From left: Gavin Robinson (DUP), Martina Anderson (Sinn Fein), Anna Lo (Alliance), Steven Agnew (Green Party), Conall McDevitt (SDLP) and Michael Copeland (UUP)
On Wednesday evening Belfast Pride hosted its annual Pride Talks Back debate with local politicians. The main story from the event is not so much in its content, but simply the fact that a small bit of history was made in the presence of a DUP representative, Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson, who chose to take part. Not to dismiss the bravery of Gavin Robinson to turn up and give his opposing, "alternative", view on LGBT issues, it should also be noted that DUP should not have taken so long to take part in such debate as it is their job to represent the public. The other members of the panel were Martina Anderson (Sinn Fein), Anna Lo (Alliance), Steven Agnew (Green Party), Conall McDevitt (SDLP) and Michael Copeland (UUP).
The first question presented to the panel was: 'Do you support change in the law to introduce equal marriage?' It was only the DUP representative who responded with a definitive "no". Michael Copeland stated that his "...party view is that we believe in equality...", Steven Agnew said, "We pro-actively support the right to same-sex couples to marry." Martina Anderson: "Sinn Fein are driving the change and motion to councils." Anna Lo: "The party sees it as an important issue." She also stated that party leader, David Ford, does support marriage equality, and that the issue is due to be discussed at a forthcoming party meeting on 1st September.
Gavin Robinson jokingly stated:
"This isn't an issue that the DUP try to take ownership over." In answer to the question: "No, neither personally, nor as a party." He added that he has set himself up to engage with "every aspect of our society and all people." yet he did make it clear that "we won't always agree." He then proceeded to repeat the religious rhetoric that he believes in "marriage as a foundation," that he "believes in the biblical definition of marriage: between a man and a woman, that it has a "scriptural basis." On civil partnerships he said that "they are there, and are the law. We didn't agree at the time and we still don't." In response to someone from the floor Gavin said, "No matter how passionately you express your opinion... it doesn't dilute the definition of marriage."
Throughout the event Michael Copeland was a voice for equality:
"Why do we make things complicated which are so very simple: Every person is equal. I would never associate myself with a group who says 'you are different'.
"In the past people were persecuted because of religion, political affiliation, gender, race etc."
Gavin responded to this by saying that, "Michael's note has been the least helpful," reiterating that he doesn't believe that anyone here is "less than" him, "if I thought anyone in this room was less than me, I wouldn't be here."
For the most part of the evening Gavin sat emotionless. Often with his arms folded, looking down at the table, away from the other panel members, or towards his empty water glass. He rarely smiled, and didn't applaud any comments made by the panel or members of the audience.
William Crawley, who did a great job as always in chairing the event. Not afraid to ask difficult questions, repeat or clarify the points made by the panel, and bring his own wealth of knowledge to the debate. He asked of Gavin, "Should the bible be implemented in law: a theocracy?" To which his response was simply to repeat that he believes "marriage to be between a man and a woman."
When asked whether he agrees with colleagues that homosexuality is comparable to "bestiality" and "pedophilia", as well as those who have described it as "sodomy" and an "abomination" Gavin stated, "I believe in freedom of speech, providing it doesn't lead to hate crime. I don't think that it is crossing the line..."
The thing is, this is not simply "freedom of speech" as it is damaging and by not condemning this language it does lead to hate crimes against people who take it on board. As Fidelma Carolan of Unison stated, "Words have a great impact. People agree with them... Families may talk about it over dinner... these words can lead to children self-harming..."
On the issue of the recent continued ban on donations of blood by gay people by Health Minister Edwin Poots, Steven Agnew stated that he believes the "decision is based on religious views", while Gavin Robinson responded that it is "based only on scientific consideration," however full scientific evidence of this is yet to be brought forward by the health minister. Anna Lo brought up the point that we need more blood in Northern Ireland.
This debate was necessary, and the presence of the DUP shows a certain amount of progress. It isn't long ago that a DUP member would not have sat beside a Sinn Fein member, let alone discussing LGBT issues. The very fact that there was opposition in the room, bringing to the debate an "alternative" view, is progress, and such opposition appearing at debates should always take place, without fear. However, there is a lot more discussion that needs to take place within the DUP, and in Stormont as a whole. Education is a huge issue, and, as Duane Farrell, chair of The Rainbow Project, said "homophobia in schools is a bigger issue than equal marriage, as it has bigger impact."
Hopefully this is the start of a much larger debate which the DUP will engage in. We must remind ourselves that they are the the largest party in Northern Ireland and represent the largest number of people, of all backgrounds, and that they must do their job to represent every member of our society. Using biblical text, taken out of context, and where there is little consistency, is not how any democratic government should be run.