ABOUT 20,000 gay rights supporters marched through Belfast city centre on Saturday to demand that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage be extended to Northern Ireland.
The protest wound its way through the main shopping district to Belfast City Hall, where a large open-air rally took place.
The action was jointly organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), Amnesty International and the Rainbow Project.
Participants included a wide range of individuals and movements, including LGBT groups, trade unions, charities, human and civil rights organisations, churches, political parties and pressure groups.
The huge turnout surprised even the organisers, who were forced to make repeated calls for participants to use all available space at both sides of the staging to allow thousands more people in to hear from a variety of invited guests.
Among the speakers was ICTU LGBT committee chairman Daire Toner, who said: “I dream one day of getting married, but my dreams are shattered by the laws that govern this state.
“Even if I got married elsewhere, a flight or a train journey would make it invalid.”
Rainbow Project director John O’Doherty added: “The numbers here say it all. We want our voice heard. We need to go out and tell our story, play our part in a new Northern Ireland. They can’t ignore us any more.”
Amnesty International Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan put it simply: “All people are equal — the state should protect all people equally.”
In 2005, while under direct rule by Westminster, Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to introduce civil partnerships, but since the power-sharing institutions were restored at Stormont, the fight for equality has gone into reverse gear.
The most obvious manifestation of this was an attempt to introduce a “conscience clause” amendment to equality law which would have allowed firms owned by people of faith to discriminate against LGBT customers.
Members of the Northern Irish Assembly proposed motions supporting equality in civil marriage four times in the last parliament.
But, each time, the Democratic Unionist Party blocked it, using a device known as a “petition of concern,” which requires majorities on both the nationalist and unionist benches.