One of the most senior members of the Northern Ireland government has expressed his strong support for equality in the province.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the former terrorist turned statesman, visited his home city of Derry yesterday to launch a week-long gay festival.

“In years gone by and when I was growing up in Derry, people often made derogatory remarks against gays,” said Mr McGuinness, according to the Irish Times.

“Those days have gone, primarily due to an awareness and educational programme initiated by the Rainbow Project.

“Attitudes have changed in terms of people’s opinions of discrimination in terms of sexual orientation, colour and creed and that has to be welcomed.”

The launch took place at the offices of gay advocacy group Rainbow Project.

The Deputy First Minister said that the number of homophobic attacks had dropped:

“A year ago in this city the attitude of some people towards gay people was absolutely despicable. There were 100 attacks and that has been dramatically reduced this year to two, which is very welcome.”

He said this demonstrating the pace of change in social attitudes in Northern Ireland.

Mr McGuinness had earlier visited the iconic Free Derry Corner, a symbol of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s that ultimately led to the emergence of terrorist groups such as the IRA and the 30-year Troubles in Northern Ireland.

“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,” Mr McGuinness, a former second-in-command of the Provisional IRA in Derry, said.

“No one should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation in the same way that it should not happen because of their age, race or indeed any other characteristic of their being.”

Sean Morrin, Rainbow Project youth support worker, told The Belfast Telegraph: “To have someone of his stature coming along and lending support is a clear message from him that the gay community is very much a part of a new Northern Ireland.”