As Northern Ireland’s largest cross-communal event, Pride extends to all people the intoxicating prospect of truly living “beyond the binary”— in both gendered and sectarian terms. To that promise, from across the province and beyond, people transcend their boundaries, to converge on central Belfast, happy to bathe in the thrilling possibilities.
Looking at contemporary Northern Ireland through the lens of Pride, it is easy to see that a majority of people—from both sides of the divide—yearn deeply for better lives and broadened horizons.
The intransigent fog
In recent years, Belfast Pride has held against a background of ongoing division and political paralysis.
The main political parties–representing the two divided and still largely segregated communities–maintain their hard lines, refusing to work with each other. There has been no government for three years now, and Westminster, busy elsewhere, is generally not paying attention.
Twenty years ago, the Good Friday Agreement may have stopped the killings, yet there has been precious little progress in normalising, desegregating and indeed healing, a deeply traumatised society.
Until recently, three issues represented red lines for the two disagreeable political parties. And two of those issues were of core concern to the LGBTI communities of Northern Ireland—the extension of marriage equality and reproduction rights (i.e. the right to abortion) to the same level enjoyed by the people of the Republic and the UK (the third, being the Gaelic language recognition).
Finally, in early 2019, Westminster imposed on Northern Ireland, both Marriage Equality and the right to abortion. Time will tell whether these were legitimate red lines, or feigns for a lack of desire to reenter into power-sharing.
So through the fog of intransigent division, Belfast Pride has presented the people of Northern Ireland, with its largest cross-communal event. Its inherent values beautifully renders impotent and obsolete, many of the political shibboleths of a negative and fruitless discourse.
At its most simple, Belfast Pride cuts through the morass and miasma of the memories of past traumas. With little being offered by the sectarian aligned politicians, Pride in Belfast gives the people of Northern Ireland a sense of how a normalised society engages, looks and feels.
A conflicted “post-conflict society”
As there is currently no active government in Northern Ireland, the administrative "authorities" (read bureaucracies, NGOs, and academics) seek to steer Northern Ireland as what is described as a “post-conflict society”.
However, in Northern Ireland, “post-conflict society” and similar euphemisms easily conceal harsher realities. This term is just another of a whole lexicon that seem to give a comprehendible comfort to those seeking a way through the unyielding maze that is Northern Ireland.
No matter what term anyone uses, twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply conflicted, physically divided and largely unhealed society. Also conflict-era trauma, and intergenerational trauma contribute significantly to the poor health outcomes of Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK.
The Agreement marked the formal end of a horrific, extended, internecine war between Republicans and Unionists. It was a war of frightening familiarity; pitting neighbourhood against neighbourhood. There was no in-between. There was nowhere to hide. It was a war seemingly without end; fought to exhaustion. Even beyond the point where vengeance offered its vacant rewards.
These were no mere Troubles; they were the Terrors.
With a small spark of imagination exercised by the political players, the first Good Friday dawned with hope for a brighter future. But since then, there has been precious little progress toward any real communal reconciliation. Education is still 90 per cent segregated and “mixed marriages” between members of different communities remain the exception.
Ironically, the Good Friday Agreement fundamentally institutionalises sectarianism. It is a politicians’ agreement, not a people’s peace. Without fresh new sparks of imagination, Northern Ireland will remain a fractured and unhealable society. History’s breath will continue to menace; heavy and close as the damp sea air of the nearby oceans.
Rainbow after the storms
Through this bleak outlook, one event—Belfast Pride—offers more than a glimpse of a heart-warming rainbow after an ever raging storm. Pride is both a beacon and balm for this still divided and damaged city.
Thousands of people from across the Province and beyond—including but more than the expected LGBTI demographic — fill the city centre. There, LGBTI people and their supporters, friends and relatives, combine to create and share in the open-hearted expansiveness of Pride.
Broadly, LGBTI people in Northern Ireland are free to live out their lifestyles as freely and expressively as anyone else in other socially evolved societies. A recent anti-Pride demonstration attracted enough badly-suited people (mainly old men) to crowd out just one telephone booth—forcing several glum-grey demonstrators to flow onto the pavement.
While LGBTI people of Northern Ireland were struggling to achieve both marriage equality and reproduction rights, sadly even these issues are sucked into the ever hovering, voraciously-demanding vortex of sectarian politics. Arguments for and against these “red-line” issues gave the two main parties two parties plenty of opportunity for sledging and scoring political points.
Trumping the "binary"
Despite the empowering experience of Pride, everyday life in Northern Ireland remains entirely "binary", in the political sense.
Most people have to declare on which side of the sectarian divide they fall. Even if they don’t want to, a mark goes before them. The mention of a neighbourhood, a school, a place of work, or even a first name comes with an assumed identity and an expected way of thinking, acting, and responding.
No-one is left out. The grim joke of having to declare as either a protestant atheist or catholic atheist is as sardonic as it is true. It doesn’t take long to find a mixed Greek Orthodox/Irish person who identifies as Protestant; or a gay Catholic Unionist. In the political sphere, there are even “Green-Greens” and “Orange-Green”, if you can get your head around that?
However, at a personal level, one’s LGBTI identity is likely to trump the eternal demands of communal identity. Such predetermined categories are of less interest to LGBTI people. They are more likely to have friends, associates and partners from any number of backgrounds—even from beyond the "binary"; like migrants and non-Christians of any stripe! They are also more likely to form truly “shared spaces” —another term loaded with meaning in the Northern Irish lexicon of reality minimisation.
The proxy for a broader life
With marriage equality as the indicator, it is possible to argue that the majority of Northern Irish citizens want a different sort of life. In the Irish Republic and Australia, the popular votes for marriage equality were the loudest proxies possible for the continued expansion of open, tolerant and diverse societies. Significantly, as popularly expressed desires, the parameters for such societies are now established beyond the manipulation and sledging of any of the political players. These changes were truly the expressed will of the people; more so than any vote for Brexit in the UK.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the opinion polls in favour of marriage equality are at similar levels to those of Australia and the Irish Republic before their votes. This points to an unmet yearning for a more tolerant and inclusive society for all in Northern Irish people.
The broad appeal of Pride in Belfast, shows that many people despair at having to live the bequeathed, reductively-binary world. Such a world grinds its inhabitants down; it narrows their opportunities; it corrodes their relationships and connections to a broader society.
It’s no wonder that once a year that so many people so readily embrace Belfast Pride. Their inclusions shows just how many want so more from a “post-conflict" peace. Together they join in spreading Prides love and inclusion around the city in a parade that courses as a refreshing river, pushing ahead of it, the stale tensions, old scars and immovable barriers—visible and invisible.
For one sweet weekend, Belfast Pride offers the people of Northern Ireland the delectable taste of a normalised and healed society; one where the leadened labels of the past are no longer one's passport.
As long as humans are indeed human, people yearning for better lives will always find ways to subvert the political imperatives of living within the soul-destroying constructs of a binary-focused society. It’s the role of Belfast Pride to show the way.
The right to live in a normalised society is one that has been denied to all citizens of Northern Ireland by a cruel history, politically institutionalised sectarianism and the hardening of the players who keep the people apart.
And when marriage equality is finally achieved in Northern Ireland, the current abysmal rates of mixed marriages will surely improve as LGBTI couples, less concerned with the background of their other halves, are fully reflected in the official statistics.