DUP 'will keep blocking same-sex marriage in NI'

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has said her party will keep using the contentious petition of concern to block same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland for at least another five years.

Mrs Foster insisted her party was not anti-gay, but that online abuse from LGBT activists had made the party’s support even less likely.

“Some of the abuse that is directed at me and colleagues online is very, very vicious,” she said.

“And I think if activists want to have a conversation about where they are coming from, do they seriously think they are going to influence me by sending me abuse?”

The First Minister further stated that using the petition of concern showed her party’s determination to protect the traditional definition of marriage.

“Why would we, when we feel so strongly about the definition of marriage and the redefining of it, why would we give away that tool?” she said.

A slim majority of MLAs voted in favour of legislating for gay marriage when it was debated for a fifth time last November.

However, the motion fell when the DUP deployed a petition of concern.

The vetoing mechanism is intended to protect minority interests and requires the signature of 30 MLAs to be valid.

The DUP has 38 seats, including the speaker, for the current mandate which ends in 2021.

Mrs Foster claims her party would be prepared to discuss scrapping the petition of concern system, but that other parties were not up for it.

“It's there to use and we will use as long as we have the ability to use it,” she said.

“If others want to have discussions about getting rid of it completely, then we are up for that discussion.”

Meanwhile, the First Minister has also hit out at the NI Equality Commission over its handling of the so-called “gay-cake” case.

The watchdog spent almost £90,000 in legal costs supporting a man in his discrimination case against Ashers bakery.

The McArthur family who owns the bakery were found to have discriminated against Gareth Lee by rejecting his order for a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.

That ruling was upheld this week by the Court of Appeal, but the judgment did include some criticism of the Equality Commission – in that it should have offered the McArthur family advice, as they believed their rights as people of faith within the commercial sphere were being undermined.

Stating that she had an enormous amount of sympathy for the McArthurs, Mrs Foster was critical of the Equality Commission.

“I think they need to have a long hard look at how they work with faith communities in Northern Ireland and, instead of accepting the metropolitan liberal elite definition of equality, they need to look at what real equality is and look at the faith communities in Northern Ireland - and that is something they haven't been doing,” she added.

Chief Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow has already insisted the organisation does represent the rights of all people in society, highlighting a recent case where it supported a man who did not want to work on Sundays due to his beliefs.

In response to Mrs Foster's comments, a spokeswoman for the NI Equality Commission said it acted “in accordance with the statutory remit under which it was established” in the gay cake case.

She added: “This case has raised issues of public importance, regarding the extent to which goods and services providers can refuse service on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion, and the decision of the Court of Appeal has confirmed this.

“The Equality Commission provides advice and guidance to all businesses and will work with them to identify and take practical steps to assist them carry on their business within the law.”