Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Human Rights or Conflict Management?

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against Belfast City Council's decision not to allow the erection of bilingual street signs despite an absolute majority of residents supporting the move.

This is disappointing for several reasons. First, it maintains a superfluous democratic test in something that is obviously a human-rights issue. Secondly, even when it does so, it is basically undemocratic. As the Belfast Telegraph put it:
"It is understood that out of 92 eligible residents 52 [57% of residents, or 98% of respondents] confirmed they wanted Irish signs, with only one opposed.
However, the remaining 39 did not respond to the survey."
The requirement for a weighted majority or minimum turnout, while having some currency when applied to the internal (constitutional) workings of organisations, is a rare bird indeed when it comes to elections. The only other instance that the Blether Region can recall was the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution, which is now widely regarded as having thereby been rigged. Odd that such rules seem to be applied only against Nationalists. If they were instituted in England, one wonders how many elections for mayors or crime commissioners would be regarded as valid — or, for that matter, local councils.

The bizarre gerrymandering of requiring a weighted majority sneaks through because of the wishy-washy wording of section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which requires that councils "have regard to any views on the matter expressed by the occupiers of premises in that street" — but without laying down how they should do it. As far as the Blether Region is aware, no Nationalist-majority council moves the goalposts by requiring a weighted majority or minimum turnout; by adopting a policy that two-thirds of respondents should be in favour, Belfast effectively does both. In any case, a weighted majority is clearly a measure not of demand but of antipathy. If demand were being measured, a much lower percentage would be regarded as admissible, perhaps 5% or 10%. Catering for minority languages, after all, is always about the minority.

The Blether Region hopes that Nationalist councils will now go ahead and reduce their own criteria below 50% in order to encourage the courts to make a binding determination on what is fair.

While the Unionist reaction to bilingual signage is of course predictable, the Blether Region has been taken aback by the sophistical contortions of the Alliance Party, which takes a confrontational and doctrinaire attitude to gay cakes (remember: the whole incident may have been staged) while failing the equality test abysmally with regard to Irish. On balance, the Blether Region is in favour of gay cakes too, but that support is tempered by the knowledge that an evangelical Christian baker asked to craft icing in support of gay marriage may feel that he is being asked not to tolerate something but to lend it his active support. It is clearly a borderline case. It seems that the Alliance Party is willing aggressively to promote equality issues shared with England while treating those of the Celtic fringe as a sectarian breach of the peace (and yes, believe it or not, they do actually call it "sectarian").

It is an odd sort of concern for shared space that predicates itself on the exclusion of someone's language from public life — and one obviously cooked up at some remove from the mainstream, multi-layered Britishness that its supporters apparently so admire.

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