What has changed that the PSNI are nervous to be seen at an event they supported in the past?

The recent statement from Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton on the PSNI Executive Team’s decision to prevent its officers from walking in uniform during Belfast Pride, leaves some unanswered questions. The fact we can guess the answers to these questions does not mean they should not still be asked.

Firstly, he makes the point that there are “clear expectations for all officers and staff in terms of our impartiality and prohibit officers from wearing their uniform or being identifiable as police when engaging in ‘cause issues’.”

Interesting.

One wonders what Pride was in the past few years if it wasn’t a ‘cause’ issue. The PSNI’s own statistics suggest homophobic crimes and incidents have fallen in NI this year (if only by a tiny percentage). So, by their own data, this year’s Pride is less of a ‘cause’ than previous years — and yet they marched in those parades. Of course, Pride has always been a cause. But invoking that excuse after marching for the past few years doesn’t make much sense. You can’t have your gay cake and eat it, as we in NI know all too well.

So what has changed in the last twelve months that the PSNI are nervous to be seen at an event they have publicly supported in the past?

The answer is, of course, is culture.

I mentioned the PSNI’s stats on the very slight reduction in homophobic incidents. I should also point out that transphobic incidents and crimes have continually increased over the past three years in Northern Ireland. This is crucial to remember.

The toxicity of the debate around trans rights has worsened in NI, to the extent that hate preachers have been invited to speak to crowds in Custom House Square. Posie Parker, known for her radical views on the existence of trans women, spoke this April in Belfast, with the support of tireless women’s rights campaigner, and writer of Father Ted, Graham Linehan. While attendance at the event was small, the very fact of its happening demonstrates how politicised the ‘issue’ has become.

Edwin Poots has been on Twitter again, and in June, claimed to be the only politician standing up for women in South Belfast. Paula Bradshaw had the temerity to tweet her support for trans rights, you see. In a world of losses, it is heartening to see that Poots’ support for women extends beyond their exit from the womb. I am being flippant, of course, but only because the language of rights being employed by those who oppose rights invites derision, not serious debate.

At the last election, remember, Charlotte Carson, a candidate for the SDLP, expressed her discomfort with trans women using women-only spaces. It was a minor story at the time, but it ought not to have been. Where our politicians stand on trans rights will likely be the issue that dominates the coverage of our next election. Over in England, some Tories are already saying that if they can’t win on the economy, it’ll be the culture wars they’ll turn to. In other words, Penny Mordaunt doesn’t have a hope in leading the party in Opposition. Translated into terms we would recognise: if it’s not the border, it’ll be biology.

Over a drink with a friend at the weekend, we talked about how progress might not be a given. We disagreed on the inevitability of moral advancement and of the guarantee of human rights. I was running out of evidence for my more pessimistic views, so turned to my phone. With a mixture of anger and delight, I read out the PSNI’s decision to abscond from Pride. See, I said, things do get worse!

The PSNI’s self-removal will no doubt delight many in the queer community. Pride is a protest, not a polite family festival. But as Green Party councillor, Anthony Flynn said, it is not for the PSNI to decide. It is for the LGBTQ community to police who gets to walk through the city that day. So it is not the PSNI’s non-attendance that bothers most of the LGBT community, but the fact that it was decided on the police’s terms.

I happen to think that the police should never have been near the parade in the first place. But I worry that their invisibility on the day will be taken by all the wrong people as evidence that they are right to oppose what they choose to oppose. As the toxic debate around trans rights continues to get more public traction, the PSNI have implicitly nailed their colours to the mast.

In 2022 the theme for Belfast Pride was ‘Community – United in Diversity.’ In 2019, it was ‘Rights Now.’ Some in the PSNI might want to distance themselves from any perceived transphobia in the decision to ban its officers from marching in 2023. That will be a difficult task given the theme of this year’s Pride is ‘Stand by Your Trans’, the first Pride theme dedicated explicitly to the defence of rights for the trans community.

A return to ‘impartiality’ at this point is a shift towards opposition.

NI had a choice. It could have followed the rest of the island in its quiet common sense approach to queer rights. Instead, the binary wars of America and England have taken root here. I fully expect the ‘biggest show in the country’ to capitalise on the algorithm-friendly riches of toxic debate and make trans rights the issue that further separates our already divided politicians at the next election. If only we had more sense. The history of this place is a warning that we believe the myth of the binary at our peril.


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