A mural of two women kissing in Belfast, 2016. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Peace is often equated with the end of political violence. Successful peacebuilding means that bullets and bombs are set aside and replaced with commitments by all parties to resolve differences democratically. As war and conflict often emerge from historical grievances surrounding community rights, agreed equality frameworks may be part of transitions to peace.
In Northern Ireland, peacebuilding has been dominated by communal bargaining over legacies of violent conflict, victim rights, and other contentious issues including the proposed Irish Language Act. Now – nearly 20 years after the 1998 peace agreement – even this bargaining process has collapsed.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is paralysed by deep political division. The peace brokered by our politicians lacks vitality and imagination. Alternative visions of a more meaningful, progressive and inclusive peace process do exist, though they are rarely given the attention that they deserve.
'The peace brokered by our politicians lacks vitality and imagination.'
Some might argue that Northern Ireland’s flawed and faltering peace is the best possible outcome for the still deeply-divided region. Pragmatism is important in politics and can be valuable in negotiating and renegotiating peace.
But anyone who has studied politics and history knows that the political imagination is a powerful motivator of social change and progress. Peace must be imagined before it is negotiated and created.
LGBTQ visions of peace
I spent six months interviewing LGBTQ individuals in Northern Ireland, as part of a broader Arts and Humanities Council-funded research collaboration with Catherine Gander (Maynooth University) and Stefanie Lehner (Queens University Belfast).
On cold, dark, autumn and winter evenings, I spoke to LGBTQ people in urban and rural areas, in community centres or local offices, in meetings facilitated by the NGOs Focus Identity Trust, Gender Identity Ireland, and the Rainbow Project.
Participants in these meetings told me about challenges they faced during the peace process as well as during the conflict, which several said had only reinforced fear and insecurity.
They told me about friends who left Northern Ireland, exiled by homophobia and transphobia. They recalled experiences in communities, schools and families and a conservative culture that diminished their hopes of equality and inclusion.
Soldiers patrol Belfast streets in 1996. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Northern Ireland decriminalised sex between men over the age of 21 in 1982,15 years after England and Wales. During the conflict, groups including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) challenged decriminalisation with petitions and public protests. It continues to oppose legalising same-sex marriage.
I asked people how their lives changed after the 1998 Agreement. While others living in Northern Ireland may have benefited from increased personal security amid significantly reduced political violence, their answers reflected continued and high levels of everyday insecurity.
They described schools, workplaces, churches and streets as arenas where homophobic and transphobic discrimination and prejudice are still common. They told me about having to make careful decisions about whether or not to disclose their sexuality or gender identity, and to whom.
'They described schools, workplaces, churches and streets as arenas where homophobic and transphobic discrimination and prejudice are still common.'
The peace process may have shifted the nature of LGBTQ lives from those of relative invisibility to those of disclosure and concealment. Some said they might conceal their identities in one context, such as the workplace, but disclose them to family and friends.
Many discussed refraining from public signs of intimacy for fear of homophobic reprisals. Transgender men and women described transphobia across a range of social institutions and spaces.
The failure of the Northern Ireland peace process to create a fair and inclusive society for LGBTQ individuals was summarised particularly well by one transgender man.
He said (about 1998 peace agreement referendum): “Everyone felt their vote counted. We all felt we were creating the peace, but the promise of peace has not been delivered for everyone, that is the problem. Peace for all was never meant to be peace for all.”
"The promise of peace has not been delivered for everyone."
He explained: “Peace was delivered along religious lines and for religious purposes. It was meant to address and manage the two communities. It wasn’t intended to promote that kind of equality.”
Yet, many still said that they believed strongly in the power of ongoing social activism. And they described visions of equality that go far beyond aspirations for same-sex marriage rights, though this was also mentioned many times.
They described a modern, progressive outward-looking peace. A peace that could support, and celebrate, a plurality of lifestyles. One of the youngest participants said: “I want peace to be me”.
This simple statement has profound implications for how we could approach peacebuilding. Such visions of a more meaningful and inclusive peace are what keep the very promise of peace alive.