The Observer: Pride marchers mock anti-gay MP

Christian group joins Belfast parade for first time after Iris Robinson called gays ‘wicked and vile’

By Henry McDonald

Iris Robinson, the Democratic Unionist MP who believes homosexuality can be cured by psychiatry, made a ‘guest’ appearance at yesterday’s annual Gay Pride parade in Belfast.

The Strangford MP appeared in the ‘guise’ of several marchers wearing Iris masks in what turned out to be Northern Ireland’s largest Pride rally for years. One float called the ‘Iris Mobile’ joined the procession through Belfast city centre with a giant papier-mache image of Robinson on the front. The parade took place in a city labelled the most homophobic place in the UK or Ireland.

Organisers claimed the large turn-out was in response to the controversy stirred up by the DUP MP, who recently also likened gay sex to child abuse. Her remarks prompted one organisation to become the first Christian gay group to march in the Belfast parade.

Changing Attitude Ireland, a new organisation representing gay Christians throughout the island, said they had decided to join Pride in response to the MP’s remarks. ‘This is the first time our banner has been displayed at Pride in Belfast because it was important to increase our visibility and to show people that there are alternative Christian views than those espoused by Iris Robinson,’ said a retired Church of Ireland minister, the Rev Mervyn Kingston.

He said there was growing support within the Church of Ireland for equality for gay people inside the Anglican Communion.

‘At the Church of Ireland synod in Galway last May we had a stall for the first time and I counted only three delegates who refused to take our leaflets and only one who objected to our presence,’ Kingston said, holding up a poster with the words: ‘Iris We Love You.’

In June, Robinson told a local radio that homosexuality was ‘disgusting, loathsome, nauseating, wicked and vile’. The wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, also claimed psychological counselling could ‘cure’ gay people. Her comments led to calls by other members of the Northern Ireland Assembly for her to be removed as chair of the Stormont health committee.

A number of other clergymen joined the Gay Pride march along Belfast’s Royal Avenue, including the Rev Chris Hudson, the Dublin-born peace activist who acted as a secret conduit between loyalist paramilitaries and the Irish government in the lead up to the 1994 ceasefires.

Dressed in the red robes and pointed mitre of a Catholic bishop, PA MagLochlainn, president of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, said he wanted to thank Robinson for her intervention in the gay equality debate.

‘She has done us a favour because it has forced a lot of people to face up to the fact that homophobia still exists in Northern Ireland,’ he said. ‘Look how many have turned up today. The numbers are up because people want to show solidarity. She has helped the cause.’

There were two counter-demonstrations organised by Protestant fundamentalist groups including members of the Rev Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church. They had taken out a full- page ad in a local newspaper on Friday denouncing homosexuality and calling on born-again Christians to turn up at their protests yesterday.

There were, however, no promi nent DUP politicians at either demonstration. However, the born-again Christian demonstrators were vastly outnumbered and drowned out by the much larger, noisier Pride parade. Police estimated that several thousand joined the procession from Belfast’s Customs House Square to City Hall.

The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Tom Hartley, also turned up at the parade. The Sinn Fein councillor described Pride as ‘the real face of 21st-century Belfast’. He added: ‘This is our city at its most diverse and this is one of the most creative communities we have in Belfast.’

Among those watching the start of the procession was Evelyn McCartan from the nearby Markets area. She had turned up to see the Pride parade along with her husband, daughter and grandson. ‘We go and watch Pride ever year because it’s so colourful and the people are very friendly,’ she said.

Asked what she thought of Iris Robinson’s remarks about homosexuality, the grandmother said: ‘She doesn’t represent everyone’s views. I say live and let live.’

Among those marching in the rally was Northern Ireland’s first-ever gay rugby team, the Belfast Titans, Amnesty International, trade unions, the SDLP, Greens and Alliance Party.

But the inadvertent star of the parade remained Robinson, whose image adorned lapels, posters, cars and even one young man’s crotch.

One member of the public objected to the MP’s image being stuck on to the ‘Iris’ float. At City Hall a born again Christian protester ran in front of the lorry and tried to rip it off. However, he was prevented from doing so by two police officers who wrestled him to the ground.