I said earlier this morning that I was lost for words. I’m not quite, though I can’t guarantee their civility.
Apart from North Down, held by the principled independent Sylvia Hermon, Northern Ireland’s parliamentary constituencies are now divided, in the crudest way possible, between those in the north east, held exclusively by a DUP whose shabby deal to prop up a minority Tory government will impact brutally upon us all, and those along the borders, together with West Belfast, ‘represented’ by Sinn Fein, whose much vaunted concern for ‘the most vulnerable in our society’ will not extend to taking their seats in support of a progressive coalition.
The hearts and dreams of thousands of young (and less young) people across the UK, who voted, often for the very first time, for hope and change have been broken by Northern Ireland’s myopic constitutional obsessions. No one will suffer for it more than our own children here.
And no constituency illustrates the impasse more starkly than my own.
As I wrote on Wednesday evening,
“Every vote is precious, because every one is a real endorsement of what we stand for, and the hope we will never abandon.
But I’d give up every single one of those votes for a progressive government in Westminster from Friday morning. We stand at a crossroads, and what happens in the UK tomorrow will send ripples across the world. Be brave, wherever you are, and vote for what you know is right.”
For a few brief hours last night, we thought that progressive government was on its way. But instead we have something potentially much worse than we had before. I would once again beg the newly elected Sinn Fein MPs to put present human need before historic ideology. And I’d suggest to those socially liberal, tolerant, scientifically aware and basically decent Tory MPs celebrating this morning (and there must be at least a handful) that they look very closely at their new bedfellows before snuggling under the duvet.
This is what I’m doing tomorrow – speaking at the Tax haven Ulster: Faith, justice and corporation tax in Northern Ireland event in Belfast, organised by Christians on the Left. The main speaker is Richard Murphy, Quaker, Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London, author of the brilliant Tax Research UK blog and economic adviser to Jeremy Corbyn. I will be talking about corporation tax and about why both I personally and the Green Party, are opposed to its reduction in Northern Ireland. Richard has mentioned the event, and his own views, in his own blog post today.
The other speakers at the event, which begins at 7pm in the HUB, Elmwood Avenue, are Dave Thomas of Christian Aid, with whom I have worked on many campaigns and events over the years, Claire Hanna of the SDLP and the Jesuit theologian Brendan MacPartlin.
I’m also planning to go to another event featuring Richard Murphy tomorrow. This is a workshop at Queen’s University, arranged by Professor (and Green Party Councillor) John Barry entitled Lowering Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland: A Smart Move or Dangerous Risk? I’m very much looking forward to both, to contributing and to learning more about this vital and much misrepresented topic.
Meanwhile we are awaiting the next stage in the news from Stormont. As the BBC reports, the DUP’s announcement yesterday seems to leave three options.
a. The business committee of Stormont, meeting this afternoon, would vote to adjourn the Assembly. This would mean that the Executive Ministers (other than the UUP, which has already withdrawn) would remain in place and in power but the Assembly would not sit.
b. The government would suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, returning us to direct rule from Westminster.
c. If neither of the above events occur, Peter Robinson has said that he and the other DUP ministers would resign. His resignation would trigger an early election, probably in November (the next Stormont elections are otherwise scheduled for next May).
As Steven Agnew has said, the people of Northern Ireland deserve better than to be thrust into this situation. The prospect of the Executive governing for more than a short period with no legislative assembly is, I would suggest personally, contrary to the basic principles of constitutional law and of the separation of powers. The people’s right to representation, as exercised by their choice of MLAs in democratic elections, is not a plaything of the First Minister, to be cast aside at his whim. Similarly, the devolution of regional government is a real and vital part of our current constitutional settlement, not an ephemeral experiment or a new toy to be taken back by Westminster when the children begin to squabble. Try to imagine either of these scenarios occurring in Scotland – the Scottish government ruling without its Parliament, or Scottish devolution being suspended altogether … not easy, is it?
