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Pride in an Irish border town

Irish LGBTQ campaigner Joseph Healy reflects on Newry Pride, how life on the border has changed, and the stakes of Brexit

7 to 9 minute read

A group of people stand holding rainbow flags in the sun at Newry Pride

I had not been to Newry, a small city in County Down, since I was a child in the 1960s. In those days many people from the Republic, including Dublin where my family lived, used to cross the border to buy what were then perceived as exotic English products. My mother would drive through the border checkpoints with the contraband – including brands of biscuits unavailable in the Republic – hidden under a blanket in the boot.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and others say that there never was a hard border. Yes, there was. I drove through it on many occasions, customs searches included. Those were in the days before ‘The Troubles’, which simply stopped many people from the South visiting the North again until after the Good Friday Agreement – a period of 30 years!

On a late August day this summer, I was making the journey back to Newry on a train from Dublin to Belfast, packed with American and English tourists. Only the SMS messages from my mobile phone operator indicated that I had crossed from the Republic into the North. This is exactly what the border communities and most people in the North of Ireland want to maintain, whatever happens with Brexit – an open and seamless border.

At the time, I was travelling to Newry for UK & Ireland Pride. In 2018, Newry won the chance to host the annual event which gives a different geographical focal point for the Pride movement each year. The announcement was greeted by applause at the joint conference of the London Irish LGBT Network and Irish in Britain. It was rightly seen as an important step in the progression of equality for Northern Ireland’s LGBTQ citizens.

At the conference, speakers from Love Equality (the LGBT organisation campaigning for marriage equality in Northern Ireland) and the Northern Ireland TUC explained the anger and frustration in the region follow the DUP’s refusal to allow marriage equality and blocking of legislative moves at Westminster to legalise it. There were calls for supporters to go to Newry and support the Pride event and my union, UNITE, answered it. The national LGBT Committee agreed to send delegates from all of the regions.

My regional LGBT committee (London and Eastern) strongly supported delegates from our region not only in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Northern Ireland but also to support the many Irish members of UNITE (both North and South) living in our region. The other reason for going was to support the border communities in the North of Ireland who would be heavily impacted by Brexit. Newry only lies three miles from the border. I was enthusiastic to represent my union in Newry.

A historical event

On the morning of UK & Ireland Pride 2019, UNITE delegates gathered beside the canal. This canal was the source of Newry’s wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries and carried coal and other goods to the town, where they were transferred on to sea going ships. Its path was now festooned with Pride flags and virtually every shop window had a sign welcoming people to the event. I later heard that the Pride was estimated to have contributed £10 million to the town’s economy. Talk about the Pink Pound!

I met with the other UNITE delegates, all of them members of the national LGBT Committee: an air steward from London, a disabled woman from Birmingham, a Glaswegian who was very active in the Labour Party, and the two local reps, a Belfast bus driver and an education worker, also from Belfast, who was an activist in the Green Party.

As we took photos, I heard that the Royal Black Preceptory had been marching through the town the night before and armed police had stopped the traffic to divert cars and buses away from the parade. The police in the North of Ireland are always armed, a norm in Irish policing dating from when the British first introduced a paramilitary police force in the 1820s to deal with unrest.

It was to be the first of three parades by the Black Preceptory, who are essentially an upper echelon of the Orange Order – a protestant, unionist order. The parades were not connected with the Pride, but reflected the fact that it was Black Saturday, the last Saturday in August, which marks the end of the marching season. The Pride parade was sandwiched between two of them during the Saturday.

In the 1980s, the LGBT club in Belfast had a secret entrance for security reasons. Now, in 2019, I was in a Pride parade following a group for gay farmers

For all of the UNITE delegates, apart from the Glaswegian, this was a rude awakening to the reality of political life in the North of Ireland. The Scottish delegate was sympathetic to Sinn Féin and indeed, while we were there, reported that sectarian riots had broken out in Glasgow because of an Irish republican march there – proof that the issue of Ireland has long tentacles and its impact can be felt throughout the UK.

The fact that the Black Preceptory chose to march through an Irish town with a 90 percent Nationalist population was a provocation. It demonstrated the disdain for the Nationalist community held by such institutions whose visible political representative is the DUP.

The Pride march was however well received as it passed through the centre of town. A moving example of this support occured when a middle-aged woman approached our delegation and took a rainbow flag from her handbag. She told us that she lived in the nearby Mourne Mountains but although she was not LGBTQ she had come to express her solidarity.

When I lived in the North of Ireland in the early 1980s it would have been inconceivable that someone from a rural area would have expressed open support like that. In those days the main LGBT club in Belfast had been down a small backstreet with a secret entrance for security reasons. Now, in 2019, I was in a Pride parade following a group advertising a helpline for gay farmers.

Following the march, the celebratory mood continued onto an outdoor party in Albert Basin Park. Families came out in large numbers and there were lots of children among a diverse crowd. Sinn Féin MP, Mickey Brady, arrived with a delegation.

North Down is traditionally a commuter belt for professionals who work in Belfast – the drag queen, and the main MC, with whom we had breakfast that morning quipped that coming from North Down she was very posh! On the other hand, a group of LGBTQ activists with their shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘LGBT support the ship workers’ reminded us that the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast was under threat of closure and emphasised the strong historical links between the unions and LGBTQ movements.

The significance of the Pride for Newry was immense and I felt that I had been to an historical event.

If they shut the border

All around the town there are reminders of Newry’s role in Irish history. The Catholic Cathedral built in the 1820s is the earliest in Ireland. Catholic Emancipation was only granted in 1829, so most Catholic churches from that period are only found in back streets. The history of discrimination against the Catholic population and partition in Northern Ireland is a living memory.

The issue of Brexit has made it even more intense. Outside the Catholic Cathedral, there is a plaque commemorating a member of the IRA shot by the police in the 1920s, shortly after partition. For towns like Newry, an open border with the rest of Ireland is paramount. The town’s economy has already been visibly hit by the slow draining away of business because of Brexit fears.

On the morning we left Newry, our B&B host Geraldine told us that, as a young woman, she had marched in the Civil Rights Movement of 1969 against the gerrymandered and discriminatory state that was Northern Ireland. ‘If they shut the border, I will be out on the street marching again,’ she told us.

Recently, bombs have reappeared in border areas. There are growing waves of violence in some places, like Derry, driven by Brexit and the refusal of the Tory government to recognise the significance of the Good Friday Agreement and what is has achieved for peace in the North of Ireland.

Ironically, Newry lies literally on the border with the adjoining constituency of South Down – once a traditional Unionist seat that was won by Sinn Féin at the last general election. Enoch Powell was once MP for South Down, and the current Brexit ideology being espoused by Johnson, Rees Mogg et al has always been close to hard line Unionism. All of this is creating a toxic brew with very dangerous consequences for the North of Ireland.

As I bade farewell to Newry and headed back in the bus to Dublin, I noticed a young man sitting in front of me with a ticket for the All Ireland football final which was being played that day in Dublin. For him, travelling to Dublin for a football game was an ordinary trip that did not involve any border formalities. He was not old enough to remember, as I do, the border posts and customs officers, which were later followed by the army checkpoints and watchtowers.

The words of Geraldine rang in my ears as I travelled south – that she and many others would take to the streets to defend the open border and their right to travel freely on the island of Ireland. Newry Pride was an indication of what could happen in a new united Ireland, where all are considered equal citizens.

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