Belfast Pride returned this weekend after a three-year absence and it was bigger than ever. 

Refugees Welcome banner at Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
Refugees Welcome banner at Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
An invading army would have not taken as long to march through Belfast as the 2022 Pride, 31st edition. 

Ireland’s largest Pride has been shelved since 2019 due to the pandemic but, despite Covid still raging on, it returned on Saturday with its largest gathering in it’s 31-year history. 

It is estimated that there were around 80,000 people present, up 35% on the record crowd of 60,000 in 2019. 

The largest parade for any cause in Ireland, a country where we love to march, grew in the three years it didn’t take place. Set against a backdrop of relentless media and right-wing attacks, this massive, collective outpouring of love was the perfect salve and a massive ‘fuck you’ to them all. 

I’ve been going to Pride in Belfast since not long after it first started in 1991.

I helped organise and fundraise for the first ever women-only float to take part in the parade. Back then, while the numbers were in their low thousands, the parade was still small enough that we marched around the city centre twice, just to make it last longer. 

As I stood at the start of this year’s parade, it took a full hour before I could finally see the end of it. 

For as many as there were in the parade itself, there were perhaps more lining the route, sometimes five deep.

The entire city was one giant rainbow family, a stark contrast to the expected religious fundamentalists, and their new protest pals, the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy nuts who, together totalled no more than 15. They were cordoned off and watched by police. In the early years, it was not uncommon to get literally bible bashed as they hit those in the parade with their bibles.

There numbers were more then, too. 

Anti LGBTQIA+ protestors at Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
Anti LGBTQIA+ protestors at Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
Conspiracy nuts protest at Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
Conspiracy nuts protest at Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
The last Pride, in 2019 before the pandemic hit, saw 135 groups apply to march. This year, they had to close submissions early when they hit 200.

Had it not been for Belfast’s limitations, it would have been even bigger. 

A few people have said to me that it felt ‘less corporate’ and more a return to ‘grassroots’ but that wasn’t the sense I got. The corporate presence was large, from supermarkets to banks to software companies and the gay lawyers who went on for ages, but there was certainly an uptick in community groups, too.

There were the Fire Brigade and Nurses, Midwives and the NHS, Trade Unions, Belfast City Council and Housing Associations. The Police marched, too, in a decent number. Ulster Rugby, Ulster GAA and many other sports. Teachers and Universities. Political parties marched with Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance, the Green Party and People Before Profit all amongst the revellers showing their support.

Not one single Unionist party, as usual, was to be spotted. 

A person with a rainbow flag around their waist walks a black collie with a rainbow garland Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
A person with a rainbow flag around their waist walks a black collie with a rainbow garland at Belfast Pride [copyright Lee Hurley]
There were helplines and nightclubs, bars and bin men. Christian groups and Jewish groups proudly joined their friends.

Never before have I seen every single facet of life in Northern Ireland represented in this way. The only thing people ever talk about when it comes to Northern Ireland was one of the few things that had no place. 

More than once I found myself choking up as I looked at the tens of thousands of people celebrating being queer and being cheered for it. I felt the past, of growing up in Belfast under the jack boot of the DUP who used their political might to deny gay people the right to marry until they were overruled by Westminster in 2020, seven years after it became legal in England, Scotland and Wales. 

I thought of the bomb scare when a gay nightclub opened, and the beatings and regressive society the DUP forced so many to adhere to for so long. 

The tears I felt build up inside watching this massive Rainbow fuck you to every single one of them wasn’t sadness for what so many here had to go through.

It was pure, unadulterated Pride for the city my home has become. 

Pride continued on Sunday with a Drag Story Time at The Mac which was protested by Northern Ireland’s pound-shop Kellie-Jay Keen wannabe, in Jolene Bunting. 

The protest never topped more than about 10 people with one of Bunting’s cohorts splashing ‘holy water’ (it was a bottle of plastic water she’d probably picked up in the shop) and reciting the rosary which, for a former DUP member to support, is quite a thing.

I guess hating on queers is more important to Bunting than hating on Catholics.