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Subvert the binary
As Northern Ireland's largest cross-communal event, Belfast Pride extends to all people the intoxicating prospect of what life feels like "beyond the binary"— both gendered and sectarian. People from across the province and beyond, transcend their ancient divisions, to converge on central Belfast. For one glorious weekend a year, they thrill in bathing-in the possibilities of a better world.
Looking through the lens of Pride, it is easy to establish that a majority of people in Northern Ireland—from both sides of the divide—yearn deeply for freer lives and broader horizons.
Through the rolling fog
For three years till early 2020, Belfast Pride was held in the stale atmosphere of familiar division and political paralysis.
The main political parties–representing the two divided and still mostly segregated communities–had dug in again. They were refusing to work together — the essential cornerstone of the twenty years old Peace Process. For three long years, there was no government at all in Northern Ireland. And the central government at Westminster, distracted by Brexit, paid the province very little attention.
The Good Friday Agreement twenty years ago may have stopped the killings, but there had been precious little progress in normalising, desegregating or healing, a deeply divided and traumatised society.
During the recent stand-off, three issues represented red lines for the two disagreeable political parties. 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 issue, being Gaelic language recognition).
In early 2019, Westminster was finally moved to action, when it imposed on Northern Ireland both Marriage Equality and the broader right to abortion. These issues may have been legitimate red lines for the two parties, but it still took another full year before they re-entered into power-sharing arrangements.
Through the rolling fogs of intransigent division, Belfast Pride presents the people of Northern Ireland with its largest cross-communal event. Its inherent values beautifully render impotent and obsolete, many of the political shibboleths of negative and fruitless discourse.
Northern Ireland plainly demonstrates the dead-end futility of politics propelled by nationalists-like identity. During the Brexit debates, Christopher Patten—last Governor of Hong Kong and former Chair of the British Conservative Party—had plenty to say about identity politics. "I look at the jobs I had in politics and the most difficult ones, all involved identity politics. The first ministerial job I had was in Northern Ireland, where the argument is allegedly between Catholics and Protestants... It's not that at all. It's about power."
With little optimism stemming from sectarian politics, Pride gives the people of Northern Ireland a taste for how a normalised society engages, looks and feels. At its most simple, Belfast Pride cuts with laser precisions, through the miasma and memories leftover from the Troubles.
With no leeway offered through politics, agents of civil society— administrative authorities, bureaucracies, NGOs, and academics—revert to anaesthetising bromides that serve to conceal the unhealing wounds. They can always draw from a comprehensive lexicon to better steer Northern Ireland through a "post-conflict society"; itself, the preferred sociological construct.
But no matter what term they use, twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply conflicted, physically divided and largely unhealed society. Troubles-related traumas, and its intergenerational impacts, contribute to poorer physical and mental health outcomes compared with the rest of the UK.
Yes, the agreement marked the formal end of an 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. What seemed to be a war without end, was eventually fought to exhaustion—a point where vengeance offered only the most vacant of rewards. These were no mere Troubles; they were the Terrors.
With a small spark of imagination exercised by the then political players, the first Good Friday dawned with hope for a brighter future. But since then, there has been little progress toward any real communal reconciliation. Twenty years later, the political leadership of both communities is far less compromising. To this day, education remains 90% segregated and "mixed marriages" between members of different communities remain the exception.
Ironically, the Good Friday Agreement fundamentally institutionalises sectarianism. It appears more as a politicians’ agreement than a peoples' peace. Completely refreshed thinking is needed to move beyond the current multiple impasses. Until then, history's breath will continue to menace; heavy and close, as damp and laden as surrounding maritime air.
It's a bleak survey. But one event—Belfast Pride—offers more than a glimpse of a heart-warming rainbow at the end of the unending tempest. Pride is both a beacon and a balm for a divided and damaged city. Thousands of people from across the province and beyond join with LGBTI people, to fill the city centre.
Broadly, LGBTI people in Northern Ireland are free to live out their lifestyles as freely and expressively as anyone else in other socially evolved Western societies. An anti-Pride demonstration is likely to attract just enough badly-suited people (mainly) older men to fill just one telephone booth—with an allowance for small overflow onto the pavement.
Despite the liberating experiences 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 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. Everyone it seems forced into one of two identities. Politically, there are even "Green-Greens" and "Orange-Green", if you can get your head around that?
But, at a personal level, one's sexual identity is likely to trump the incessant demands of the two communal identities. Such predetermined categories tend to be of less interest to LGBTI people (and those who share similar values). They are more likely to have friends, associates and partners from any number of backgrounds—even from beyond the eternal "binary"; like migrants and non-Christians of any stripe! They are also more likely to form honestly "shared spaces" —another term loaded with meaning in the Northern Irish lexicon of reality minimisation.
While the parties of Northern Ireland were interminably arguing the merits of marriage equality—predictably down broad sectarian lines—the issue was consistently attracting general support in polls from all sides (usually at least 65%-70%). As in the Irish Republic and Australia, the widespread support for marriage equality was the bellwether indicator for the continued expansion of open, tolerant and inclusive societies.
The inclusive appeal of Pride in Belfast allows people to shake off the despair that comes with a reductively binary-society. Bizarrely in the 21st century West, identity is defined by faith. Whether or not anyone is practising, it's not the point. Such a society grinds people down; narrows their opportunities and options; it corrodes their relationships and limits human connections to a broader community.
As the parade courses as a refreshing river through Belfast's city streets, it pushes ahead of it, accumulated stale tensions, old scars and immovable barriers—whether visible or not. It's a transformative experience for all involved.
As long as humans yearn to be human, those seeking better lives will always find ways to subvert the political imperatives of a soul-destroying society. In Belfast, it falls to Pride to help it's own to slip the shackles that weigh them down.
A cruel history, politically institutionalised sectarianism and the hardening of political hearts have denied the citizens of Northern Ireland the benefits of living in a normalised society with its broader opportunities. But now that marriage equality is finally achieved in Northern Ireland, the current abysmal rates of mixed marriages must improve. After-all LGBTI couples are less concerned with the background of their other halves. So expects an improvement in the official statistics for mixed marriages, now they include LGBTI couplings.
An anti-pride rally spills out of the telephone box.
Bottom of Falls Rd
The wall between