And here, of course, there are also darker reasons to keep the Stormont settlement going. As the Rev. Harold Good, former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and a respected figure in the peace process, has said:
“Many of us are fearful that all we have put into this and all that other people have worked for could get lost just too speedily, too swiftly. How difficult it would be to get it back. Let’s remember that and let’s think also about the vacuum that would be left, we could be back to square one. There are people out there waiting in the shadows, across our community, who would take advantage and exploit this opportunity for another agenda.”
None of this, of course, is to diminish the huge responsiblity which now falls upon Sinn Fein to answer very serious and deep-rooted questions about its nature and relationships. These questions are made even more vital and more urgent by recent events. But Northern Ireland has faced worse times, worse dilemmas before, and has overcome them. I hope and pray that those making decisions in the next few hours and days will find it in their hearts to do so with a little patience, a little humility and a little courage. The people of Northern Ireland, who will bear the burden of failure, deserve at least this.
p.s. Since I drafted this, Steven Agnew has issued a further statement. He says
“Whilst no evidence has been provided that should necessitate the Assembly to collapse, it appears we are faced with two options – either suspend or collapse the Assembly. Neither of these options is ideal however the least worst option would be for the Business Committee to agree to a temporary suspension. However this must be on the condition that there is a deadline set for the Assembly to resume. This would allow time for calm and a period of negotiations. The alternative is a political vacuum which will undoubtedly increase tensions. We need to learn the lessons of the failures of past talks. Once the best compromised has been reached, no one party should have veto over the future of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. Any proposals should be put to the people of Northern Ireland. It is their future that hangs in the balance and they should have the final say.”
He’s had a long weekend to decide what to do. He’s seen refugee solidarity groups pop up like compassionate mushrooms right across the country. He’s seen the people and representatives of Germany leading the way, welcoming refugees and being applauded across the world for it. He knows that the one thing most human beings in the United Kingdom want him to do is to welcome our sisters and brothers fleeing the terrible conditions in Syria. So what does he promise? “Up to” (familiar advertising weasel words) “twenty thousand refugees over the rest of this Parliament”. In case anyone has forgotten, that’s nearly five years. As Caroline Lucas quickly calculated, it’s twelve people per day, and as Gerald Kaufman pointed out, in one such day, Germany has admitted ten thousand. And Cameron calls this “extraordinary compassion”.
For the first time (that we know of), the UK armed forces have used remote drones to kill a British national in a country with which we are not at war. Reyaad Khan was twenty-one and from Cardiff. We don’t know much more about him. We are told that he was, on behalf of Islamic State, planning terrorist activities in Britain. The truth of this might have been tested at trial, had he been arrested and prosecuted. As it is, we are unlikely to know anything more, except that this is now an acceptable way for our government to act. As for Khan’s two companions, one also British, killed along with him, as collateral damage, we are told that they too were Islamic State members, and therefore worthy of no regret.
I have no sympathy at all with Islamic State as an organisation. Violence; murder, torture and rape, are not a legitimate way to advance any cause, whether nationalist or religious. That is why, in seeking to defeat IS, we must be careful not to fall into the same tragic mistakes. To call the extra-judicial killing of a fellow-citizen ‘self-defence’ is to set a serious and dangerous precedent. We have seen this week, even in the Daily Mail, how frack-free protesters like Caroline Lucas herself, can be targeted, intentionally or otherwise, by the government’s ‘anti-terror’ policies An Islamic State activist in Syria one day, a Friends of the Earth campaigner in France the next: it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.
