On the first Saturday of August, nearly a month after the near-inevitable controversy of Belfast’s Eleventh Night bonfires and Twelfth parades, over 5000 people marched in the city’s annual Pride Parade, a protest which is a response to Northern Ireland’s present and future, rather than its sectarian past. Why, in NI, where the largest party is the openly homophobic DUP, and where LGBTQ people and organisations are starved of rights, healthcare and funding, did thousands of people – one percent of the city – congregate to support Pride? And what lessons and support can be drawn from this for civil society in England?
The scale of Pride here happened both despite, and as a result of, the DUP setting the agenda on LGBTQ rights. On one hand, although the DUP’s elected representatives openly support evangelical anti-LGBTQ Christianity, the bulk of their support is driven by NI’s sectarian voting patterns, not anti-queer sentiment. This can be seen in Stacey Dooley’s recent documentary investigating the party’s support, in which she interviewed people who are happy to have queer family members, but vote DUP in an attempt to out-poll Sinn Fein: not all support for the DUP equates to support for social conservatism.
On the other hand, there are the young non-voters who are unrepresented in (and often emigrate because of) mainstream NI politics, who flock to Pride as one of the few non-sectarian progressive events in Belfast. In response to our conservative political deadlock, and the sidelining and refusal of LGBTQ rights, the young leaderless left come to Pride and bolster its numbers.
In Northern Ireland, more than anywhere in the UK or Republic of Ireland, with the DUP waging open political war against queer people, Pride is a protest, no matter how DUP MPs spin it. This was reflected in Belfast Pride’s slogan this year, “Demand Change,” which was plainly endorsed by the massive size of both the parade and the crowd viewing it. As in England, there is a young, active and angry network of queer people, organising against institutions which disregard queer lives.
However, Belfast Pride’s structure should not be copied wholesale as a success; funding cuts to the organisation mean corporate pinkwashing took pride of place in this year’s parade, and apart from some marriage equality campaigns, grassroots groups like the trans/non-binary bloc were placed near the back of the parade; poor police planning meant this bloc didn’t even march past City Hall, the most public part of the parade route.
Distress was also caused by the decision to allow uniformed police officers to march in the parade, alienating many queer people, especially sex workers and pro-choice activists (sex work and abortion both being outlawed in NI) who have been harassed and traumatised by police.
The messages which protestors carried were also censored by Belfast Pride, as “No Pride in Police – No Police in Pride” and “F**k the DUP” placards were removed or confiscated, to the anger of activists who had endorsed the “Demand Change” slogan.
In what should be the UK’s angriest, most radical Pride protest, organisers attempted to pacify the march for the benefit of police and corporate contingents. This stifling timidity should serve as a lesson to all organisations attempting to speak for oppressed groups.
Northern Ireland’s particularly open denial of LGBTQ rights can be directly linked to its British colonial past – but like in England, civil society here has the opportunity to galvanise young anger against queerphobic institutions.
The marchers of Belfast Pride represent the young progressive left who have been disenfranchised by our political system. We demand change, and civil society needs to utilise our energy as a proactive protest movement; to demand change both in slogan and in practice. In England and Northern Ireland, there is an opportunity to use the anger of the leaderless youth to transform society.
It is vital that existing grassroots organisations, fighting for rights and liberation, built on that young energy, are given strategic support, especially in oppressive colonial contexts like Northern Ireland, where funding and state support is especially poor for minority community groups.
It is also crucial that larger organisations and overarching bodies – those which manoeuvre between diverse groups and corral them together – learn to allow expressions of dissent from their (sometimes ill-thought-out or insubstantial) policies; to be especially receptive to messages from young people enthused to protest against injustice; and to understand that sometimes it’s necessary to hear uncomfortable criticism from those they claim to represent. In general, young marginalised people are the most clued-in to social injustice and the methods by which to fight it, and it would be foolish to ignore this.
Even if an organising body doesn’t hold the same views as those it rallies together, it should allow marginalised voices to dissent (as was notably not the case for many in this year’s Pride parade). If not, it will leave those oppressed youth behind, and lose the sense of vitality and purpose brought by rightfully-angry communities. Civil society must utilise their anger, or it will become obsolete, losing years of strategic build-up to executive stagnation and stubbornness.
Northern Ireland obviously holds important distinctions from English society. But sometimes, the conflict here acts as a more distinct and extreme reflection of English social dynamics. The lessons learned from Belfast Pride- of how to mobilise truly impressive crowds, and how to retain the respect and energy of those who support your cause – are relevant across society, and reflect discussions being had in various community groups, LGBTQ or otherwise, across the UK and Ireland.
As is often the case, one gains a much better understanding of England’s civil dynamics by studying its first colony, Ireland, and the development of its social movements in the aftermath (and continued presence) of British institutions, and of English influence. From Belfast Pride, one can easily see both the necessity of politically meaningful messaging in engaging young crowds, the importance of allowing society’s most oppressed to define their own message, and the consideration that must be given to including historical (and contemporary) oppressors such as uniformed police. These factors are coloured by NI’s conservatism, paramilitarism and its relatively new, unstable political institutions, but increasingly, as England’s future becomes less predictable, its civil society must also adapt to new circumstances. If civil society does not try to learn from the UK’s own politically tumultuous, undyingly resilient backyard, it will be wasting a massive opportunity, not only for solidarity across the Irish Sea, but for lessons in organisation which have become invaluable in the climate of 2017; a failure to learn from us in Northern Ireland would be foolish at best, and fatal at worst. We’re here, England. And we have a lot to say. I advise you start listening.