First peace, now a breakthrough in gay rights

The streets of Londonderry’s Bogside, the scene of so many often deadly confrontations during the Troubles, yesterday witnessed a sight few would have expected, even in a more tolerant Northern Ireland.

For the message was proudly proclaimed that the new society will accommodate not just loyalists and republicans, but also gay people. And the word was conveyed by Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who signalled a new phase for community relations when he launched Gay Pride week in his home city.


Appearing as Deputy First Minister in the recently formed devolved government, he declared the administration was committed to ensuring equality of opportunity for all.


He was speaking after the city’s iconic wall, which declares “You are now entering Free Derry” had been painted bright pink in support of the week-long festival. His highly public endorsement of the Gay Pride week is seen as symbolic at a number of levels, not least because the wall’s original significance was as a statement of republican defiance of authority.


Mr McGuinness, who was once an IRA commander in the city, yesterday spoke as Northern Ireland‘s second most senior politician.


Another significant element lies in the fact that his political boss, the Rev Ian Paisley, is devoutly opposed to homosexuality, regarding it as a sin. He once spearheaded a “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign.

Several months ago Mr Paisley’s son Ian, who is also a member of the government, caused a stir when he said in an interview: “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong.”


On that occasion, however, his father did not endorse his comments, thus avoiding potential disruption within the fledgling executive. Both Sinn Fein and Mr Paisley’s party have striven mightily in recent months to smooth over potential divisions.


Sinn Fein is probably Northern Ireland‘s most liberal major grouping in its support for gay rights and women’s issues. It reserves a third of seats on its party executive for women and has gay men and lesbians among its members though it has no openly gay figures in its senior ranks.


Mr McGuinness said yesterday: “Given the role that the city of Derry played in the struggle for civil and human rights, it is a massive step forward that the contribution that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is making is being celebrated.”

David McCartney, project co- ordinator with the gay rights group The Rainbow Project, welcomed the painting of the wall, proclaiming it “a powerful symbol of civil liberties”.


The Gay Pride week was not without its problems, however. Graffiti was sprayed on the pink wall at the weekend, necessitating a quick re-paint before the celebration began.

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