It must have been tricky to know quite how to follow the Ulster Unionists’ resignation from the Northern Ireland Executive. To do the same might have looked like agreement (Heaven forbid, except for an election pact); to do nothing to appear weak. So they’ve come up with the ideal solution – stay in power, but refuse to talk to your fellow ministers (or to the rest of the island). Most of us realised by the age of seven that ‘non-speaks’ was the least good way to resolve quarrels, but then most of us aren’t Executive Ministers. They do have a special talking shed, anyway, Stormont House (again) where they’re going to chat all they like about the future of power-sharing, the ontological essence of the IRA and, quite possibly, who gets the last sandwich. Just not about doing the day-to-day work that they’re paid for. Meanwhile Sinn Fein, of course, has some very serious questions to face. It’s a pity that this isn’t going to come up with any answers.
Paul Givan’s proposed amendments would add two further exemptions; one for religious adoption and fostering agencies and a second for “a person … whose sole or main purpose is commercial or anyone acting on his behalf or under his auspices“.
This is, of course, both terrible drafting and appalling theology. If he means a business, why doesn’t he say so, and spare us the revolting conception of a human being in all her or his unique glory, created by God for the express purpose of grabbing as much money as possible? Surely the Protestant work ethic run mad.
This commercial character, whom Mr Givan insists on calling “A”, in a manner rather better suited to an algebra problem than a piece of legislation, is to be permitted
“(a) to restrict the provision of goods, facilities and services; or
(b) to restrict the use of disposal of premises,
so as to avoid endorsing, promoting or facilitating behaviour or beliefs which conflict with the strongly held religious convictions of A or, as the case may be, those holding the controlling interest in A.”
I think all this clumsiness is supposed to indicate that “A” (now what could that possibly stand for?) may be either a sole trader, a partnership or a company. No doubt there are people at Stormont who could draft it properly for him. The problem, of course, is that a business can’t in itself have religious convictions, so they have to be attributed to it by its owners. Presumably if there are two 50% shareholders: one with RCs and one without, or different ones, the exemption wouldn’t apply. I suppose the scrupulous partner could make a quick bid for an extra 1% if he sees suspected gays coming up the path.
Interestingly, disposal “shall not include disposal of an estate in premises by way of sale…“. So it’s all right to sell your shop to gay people; just not to rent to them. The implications of that are particularly nasty.
The actual proposed amendment only appears at the end of the “Consultation Paper” after a five page explanation and a series of incredibly unbalanced and leading questions, along the “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” lines. Question 2, for example, asks: “Is it appropriate that goods and services legislation should be applied in such a way that it narrows diversity and choice for service users who wish to access a service in the context of a faith/particular faith ethos?”
The possible answers are:
Yes [i.e. I am in favour of narrowing diversity and choice; I am a bigot with quasi-fascist tendencies],
No [i.e. I now understand that the DUP are in fact multicultural heroes and I hereby confess my previous thoughtcrimes] or
Unsure [i.e. something’s just gone ‘ping’ inside my brain, and I can’t remember which planet I’m on].
Okay, let’s look at Mr Givan’s explanation of the whole thing. Once upon a time, he says, we only protected the needs of the majority. Then we realised that minorities have needs too, so we looked after them. One way we did this was allowing conscientious objection to military service, swearing oaths in court, vaccinations and wearing helmets (in the case of Sikhs only, not Hells Angels hoping to get to Valhalla more quickly).
If we didn’t have these special conscience laws then Sikhs on building sites would either have to violate their faith or lose their jobs. Either of these would be a Bad Thing.
In the same way, ‘an orthodox Catholic or Evangelical [note the order, v. unsectarian, you see] printer‘ asked to print ‘material promoting same sex sexual relationships‘ has to choose between acting ‘in violation of their [sic] faith identity‘ or losing ‘their livelihood‘. Both of these are Bad Things and Mr Givan’s amendment is therefore a Good Thing.
Let’s have a look at that, shall we? One difference between the examples of previous “conscience clauses” and this suggested one stands out immediately. Killing people as part of an army, swearing on the Bible, having a polio jab and wearing a helmet are all things that people do, or have done to them, directly and personally. The equivalent, in the current situation, would be if the Equality Act Regulations required all Northern Ireland residents to enter into same sex marriages. In that case, an exemption for those who believed such relationships to be wrong would certainly be justified.
