‘Biggest parade in North isn’t the Twelfth, it’s Pride’

The Alliance party’s gay MLAs say the old prejudices are dying out in the North — it’s just going to take a little more time

Joe Brolly

Straight guy walks into a bar. Sees three gay politicians standing at the counter. Walks over and says to the first one…

I’m meeting the newly elected, openly gay Alliance MLAs in the Union Street Bar in Belfast’s Gay quarter. They’re the only gays at Stormont.

Andrew Muir: Do you come here often, Joe?

(Big laugh.)

Me: I’m so disappointed. I thought you’d be wearing one of your bow ties (Andrew is famous for his extravagant neckwear).

Andrew: I never wear a bow tie when I’m meeting a straight man.

(More laughter.)

John Blair is 56 and was the first openly gay politician in the North. Andrew describes him as “an elder gay” and the laughter continues.

Me: You’re suspicious of me, John.

John: I’m suspicious of everybody.

Me: Are you a Protestant?

John: It’s none of your business.

Me: You look like a Protestant.

John laughs and the ice is broken.

I remark on how respectful they and their party members are towards others. And on how sophisticated they are by the standards of Northern politicians. We discuss the recent seismic election results that saw the Alliance take 17 seats with their logical, socially progressive message.

“We’ve moved very far away from green and orange towards broad, global and local politics,” John says. “You say we’re respectful. This is because we are genuinely interested in politics, so we must listen carefully to each other.”

We talk about Jake Daniels, the English soccer player who came out last week, the first professional soccer player in the UK to do so in more than 30 years.

Eoin Tennyson, fresh-faced as Peter Pan and at 24 the youngest MLA, says the importance of this cannot be overstated. “These two inspired me. When Andrew became mayor of North Down, I had never heard of an LGBTQ+ person in a public role in Northern Ireland. I don’t think you two appreciate how powerful that was and how important it was to me and a lot of people here.”

All three lived in a dark, secret world before coming out. They start to speak about this, and suddenly the mood is very different.

Me: How did you come out?

Andrew: I don’t talk about this.

He pauses for a moment. A pained expression comes over him. There is silence. Then he begins.

Andrew: I didn’t feel comfortable in this place. I had to get out. I went to Sunderland, to university there. I was sharing a house. One night, I brought a man back to my room. My roommates were very unhappy. One of them threatened me. He said the next time my mother rang [there were no mobile phones in those days] he was going to tell her I was queer. I realised immediately I had to get home and tell her myself. It was so shit. [His voice tails off]. I stood in the living room a few days later and said: “Can we have a chat, mum?” She said: “I’ve no time tonight.” I said: “It’s important.” She said: “Can we not do it tomorrow?” She knew. She didn’t want to hear it. I left and walked around a while. When I came back in she said: “Tell me now.” I was weeping. I told her. She held me and we both wept. She supported me fully. She was just afraid of the life I was going to lead from that moment on.

John was a pioneer. By his early 20s he was living in North Belfast with another man. He describes this as “revolutionary”.

Me: Your family were supportive?

John: Very. I’m very lucky. So many others are suffering in silence.

He knows all about fighting for the simple human right to be treated with respect. Throughout 2001 and 2002, he was subjected to systematic homophobic harassment by a DUP councillor, Arthur Templeton. Templeton followed him around the streets when John was canvassing, shouting “Gay bastard” and “Queer hole” and the like. He bent over in front of John in the street, pointed at his backside and shouted: “Here you are, John. This is what you want.”

The PSNI arrested Templeton and he was prosecuted, with John having to give evidence. In court, Templeton denied it, saying that when he was bending over it was to tie his shoe laces. He was convicted of homophobic harassment and the abuse stopped.

John: The DUP is institutionally homophobic [the other two nod in agreement]. They have blocked every single move towards equality for LGBTQ+.

Me: Why do they do this?

John: It’s about control and supremacy. And the UUP are no champions of equality either.

Andrew: It’s not about genuine principle, it’s about their fear of losing control over their communities. It’s about control, not respect.

Me: I can see how angry you are about this.

John: If we are angry, it’s because we’ve all been so badly impacted by them. It goes back to when they had the majority and they could do what they liked, and we had to suffer as their underlings.

Andrew: They enjoyed treating us like shit.

Eoin: The big problem is that they feel that if one group gets rights it’s a defeat for them. So they stir up anger and fear by pitting LGBTQ+ rights against faith.

