Change has come to Northern Ireland.  Equality for LGBT people is going to happen.

The gay bars of early 90's Belfast had iron bars on the windows. They looked and felt like bunkers. They had beefy bouncers, they took security measures. They were about as far from welcoming as a East German border post. 

In those sheltering pubs I would sometimes think of Seamus Heaney, of all people. In particular I would think about lines he wrote to convey the plight of northern nationalists during the Troubles: “Where half of us, as in a wooden horse/Were cabin'd and confined like wily Greeks/Besieged within the siege, whispering morse...”

The thing is, back in the early 90's, the gays were besieged within both sieges. Neither side really knew what to do with us, and we certainly didn't know who to trust.

LGBT Pride Belfast

LGBT Pride Belfast

I remember the gay community as being rather silent on the national stage back in the early 90's. It's because they were busy fighting a war within the war and tending to their own casualties. It was a fraught time. The first pride parade in Belfast was held in 1991. It would be polite to describe the turn out as modest.

In November, 2017, I returned to Belfast for the first time since 1994. That's 24 years, half a lifetime. The city I left in the mid-90's, vowing never to return, had had concrete and steel checkpoints and the Royal Ulster Constabulary and generally anxious citizens and an air of unsolvable crisis.

But the Belfast I returned to in November looked like any other prosperous European capital, with upscale bars, tony nightclubs, world class restaurants, and massive cranes and construction works dotted right across the city skyline. The contrast astounded me.

Things really can change then, and not just cosmetically. Walking around in Belfast I saw young gay couples out shopping together, or meeting for coffee's, having the craic. Nobody was bothering them. Elsewhere young people were tooling around on bicycles, taking their time, no one was looking over their shoulder in case the mood darkened. I hardly knew where I was.

I started to feel a bit like like Rip Van Winkle walking around, Or more precisely like Oisin back from Tir Na n'Og. At first I didn't trust it. I didn't want to put my foot on the ground. It didn't used to be like this, I wanted to tell people. Your night could end up in the Emergency Room or worse. People weren't friendly like this. You didn't dare trust them.

But something has genuinely shifted. Seventy percent of people in Northern Ireland and the majority of its Assembly Members support marriage equality for LGBT couples, although their politicians continually fail to form a government which can enact it.

I don't really think anyone in position to change the law there has quite grasped the hurt, the anger and the frustration felt by so many LGBT people in the north, where they are still treated as second class citizens. Where they are patronizingly told to wait for equality. Or bluntly told that day will never come.

The DUP's high handed response to the ceaseless pleas of the LGBT community gives me dejavue. All the dismissive and dehumanizing language used by its ministers, the ease with which they refer to scripture or to long discredited social studies, has been an anachronistic and international disgrace.

LGBT Pride Belfast

LGBT Pride Belfast

LGBT people from all communities in the north have heard the defining issues of their lives cruelly dismissed as side shows and storms in teacups. They are, they have been bluntly informed again and again, beneath the DUP's notice.

We know why they are keeping a cold house. We have always known. Any talk of equality is just seen as a surrender.

But what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? If you grew up in the North during the Troubles you'll have a complex answer to that well known paradox.

Here's a quick answer: there's no such thing as an immovable object. The concept is silly. The essence of existence, like the essence of time, is change.

Seamus Heaney wrote about this kind of flux in a poem once: “Anything can happen, the tallest towers/Be overturned, those in high places daunted/Those overlooked regarded...”

Northern Ireland is in such a moment of flux. It has been now for two decades. Walking around Belfast in November showed me that anything can happen. The business community there have stopped waiting for their political representatives to show some leadership. Instead they are letting their own multimillion pound investments, expanded college campuses, malls, hotels, bars, restaurants and clubs do the talking for them.

Change has already come to the north. The overlooked are being regarded. Equality for LGBT people is going to happen. The sneering leadership that stands in the way of progress will be daunted. And I suspect sooner than anyone in the DUP thinks.

LGBT Pride BelfastWikimedia Commons