Belfast Pride parade is Northern Ireland at its best, Leo Varadkar says

The Irish premier joined tens of thousands of people as they made their way through the city centre.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar has said that Northern Ireland’s biggest parade is not orange or green, but “rainbow-coloured”.

The Taoiseach made the comments as he attended Belfast’s Pride parade for the first time.

Mr Varadkar joined tens of thousands of people as they made their way through the city centre.

His presence will be seen as significant as same-sex marriage remains a contentious political issue in Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar’s visit comes two years after he attended a Pride breakfast to promote the rights of the LGBT community.

Ireland’s first openly gay premier was not able to attend the parade that year as he had other official engagements.

In June last year, after meeting with senior leaders of the Orange Order and representatives of the two main communities in Belfast, he stopped for a pint in the city’s popular gay bar, The Maverick, where he spoke to staff and a number of customers.

Belfast Pride 2019
Crowds watch the Belfast Pride parade (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Varadkar also joined 60,000 people in Dublin for its Pride march in June this year.

Addressing a huge crowd that gathered in Custom House Square, Mr Varadkar said the Pride parade is Northern Ireland “at its best”.

“Open, inclusive, diverse and for everyone,” he said.

“I want to say how great it is to be in Belfast today.

Belfast Pride 2019
Drag artists take part in this year’s event (Niall Carson/PA)

“I always say the biggest parade that happens in Northern Ireland isn’t orange or green, it’s rainbow-coloured. It’s really great to see it today.

“I had a real honour today to walk with Lord Hayward, who, along with Conor McGinn, put the legislation through the Commons and Lords to bring about marriage equality here in a few months’ time. So, we really want to thank them.

“Thank you so much and happy Pride.”

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where gay marriage is illegal.

That could change, however, after landmark legislation was passed by the UK Parliament which will allow same-sex marriage in the region if devolution is not restored by October 21.

The changes will not come into effect if Northern Ireland’s two main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, can reach an agreement to form a new Executive before the deadline.

Talks have been ongoing since May after journalist and gay rights campaigner Lyra McKee was shot dead while she was reporting on riots in Londonderry in April.

Belfast Pride 2019
Belfast Lord Mayor John Finucane at the start of the parade (Niall Carson/PA)

Belfast Lord Mayor John Finucane led the parade, which he said is one of the highlights of his year as mayor.

On Friday the Sinn Fein councillor received the first Pride flag that was flown from City Hall.

The rainbow flag was delivered down Belfast Lough on a flotilla of boats blasting their horns to cheers from onlookers on the banks on Friday evening.

Mr Finucane helped erect the flag at City Hall early on Saturday morning.

Belfast Pride 2019
Mr Varadkar poses for a photo (Niall Carson/PA)

It is the first time a Pride flag has flown from the landmark building.

Belfast’s first-ever Pride parade was in 1991.

Mr Finucane said: “This is a great day in Belfast and for the first time we are marching under the Pride flag which flies over City Hall.

“We were delighted to be joined by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. I think he is showing solidarity with Belfast Pride and along with 70,000 other people, we are sending a very powerful, positive and strong message from Belfast today.”

The theme of this year’s parade was “rights now”, to highlight the rights demanded by the LGBTQ community.

Among the tens of thousands of participants were members of the PSNI, An Garda Siochana, Ulster Rugby, BBC Pride, Ulster Bank and Antrim GAA club.

Belfast Pride 2019
Two men in costume wait for the beginning of the festivities (Niall Carson/PA)

Meanwhile, the head of BBC Northern Ireland addressed the “confusion” around staff members attending Belfast Pride saying the broadcaster is not participating corporately.

The BBC has faced questions over impartiality since announcing staff in the organisation’s BBC Pride group would be attending the event.

A memo to workers issued last week said staff would be participating in the annual Pride parade wearing BBC-branded T-shirts.

A statement also mentioned BBC Northern Ireland in the context of employees taking part.

BBC NI director Peter Johnston acknowledged there had been “confusion” about the “terms and basis for BBC staff involvement in the Belfast Pride parade 2019”.

Belfast Pride 2019
A drag artist’s costume bears the words ‘Oct 21’ – the date when equal marriage could become law in Northern Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)

He said while members of the BBC Pride staff network – an employee-led initiative – would be taking part, BBC NI as a corporate body would not.

“We know that there are legislative issues specific to Northern Ireland in relation to same-sex marriage,” he said.

“The BBC’s editorial guidelines provide clear advice in this regard. It is on this basis that BBC NI will not be involved corporately in the Belfast Pride parade and that individual programme brands will not be represented.”

Ulster Television (UTV) staff members also taking part in Belfast Pride for the third time on Saturday.

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