Councils across the world support Pride and the LGBT+ community every year, but what about in Northern Ireland? LGiU’s Isla Whateley blogs about her experiences volunteering with Belfast Pride in 2019 and how local government there supports Pride despite the region’s difficulties.
Every year since 2017 I have volunteered at Belfast Pride Festival, since first spending my summer researching my undergraduate dissertation with them on the LGBT+ community in Belfast. Northern Ireland is often cited as the most homophobic place in western Europe, as it is the only region where equal marriage is not legal. In addition to this, there are no proposals at all to address the lack of gender recognition rights or improve the current two to three year wait for healthcare for transgender people, no proposals to equalise access to fertility treatment for lesbian and bisexual women, or address the lack of RSE in schools. Despite July’s ruling that will see equal marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland by January if there is no assembly at Stormont by October, there is still much of a way to go when it comes to LGBT+ rights. But what role does local government play in this?
In 2013 Belfast Pride set out to establish that the Mayor of Belfast, as the civic leader, should launch Belfast Pride and lead the parade every year as part of their civic duties and that Belfast City Hall should be used for the launch of the festival. Belfast Pride argued that that the Mayor of Belfast should represent all citizens including LGBT+ citizens and lead Belfast Pride from the front and in camera. The mayor, deputy and all committee positions are decided by the D’Hondt system following each council election to make sure all roles are proportionally distributed across the political spectrum up until the next election. These roles change hands every year but it is always balanced and reflects the cross-community nature of the elected council.
Given this approach to elective offices in the Council, successive Mayors of Belfast have shown great leadership in launching Belfast Pride every year since 2013, apart from 2016, the only year that there has been a DUP Mayor. In a happy co-incidence that year the city’s first out LGBT+ civic leader, Deputy Mayor, Cllr Mary Ellen Campbell deputised and led Belfast Pride.
This year, the rainbow Pride flag was displayed at the top of Belfast City Hall for the first time. A council committee, consisting of councillors from every party, backed the initial proposal from Sinn Fein councillor, Mary Ellen Campbell, and when the motion went to full council, it passed. The night before the Belfast Pride parade on Saturday 3rd August, a flotilla of boats made its way from Belfast Lough down the River Lagan to deliver the Pride flag. The Mayor, John Finucane, received it from Belfast Pride volunteers, accompanied by Councillor Campbell (who proposed the motion). The Mayor was up at the break of dawn on Saturday morning to help raise the Pride flag over City Hall, and then marched at the front of the parade later that day.
Other councils in Northern Ireland also voted on whether to raise the Pride flag over council buildings during the weekend of Belfast Pride. Just before Pride, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council voted in favour of flying the Pride flag at their buildings, however (predictably) the DUP voted against this. What made headlines was that the DUP’s first openly gay councillor Alison Bennington, elected in May, voted against too, despite being advised to abstain. Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon District Council also voted to fly rainbow flags over all three of their civic buildings, and civic buildings across the borough were lit up in rainbow colours on Pride weekend. Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council voted to fly the flag to mark Foyle Pride on the 24th August, which took place in Derry/Londonderry.
Although something like raising a flag might seem minimal, in Northern Ireland it means a lot (in more ways than one – there were protests in Belfast as recently as 2013 over which flags should fly above City Hall). In a place where rights are not on the same level as the rest of Ireland or the UK, where it is less safe to be gay, having the council support Pride and LGBT+ rights is a symbolic display of support. Local government is the main functional tier of government at the moment in Northern Ireland, since the Assembly at Stormont has been suspended since January 2017, showing support is particularly important.
In other cities and countries local government and mayors support Pride celebrations. For London Pride, Mayor Sadiq Khan opened the 2019 parade and spoke on the main stage. This year’s NYC Pride March coincided with WorldPride, and the Mayor of New York Bill DeBlasio joined the march outside the Stonewall Inn, where Pride first began 50 years ago. ‘Proud Councils’ is a grouping of councils in South Wales who have come together to promote equality and diversity and support the LGBT+ community at Pride Cymru, which took place on 24th August. Councils involved included Rhondda Cynon Taff, Cardiff City Council and Blaenau Gwent. Across Ireland, councils provided active support for their local Pride celebrations. Glasgow City Council flew the Pride flag above the City Chambers on the day of the Mardi Gla Pride march in July this year.
It’s important that local councils support Pride celebrations and wider equality initiatives – not just financially but also in their actions. Even in parts of the world where it is safe to be LGBT+, there are always issues faced by the community and local government support can and does make a world of difference.