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All Our Yesterday's All Our Tomorrows

Reflections on Ireland After the Ashers decision and the equal marriage referendum vote by Gerry Fitzpatrick

27 May 2015

A few people had gathered on the pavement to wait. These few swelled to a small but significant crowd after neighbors learned that the boys' had arrived back home. Several young well dressed men got of vehicles, smiled and waved at the crowd. Soon after a cup of tea in doors they were called out into the street again. Cans were passed around and after the many calls of “well done!!” and “good on you!!” the gathering then held a victory march.

What they were celebrating was being let away – not only with a brutal murder – but with a series of attacks they had carefully planned, “We were all part of the team to get rid of queers in Fairview Park” as one of them had explained. The judge had disregarded this and the other evidence of planned entrapment. He issued two suspended sentences to two and let three others walk free – hence the neighborhood celebrations. That 'trial' was in 1983, it was a time when as the judge put it, such actions, “could never be regarded as murder”.

Fourteen years earlier a number of student activists had lost a university's vote to hold a civil rights march from Belfast to Derry city. They then issued a wider appeal to say that they were still going to march for civil rights and others were welcome to join them. Fifty students including a group of school students set off from Belfast. At two points on their journey to Derry City they were ambushed and brutally beaten by Loyalists and special reserve police officers. That was in January 1969. It was a time when even those who considered themselves liberal or progressive blamed the marchers for causing the violence by Loyalists and police officers. That was the case even when police (this time in uniform) beat two daughters and clubbed their father to death in front of them. No charges were ever brought against any officer involved as the police force of Northern Ireland didn't wish to identify them.

The idea of Civil Rights for minorities in both instances were and still are regarded as unwarranted. Again those who see themselves as liberal and progressive regularly join with the reactionaries and say that they are against people having “special rights”. This language is used because it is a commonly held belief that there is no substantial discrimination by, or issue with, the average individual. The problem is, they say, with the various political and social groups in society who want to change what “the average individual” is, does and says. But how and why this happened is important because it is the what, how and who we are today.

The Ideas and Practice of The Enlightenment

In a time well before the French Revolution the idea that all that happened and should happen on earth was caused by God was, on the one hand renewed by Lutheranism – which directly connected the individual to God's Authority; while on the other the new belief that actual causation and production of reality can be studied independently from theological causation. Indeed the search for knowledge its expansion and production, soon became the driving force of the Enlightenment – that is knowledge (scientific, economic, social and political) - as opposed to just theology, should form the basis of civil society. For Rousseau, Kant and Locke and many others this social exchange and development of knowledge was something that must be used for the greater good and betterment of society – all things to be reconsidered in the light of Newton's universe.

It was an idea that appealed to those rulers who wished to encourage social progress but without changing society. Catherine the great, Louis XVI and Frederic the Great, all thought they were enlightened and were in favour of progress but that social and political power should remain in their hands. The question was then a real and urgent one – how were the broad mass of people to be part of this new society when they could not afford bread? Louis XVI neglected Third Estate began as a protest movement against Louis’ broken financial state then transformed by revolution into power brokers between the merchant class and the working class.

It would be the political job of this new bourgeois class to ensure that the producers were able to work and have the means to keep the state solvent.

The new revolutionary republican leadership under fire from imperial Europe raised its banner which read Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. By the time Napoleon with his Civil Code (which decriminalized homosexuality) had imposed the new social relations on the rest of Europe he found he had a lot in common with the elite which he had made war on. Then the meaning and implications of the aims of the French Republic for Europe and the world began to unfold. For Ireland it meant revolution in 1798 and the same for Haiti in 1794. In the first it was a revolution where to be a free citizen would replace an imperial authority based on one religion. In Haiti it meant the abolition of slavery and the establishment of a republic.

Colonial property relations were only fully abolished in Ireland after 1921. Both Ireland and Haiti paid compensation to those who had ruled and enslaved them. This was justice based on property relations which both states are still dominated by and suffer under.

A Social Revolution

The “Social Revolution” as last Friday’s referendum vote was described by the catholic Bishop of Dublin was one in which society had discovered, learned to live with and then finally supported and celebrated its gay and lesbian citizenry. This is the other side of the coin of bourgeois politics. For what ensured that the social revolution would happen was the centrality of economic social relations which have undermined and made fetters of previous social relations based on religion or nationalism.

When the Dublin transport authority allowed temporary development of the temple bar area the urbanity and cosmopolitanism that flourished as a consequence was a loss for them in terms of strict property development value. But it was a social change to the image and experience of Dublin that gave the city more not less revenue. The same was true for the southern states of America when racial segregation was abolished in the 1960s. Where previously white owned business did not and would not accept black custom the overall economic effect of desegregation boosted white business then business in general.

The second reason for my long preamble was that the Asher's decision must be understood in the economic plus enlightenment context. It took a long time, but finally the time did arrive when the last imperial religious outpost's public representatives did not make the basis of their legal case that they were right to refuse custom because of what the bible said. For as the case progressed the absolutism of the cause of “for reasons of religion” dramatically declined and the Ashers owners said that their “religious reasons of conscience” did not actually extend to refusing to serve the offended party.

Where once they could pretend that the person who they once give service to was like any other customer they could not pretend after he asked for something that politically identified him as a gay rights campaigner. The other consideration was that after 1998 discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and political opinion is actually illegal. Ashers as a result of their stand may have increased their custom east of the Bann among those who think it’s wrong for society to make and enforce laws based on Enlightenment principles. However, this will not offset the loss of business and boycott of the company in Scotland.

Equality / Inequality

In strongly supporting Ashers, Equality proved for the DUP to be not a “trojan horse” but their Achilles heal. For Sinn Fein Equality of the sexual orientation kind, may not have been the trojan horse to victory. It may have given them an opportunity to add some colour to their campaigns if not a few votes. The same cannot be said for their contribution to agree to ensure there will be more economic inequality for low waged and no waged. Many have said that the activism that was clearly demonstrated in the Referendum will continue and will make a political impact against the austerity drive. In order for that to be effective people must first accept that the current economic system of capital the banks and property relations will not be reformed and must be abolished. 

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