A Belfast man who has given years of his life to Pride has revealed how he came to lead the city’s first ever gay rights parade in 1991.
Niall Gillespie has spent many of the last 31 years leading, organising and cleaning up after the now huge event which brings NI’s gay community and more together every summer.
Aged 24 and “just about out to my parents”, he says he never expected to be driving his car at the head of the parade. But after a young man who’s name he doesn’t recall questioned why Belfast had no Pride festival of its own – that’s exactly what happened.
Niall told Belfast Live: “The first one was in 1991.
“I was there at the beginning. NIGRA, which is the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, were the organisation that took Jeff Dudgeon’s case the European Court of human Rights.”
Niall, left, at Pride 2018 with his partner Clint
Jeffrey Dudgeon, then a Belfast shipping clerk, filed a complaint with the European Commission for Human Rights after being quizzed by the RUC about his sex life for around four and a half hours. Some sexual acts between consenting adult men were still illegal in Northern Ireland even though England and Wales had changed their laws – and in 1981 he won his case leading to a change in NI law.
“There was money left over from his case which had been used by NIGRA to send a few representatives across to London Pride every year,” explained Niall.
“There was a meeting organised to decide who would get their travel paid.”
But it would seem that would be last meeting of that kind.
Niall added: “There was some young person there who’s name I don’t recall and he came up with the idea, why spend money to take people away when we could have a gay Pride parade in Belfast to which everybody said ‘we can’t’.”
But Niall said the plucky young man’s attitude was ‘why not?’ and so a seed was planted.
T-shirt from Belfast’s first gay pride on show at the Ulster Museum
(Image: Maurice Fitzmaurice)
“We had this young lad, the person who came up with the idea, challenge other people who had been around for longer at that stage… and before we knew it we were arranging a parade in Belfast and it just metamorphosed itself into existence.”
The Belfast man said they learned “many years later” it was a set up with other people involved in “NIGRA who knew exactly what was going to happen”.
That first year Niall said “there was probably about 100 people – maybe not even quite as many as that”.
It involved a walk, which he said some described as “a bit of a dash”.
“I ended up driving my car at the head of it. That day I had gone off to pick up some helium filled balloons and they filled the back of the car. I was stopped on the way down Corporation Street by a police or army checkpoint and they sort of asked me what the balloons were going to be used for. I said Gay Pride and offered them a balloon. I was rapidly waved on at that stage so it was the easiest way of ever getting through a checkpoint.”
The first ever Belfast Pride in 1991
(Image: Belfast Pride)
After reaching his start point, Niall discovered “somebody had turned up with a set of speakers – like people strap to cars for preachers”.
“They were probably borrowed off somebody who didn’t know what they were being used for and had to be strapped to the car and wired into the ignition,” he added.
“Somebody said ‘who’s got a car’ and they said ‘Niall’s got a car’.”
The car was promptly fetched and the speakers attached and he said: “Before I knew it I was driving my car at the head of the first Pride Parade in Belfast and I was only just about out to my parents at that stage.”
Pride 1991 started off outside the art college, in what was once dubbed ‘bhuoy square’, before heading down Royal Avenue and Donegall Place, around the back of City Hall towards Botanic Park.
A last minute change of route meant that those parading were also able to avoid the protestors who had turned out against it and after the first Pride had taken place, there was no question it would continue.
The Parade in 2006
“That had been changed in the last couple of days because we had heard word there was going to be religious fundamentalist type protestors,” explained Niall.
“By changing the route and not telling anybody until near the day we avoided that.”
After making their way to Botanic Park, he said the roughly 100 people who walked that day piled into his car and a city bus for the journey back for a “did we just do that type celebration”.
“There were people out on the streets and some people would have stopped and watched. I do remember some giving us the fingers and dirty looks. I think there was more bemusement than anything, like ‘who are these people and what are they doing, kid of thing?’
“It certainly wouldn’t have been as welcome as it is out with people out there with their children and any protest drowned out with the wave of support,” he added.
Pride has grown massively in the years since 1991
“Once it started, there was never any suggestion of it stopping after that. It was more protest – ‘we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going away’ type thing.”
In the 31 years since that first Belfast Pride, Niall has played a huge role in the event, organising behind the scenes and leading the way from the front.
During that time he says the first 100 to bravely walk with pride on our city streets have been joined by more and more.
What was once just a protest is now also a celebration of victories along with way and in 2019 an astounding 60,000 people and 160 groups took to the streets in the biggest Belfast Pride so far.
But it all started with the suggestion of one person.
“At the time, we were like ‘what a challenging idea’,” added Niall. “And then we were like ‘why don’t we’.”
When the pandemic hit, Belfast Pride moved online with a virtual parade and this year will do the same.
Pride 2018 filled Custom House Square
(Image: Gareth O’Cathain)
Seán Ó Néill, Chair Belfast Pride Festival, said they felt they had to cancel it because of it’s size and “the fact that it is not in a controlled venue”.
“Pride has grown to be an all ages event, families with kids right through to elderly people. Right now that’s a bit of a risk,” he explained.
“You can’t control people on the streets and that means you are mixing people from lots of different demographics.”
60,000 celebrated in 2019 despite the rain
(Image: Belfast Pride)
Online, however, he said they are “having a whole range of events” and an “online parade on Saturday that anyone can take part in by sending in a video”.
“We are also running a campaign ‘flying a flag for Belfast Pride’ trying to encourage people to put out flags in businesses and homes right across the city to bring visibility when we can’t have a parade.”
Click here for details.