Northern Ireland news

Stormont denies David Sterling tweet showed support for gay marriage

David Sterling, interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and inset, his tweet at Belfast Pride
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT has denied that a tweet from Northern Ireland's chief civil servant at a gay pride parade was showing support for same-sex marriage.

David Sterling posted a photo of himself with Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) staff taking part in Belfast Pride and included the hashtag "#ComeOutForChange".

In his first message from his official Twitter account, he wrote: "Delighted that #myfirstTweet as Head of the NI Civil Service is from Belfast Pride. As an employer to 23,000 people, the NICS respects and values diversity and is committed to delivering an inclusive workplace for all our people #NICSdiversity #ComeOutforChange."

Mr Sterling has been charge of running Northern Ireland in the absence of politicians since the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont early last year.

His tweet received widespread praise online including from LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) campaigners.

NICS said its participation in Saturday's parade "has no connection to the debate on marriage policy", and '#ComeOutForChange' was used as it was the theme of this year's Pride festival.

But the DUP's Jim Wells yesterday claimed it impacted on the civil service's impartiality.

The South Down MLA asked whether Mr Sterling now intends to take part in next year's Twelfth of July parades.

"As head of the civil service he has to be totally impartial and neutral, and not to be seen to be involved in any political campaign," Mr Wells said.

"It's quite clear by the hashtag he's got himself involved in issues for which there is a lively debate in Northern Ireland."

Mr Wells said that Mr Sterling's role is "to keep totally neutral and out of politics" and "not to be seen to be campaigning".

"Had there been devolution up and running there would have been real questions asked in the assembly," he added.

Northern Ireland remains the only part of Ireland and Britain where same-sex marriage remains outlawed.

In 2015 a majority of MLAs voted for same-sex marriage, but it was blocked by the DUP using the petition of concern veto.

The north has not had a functioning devolved government since the DUP and Sinn Féin-led executive fell apart early last year.

Since then there have been questions over what decisions senior civil servants can make without ministers.

According to the NICS code of ethics, civil servants should maintain "objectivity" and "impartiality", and serve "equally well ministers of different political persuasions", but it also says they have a "commitment to equality and diversity".

The NICS did not explain why Mr Sterling used '#ComeOutForChange' in his tweet rather than Belfast Pride's other hashtag, '#bproud2018'.

A spokeswoman said: "The use of the hashtag and the participation by the NICS in the parade in no way undermines the political impartiality of the office of HOCS [Head of Civil Service] or the NICS."

She said this was the first time NICS has participated in the annual Belfast Pride parade.

"As an employer to 23,000 people, the NICS is committed to ensuring that the workplace is fully inclusive of people regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or disability," she said.

"Any change to marriage law in Northern Ireland is a matter for ministers. The participation of the NICS LGBT staff network and colleagues in the Pride parade has no connection to the debate on marriage policy but is instead a public demonstration of the NICS commitment to equality, diversity, inclusion and the creation of a working culture across the organisation where differences are celebrated and valued."

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