What conscience clauses don’t do is allow people to avoid their civic duties on the grounds that such duties facilitate others carrying out actions which the former believe to be wrong. For example, as has been demonstrated, Quaker pacifists are not permitted to withhold the portion of their income tax which goes towards the military budget. Judges who take the Biblical injunction against oath-taking literally cannot prevent witnesses from swearing on the Bible or the Koran, and I have never met a Sikh who showed the slightest inclination to demonstrate outside a barber’s shop.
Anyone who is in business realises that, in exchange for the right to make profits from that enterprise, she or he must abide by whatever regulations are currently in force. A love of mice does not exempt one from environmental health inspections nor a philosophical scepticism about the nature of time provide a valid defence to a prosecution under the licensing laws.
One of the types of law that we, as a society, have decided to pass is that which prevents business people from refusing service to others on the grounds of their sex, race, religion or sexual orientation. The last is the most recent, and therefore the most unfamiliar of these protections, but it is not qualitatively different from the others.
But these are religious convictions, pleads Mr Givan. It doesn’t make any difference. It mustn’t make any difference. Our opinions about how people should live together in society are political, whatever their origins. They may be informed, even uncritically formed, by our religious beliefs, but once they are expressed in society, they are political statements.
The idea that ‘faith identity’, as Mr Givan expresses it, should have discriminatory rights above those of any other kind of identity is a dangerous one. He is a young man, but he must be aware that, in the history of our own faith tradition, the most brutal exclusion of women, Jewish and non-white people has been sanctioned and sanctified. We cannot risk making those terrible mistakes again.
To be fair, an attempt is made to explain in what circumstances the amendment would or would not be applicable. It would, as noted, apply in the case of an order for printed material ‘promoting’ same sex marriage. This, a pretty direct analogy to the Ashers’ bakery case, appears rather odd in itself. Surely there is no general expectation that a printing firm’s owners will be in agreement with the contents of everything they reproduce?
The examples he gives of where the new law would not apply are scarcely less arbitrary. It would not ‘mean that an Evangelical grocer would be able to refuse to sell apples to a gay man. The selling of apples would not involve the Evangelical grocer being required to endorse, promote or facilitate a same-sex sexual relationship...’
But what if the gay man specifically said that he wanted the apples as a present for his partner? More importantly, what Mr Givan doesn’t seem to realise is that a same sex marriage, apart from the gender identities of its participants, is in most things exactly the same as an opposite sex marriage. Just as remembering to buy apples is one of the small things that ‘facilitates’ a harmonious relationship between husband wife, so it is with wife and wife, or husband and husband. It’s a slippery slope, as Eve found out.
The amendment, he goes on to explain, would “not mean that a Muslim printer could refuse to print a brochure publicising coffee tables made by a lesbian cabinet maker.” But what about a lesbian cabinet maker partnership, possibly in both senses? Or tables made by a lesbian cabinet making co-operative, perhaps with some provocative name, such as the one I’ll think of at three o’clock tomorrow morning.
The fact is, society is a messy thing. We’re all connected in complex and convoluted ways to people who don’t think and act and speak exactly as we would like them to. We all have our opinions and beliefs, wherever they come from, and we all feel a bit bruised when they are questioned or challenged. Unless we live in an isolated cult, that’s bound to happen.
And it happens especially in our business relationships. Those of us who are concerned about social justice and environmental issues are constantly aware of the ways in which our principles feel compromised by second and third-hand connections to less than perfect commercial practices. But the truth is that uncontaminated ideological purity isn’t possible, at least not on this earth.
