groups, Arlene, as part of her continuing charm offensive (a well received visit to Clones and celebrating Eid with Belfast’s Islamic community) has decided to attend an event at Stormont held by Pink News and supported by Citibank.

In typical DUP style though, Foster couldn’t manage to be unequivocally supportive, articulating that although she would be celebrating the achievements of the community, she would be remaining steadfast in her opposition to (marriage) equality.

Foster continues the DUP narrative that her party has an issue with marriage equality only. Outside of this, there are no other problems. But, from my perspective, this is simply not the case.

Firstly, let me be exceptionally clear. This is a very welcome step. Many of us have been lobbying and advocating to move the DUP on these issues for years. There have been some tentative steps; appearances at Pride panel debates from 2012 onward, the Mayor’s welcoming Pride, voting in favour of a legislative consent motion for gay pardons, suggesting they might support access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and agreeing the men who have sex with men blood ban being changed to a one year deferral. These are all very welcome, and nod toward a long awaited move of finally accepting that LGBTQ people deserve dignity and their inequalities must be addressed.

However, don’t let that thin layer of Pink Wash obscure what the DUP have also done over the last six years since their first official appearance at a Pride event.

The Executive Parties promised a sexual orientation strategy in 2 separate Programmes for Government. But this was jettisoned in the aborted DUP/SF mandate of 2016/2017. Perhaps unsurprising, as the DUP had repeatedly blocked it in the previous 10 years. This strategy, alongside an inclusive Gender Equality Strategy, would be the key driver to address the significant inequalities experienced by LGBTQ people. The same DUP/SF Executive refused to extend IVF access as per the rest of the UK, Michelle O’Neill following the policy position of the previous 3 DUP Health Ministers.

More than this, Paul Givan wanted to create an conscience clause law, the first in the UK since Section 28 under Thatcher. This would have given individuals the choice to opt out of equality legislation, and discriminate against LGBTQ people. To add insult to injury, he was then appointed Minister for Communities with direct responsibility for sexual orientation equality.

Former leader, Peter Robinson, rather than rebuke a senior party councillor who called for re-criminalisation of homosexuality, and advocated that if the law changed, then people should follow it. Former Health Minister, Edwin Poots tried to block access to adoption applications for same-sex and unmarried couples – ultimately losing repeatedly in court and setting a precedent for his losses over the blood ban. Peter Weir was suspected of delaying the Anti-Bullying Bill of 2016, a move which seems to have been acquiesced to by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd.

That is before I even start on some of the abusive language used by reps over the years with never a rebuke from DUP party leadership. ‘Perverts, poofs, abominations, worse than child abuse’ to name a few.

I was reticent to call for an apology immediately, as I don’t think it will be forthcoming just yet. I believe this is the start of a process of reconciliation from the DUP. There are far too many in my community who are hurt by what the DUP have done over the years. There are many who have lost loved ones and friends who directly blame the homophobic and transphobic attitudes the DUP originally championed, latterly tolerated and now seem to expect us all to forget. That hurt must be acknowledged and an apology is the best way to recognise it.

LGBTQ people experience poorer mental health than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. The World Health Organisation is clear that part of the task in remedying this is to end institutional, societal and individual prejudice and discrimination. The DUP until very recently stood against this, exacerbating risk amongst LGBTQ people. I’m glad I was finally able to use the past tense in that sentence. I’ve spent years drying too many tears.

Whether this shift is motivated by electoral calculations and politics, whether it’s genuine, or whether Foster is preparing her base for a sea change on rights issues and the choreography of a dance before a deal with Sinn Fein, I’m not sure. I’m inclined that it’s a mix of all of these.

Christopher Stalford last week was effusive that ‘it’s only one issue’. I would be delighted if it was. The ‘gay’ agenda is a long one because we haven’t had the progress other parts of these islands have had. We need a move on an inclusive curriculum & sex education, a proper anti-bullying bill, hate crime review, extension of good relations, a sexual orientation strategy, an inclusive gender strategy, access to trans healthcare, gender recognition review, access to PrEP, IVF extension, funding for the sector and a whole host more.

If Arlene brings the DUP along a journey to support the issues above but maintains her opposition to marriage, I would nominate her for a Pride Award myself. If people take risks, it’s right that people in our community reciprocate them.

It is in the power of the DUP to transform lives and show that they are genuine about a Unionism that is progressive and inclusive. Is Arlene up for the challenge? I genuinely hope so. The health and wellbeing of so many people depend on it.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.