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A warm LGBT welcome for Arlene Foster, but speech gets tepid response

DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking at the PinkNews Summer Reception at Stormont. Picture by Declan Roughan
Brendan Hughes

FOR someone who just last year said they were "not into gesture politics", the past few weeks have been a whirlwind turnaround for Arlene Foster.

The DUP leader first met the Muslim community, and on Sunday she became the first leader of her party to attend an Ulster GAA final.

But of her whistle-stop outreach tour so far, her attendance yesterday at an event celebrating the LGBT community was perhaps her biggest leap.

The DUP's decades of hostility towards the LGBT community has been well documented – from the 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaign, to offensive comments like MLAs calling homosexuality "an abomination", and the blocking of same-sex marriage.

Arlene Foster: Apology to LGBT community 'isn't fruitful for anybody frankly'

It was therefore understandable that some LGBT campaigners were sceptical of Mrs Foster attending PinkNews's event at Stormont.

A handful of protesters demonstrated outside Parliament Buildings – holding placards like, "Change, not canapes!" – as the drinks reception got under way.

But inside as Mrs Foster entered the Great Hall, many sifted through the media scrum to greet her, reaching across the room to shake her hand.

Although looking a little uncomfortable in the glare of the camera bulbs, the DUP leader smiled as she walked around the room and conversed.

When Mrs Foster met the Fermanagh GAA team earlier this month, some noted she appeared to dress like a union flag – red suit, blue top, white necklace.

Similarly, the DUP leader appeared to dress the opposite to the occasion. While numerous attendees waved rainbow flags and PinkNews CEO Benjamin Cohen wore a pastel blue suit, Mrs Foster dressed all in black.

Despite the pleasantries of her warm welcome, the response in the room to her much-anticipated speech was more tepid.

Some clapped, but many declined to applaud. By comparison, some other party leaders received whoops and outbreaks of applause as they spoke.

Afterwards, some praised her attendance. One man said: "It's very brave that Arlene has spoken tonight. I'm very pleased that she has."

But others felt Mrs Foster needed to apologise for the DUP's past treatment of LGBT people.

"I think she misread what people needed to hear to believe it was the beginning of a genuine engagement," one observer said.

"People needed an acknowledgement of the hurt that has been caused by people who still serve in senior levels in her party, and we didn't even get that level of an apology."

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