John: So many LGBTQ+ people have been left isolated and afraid and unwanted in areas dominated by them, especially rural areas.

Andrew: We need to see leaders who are inclusive. It’s why I’m in politics, to fight for people’s basic rights. We need a public apology from the DUP and UUP for the terrible harm caused to LGBTQ+ people. That would help to heal the wounds caused by their awful homophobia and cruelty.

Feeling their hurt, I am almost ashamed to be heterosexual.

Eoin is a most impressive, clever, articulate young man. I call him the white Barack Obama and they all laugh. In 2020, he was queuing with friends outside The Kremlin, a gay club in the city centre, when he was subjected to a homophobic attack by an enraged man wielding a bottle.

Eoin: I was constantly bullied at school. I would go to bed every night and pray – please, God, change me, make me normal, because I cannot put up with this for the rest of my life. I was only 11.

Andrew: You get so confused. You feel attracted to men, but you deny those feelings because you’re so afraid.

Eoin: It was at its worst when people in your class started going on dates and talked about kissing girls at the disco. I was forced to explore my sexuality in secret. Alone, in an unhealthy and unsafe way. You arrange to meet strangers. Your friends don’t know where you are. You can’t talk about it. You can’t share it like everyone else. It’s a secret world.

They agree there have been huge steps forward in the past decade. They single out the Marriage Equality Referendum in the Republic as a watershed moment, an event that has given LGBTQ+ people a lot more confidence to live their lives without fear. In the North, abortion services and same-sex marriage were blocked by the unionist parties but forced through by the UK parliament. Andrew says: “It illustrates the DUP’s self-interest that when the Tories pushed those acts through, the DUP still supported them, even though they publicly lambasted them. So false.”

Until now, we have had no politics in the North. The Assembly was created as a holding centre for sectarianism. It was an essential step in turning off the violence and providing a place where politicians from all backgrounds could take part in a dress rehearsal for real politics. But our society has outgrown this structure, which requires the main unionist and main nationalist party to work together. So, the DUP can simply walk out, and no government can be formed.

Eoin: The structure was set up to protect the nationalist minority from unionist rule. But the North has changed dramatically. The peace is secure. We are all minorities now, nationalist, unionist, none of the above, so the structure will now inevitably evolve to reflect that.

Me: Simple majority system?

Eoin: We’re not mature enough yet for that.

Andrew: We need to start with weighted majority voting. A 60pc super-majority as a stepping stone and to build trust. And if a party doesn’t want to be in the executive, then fine, they can walk away, but we still have a functioning government.

These men describe the notion of a return to the Troubles as ridiculous. John points out that because of the current structure, 72pc of the new MLAs who want government to resume are powerless, simply because the DUP chooses to not take part. As John puts it: “Until now, we haven’t done delivery, just elections and drama with no real purpose.”

I ask where they stand on Irish unity. They make the point strongly that we need to build a shared society in the North before thinking about what we do next. John points out that we are sitting 200 metres from a peace wall, and in spite of all the talk of progress, not a single peace wall separating our communities has been taken down.

These Berlin Walls are still all over the city, but I am certain we are finally on the verge of politics. And I am certain these men and their party colleagues are a force for good. I suggest that the best way to transform our society is for everyone to vote Alliance. They agree and then burst into laughter.

Me: What will our society look like in five years?

Andrew: Very different.

Me: Why?

Andrew: Because the public are not going to keep wearing this shit.

Eoin: I think the DUP is going to pay at the ballot box. They cannot keep playing this game of chicken, handing out paid jobs to their mates for no work while people are struggling to survive.

John: Nationalism and unionism will continue to shrink. Wrapping yourself in a flag isn’t going to cut it. Look at Sinn Féin. In this election, for the first time ever, they had a message of real politics that the electorate liked. The DUP are in serious trouble and they need to act quickly if they want to save themselves.

We sip our drinks. Then there’s a question.

Andrew: Do you know what the biggest parade in the North is now?

Me: The Twelfth, obviously.

Andrew: No. Try again.

Me: I can’t think.

John: It’s the Belfast Gay pride parade.

Me: No way.

Andrew: Yes way.

Me: That’s brilliant. Bloody hell.

I leave them and walk out into the cool evening, smiling, thinking to myself — the Gay Pride parade? Bigger than the Twelfth? I chuckle as I walk home in the shadow of the peace wall and find myself in such a good mood, I duck into the Sunflower for another pint.

Politics, here we come.


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