A response to the recent ad campaign by the Equality Commission – one of the bodies set up by under the Belfast Agreement to protect human rights.
19th June 2004
Picture the scene one autumn afternoon in 1977. A crowd of media folk have come to witness the ‘mass picket’ of Stormont called by the Democratic Unionist Party. The six or so stalwarts, who turned up, ended up doing more than their usual joking and joshing with the journos, as no one else responded to the call.
However, in that same year the DUP’s ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign of meetings and orchestrated outrage, was infinitely more successful, garnering some 70,000 signatories against the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
This was in response to the case taken to the European Court of Human Rights against the UK government by a local gay man on the suggestion of Kevin Boyle, the former Northern Ireland Civil Rights activist.
Boyle, like many other 60s campaigners did not just follow Martin Luther King’s example in the US and simply substitute ‘catholic’ in place of ‘negro’, they campaigned against Unionist ideals and the Unionist one party state as wholly reactionary. For them (or at least the best of them) there was no hierarchy of oppressions, they attacked the cement of the ruling ideas – all of it.
The 1960s conception of the meaning of equality was then international and universal. That is, even if Unionist one party rule ended with the fall of Stormont it would not be the end of, or put a stop to, the movement for social change. The principle is also similar to the Marxist principle – whatever institutions governments set up or reforms it makes, Marxists insist that the state is not neutral in disputes, particularly regarding its own power.
Unlike the recent SWP/CP/SEA Euro electoral campaign, which manages to urge the return of Stormont to implement reforms, and state simultaneously that the Belfast Agreement on which the new assembly is based won’t work, because it ‘institutionalises sectarianism’, Marxists are neither pragmatists nor practitioners of bad faith.
By the early 1970s the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement – the abolition of the university, business and property vote, the abolition of the B Specials, the establishment of the Housing Executive, the Fair Employment Commission and the end to council ward gerrymandering, were real enough. However, there were three ways in which these reforms tended to be seen.
In the first case they were seen by sections of the nationalist and Unionist professional classes as the acceptable face of ‘modernization’, something that would satisfy respectively their need for progress and political insurance against future claims of discrimination and state inbuilt bias. Whatever the state had done in the past it was now ‘moving on’ into the new dawn of the Sunningdale Agreement.
Secondly, the changes were seen by the sections of the left as wholly insignificant as they did not alter the fundamental character of the state and therefore would in the end count for nothing.
The third case was the articulation of that fundamental character.
That articulation would become an answer to Sunningdale and the modernizers, and was violently delivered in May 1974, by the Loyalist paramilitaries, the UVF, UDA and Vanguard, who took control of the state. The new Executive, whose job it had been to maintain the reforms, was allowed to fall. The claim that the northern state as an entity was un?reformable was made concrete. Since then a rearguard action has been mounted against all those new bodies perceived to be a threat to Unionist supremacy. Whether it is public inquiries, Fair Employment, Justice and police reforms or legal professionals themselves - all have been resisted and targeted.
However, our current state of being is also the result of reformist and republican reactions to the Sunningdale collapse. The idea that John Hume spent over ten years arguing for – that the republican revolutionary and the nationalist reformist aspirations could again be combined in new Sunningdale arrangement brought forth the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
A new peaceful social democracy where all rights and aspirations would be respected would be created and maintained. New institutions would be set up to produce a level playing field on which all would be able to move towards their goals.
Semaus Mallon (SDLP) famously said that the Belfast Agreement was, ‘Sunningdale for slow learners.’ An unfortunate simile as it implied all that was needed was to give Unionism time to normalise and democratise. Now it is Mallon, Hume and Adams, who are slow to learn that Unionism is not able to normalise or democratise.
Many people from minorities outside the traditional divisions – women, gays, ethnic minorities, those with special needs, enthusiastically looked to the new Good Friday structures as a way forward. Now, without any deliberate political decision of rejection, they find themselves yet again seeking methods of defence and advancement without any longer looking to the new structures.
One example was the resignations from the Human Rights Commission. These were as a result of an executive decision to not proceed with a case against the PSNI/RUC for not adequately protecting the rights of the Holy Cross school children. After the attacks on the immigrant community, Chinese community leaders expressed their dissatisfaction that no public body (never mind the police) was seriously interested in apprehending the perpetrators. Following the bludgeoning to death of a gay man in South Belfast, the PSNI/RUC made one arrest and refused to take any further action against the gang who were soon operating again. Having policies on Diversity is one thing; being asked to put a stop to the activities of Loyalist gangs is another.
The maintenance of Equality and human rights is then tenuous to say the least, as it is dependent upon how far Unionism needs to go to prove that it is not conceding control or territory. That in essence was the meaning of David Trimble’s response in the House of Commons to campaign by the Nelson and Fanucane families. The assertion that the victims were ‘linked to terrorism’ was sufficient enough to entail that they had no right to any justice at all.
The ‘normal’ need for discrimination will then continue no matter how many Fair Employment reports are issued, as it is the state that must be maintained not principles such as Equality or Human Rights. With the political demise of the Good Friday Agreement the Unionist parties will intensify their campaign against the Institutions.
We have seen and will see more sectarian, racist and homophobic attacks. In any ‘new’ arrangements that the DUP manage to extract from the London and Dublin governments, human rights will become to mean ‘restoring the balance’ by removing any ‘concessions’ to republicanism. Not only Catholics and nationalists must be vigilant, but all other minority groups and especially those who may have any illusions that the North of Ireland, post the new DUP dispensation, will be a place where their rights will be maintained or protected.