We can all do our best to live by the code we espouse, and not to make personal choices that we believe to be wrong. The Evangelical businessman can refrain from sleeping with another man and from opening his shop on a Sunday. I hope that he will also follow the more important teachings of his Lord and pay his staff a living wage, forgive those who have wronged him and avoid judging the less respectable. But he is not responsible for the consciences of others, or for their decisions. When we stand before the judgment seat, as he might put it, it is the logs in our own eyes that we are called upon to explain, not the specks in one another’s.
This is a badly-drafted, illogical and badly thought-out amendment, and I don’t expect that it will get very far. Quite possibly the DUP don’t either; but perhaps it’s been worth it as a pre-election setting out of their reactionary stall. It would, however, be worrying if it was used as a precedent for other proposed opt-outs. That’s why it is essential that it is opposed robustly and clearly. I’m proud that Steven Agnew has led the way in doing this. As a Green, a Christian, and a human being alike, I’m glad to play my own small part.
Fermanagh is yet again at the centre of the Northern Ireland political picture, after Rodney Edwards tweeted a recording of Gerry Adams’ comments in Enniskillen yesterday evening. The resulting furore has all been fairly predictable, with widespread horror at the coarse epithet, and Sinn Fein desperately scrabbling to explain that it isn’t all unionists they believe to be illegitimate, only the bigoted ones.
Meanwhile, though the idea that ‘equality’ can be a weapon is condemned by many commentators, the most revealing thing that Adams said seems to have gone largely unnoticed.
“But what’s the point? The point is to actually break these bastards – that’s the point. And what’s going to break them is equality. That’s what’s going to break them – equality.
“Who could be afraid of equality? Who could be afraid of treating somebody the way you want to be treated?
“That’s what we need to keep the focus on – that’s the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is [sic] to reach out to people on the basis of equality.”
Not “the heart of the entire republican strategy” or “the core of the entire republican strategy”, but “the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy”. And what was the Trojan horse? As I’m sure the Christian Brothers taught young Gerard, it wasn’t a horse at all. It was something that appeared to be benign, generous, a reconciling cross-community initiative. But, as the hapless Trojans discovered, it was no more nor less than a means of continuing the war, at closer quarters and with all the advantages.
Meanwhile for the DUP, we’ve heard this week, equality ought to be a moveable feast, a Humpty-Dumpty word that means whatever you feel comfortable with its meaning. Are you a straight, white Protestant man who thinks things have been going downhill since Catholic emancipation? Don’t worry; just find a few Biblical quotes to support your position, and you can ignore all that pesky rights nonsense. After all, you’re the victim here.
Between equality as Trojan horse and equality as Humpty’s invention, onlookers might begin to wonder whether there’s anyone left who actually believes in the thing itself. Equality as a fundamental principle, directly affecting the way we do politics, address one another, allocate resources, build democracy? Well, quaint as it may seem this week, we in the Green Party do. As our 2014 Northern Ireland local manifesto, For the Common Good, says:
“The Green Party stands for the inclusion of all members of society, both socially and economically, enhancing everyone’s quality of life. Our local councils must do more to protect and actively to engage the most vulnerable – the homeless, the unemployed, older people, minority ethnic communities, LGBT, disabled and other marginalised social groups. We will take a firm stand against all forms of discrimination and social injustice; we will work hard to combat the causes of inequality, and to remove all barriers to participation in society.”
And from the 2014 European election manifesto:
“The principle of equality is at the heart of Green politics. Without equality for women, for minority ethnic groups, for people with disabilities, for LGBT and for a range of other marginalised groups, there is no democracy.”
That, I believe, is what the thoughtful and compassionate voters of Northern Ireland mean when they use the word ‘equality’. They don’t want it used as a hidden weapon, nor do they want it whittled away to nothingness. We are all members of some group that others might look down upon; that some, given the chance, would treat with injustice and contempt. Part of being a grown-up democracy is recognising the humanity of those who are different from us, and their equal right to respect, freedom and a decent life. And in that grown-up democracy we don’t do that to insinuate ourselves with our enemies, to better be able to stab them in the back. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, and the only way to build a better future.