The handshake, sectarianism and tolerance of dissent

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Daniel Holder.

The handshake, sectarianism and tolerance of dissent

It might seem an unusual topic for a human rights blog but the well publicised McGuinness-Queen handshake last week did provide a barometer to measure the differing media coverage of more downplayed phenomena, not least sectarianism and the treatment of dissent.

In the late 1960s, civil rights marchers, for doing something they were entitled to do, were frequently denounced as “provocative”. What could follow were violent attacks by the state and its supporters. To gain acceptance of such an abuse of the rights of any group of people, there must be some sort of label attached to a group to indicate it is less worthy of the rights granted to others. In bygone days, it was often the ‘red menace,’ in more recent times migrant and Muslim communities have been among those demonised.  In 2008 Evo Morales, the progressive President of Bolivia, when the UK was attempting to legislate for 42 day pre-charge detention aimed at one suspect community, wrote to European newspapers contrasting the relative opposition to 42-day detention to the lack of general outcry about the EU Returns Directive which provided for 18 month detention without charge for irregular migrants.[1]

Back to our local situation – whilst bunting, union and jubilee flags were aplenty in many parts of town, there were some dissenting voices last week. In a letter to the Belfast Newsletter, Dr Clifford of the Norwich Reformed Church, expressed his dismay both at Ian Paisley’s attendance at the ecumenical diamond jubilee service and at the Queen’s ‘unfaithfulness’ to her coronation oath to “maintain the Protestant Reformed religion established by law”, developments which led him to “prey more earnestly for the faithful and loyal people of Northern Ireland.”  From the ‘other’ community the most visible dissent came in the form of a 120-foot wide Irish tricolour crafted and placed on the slopes of Black Mountain which overlooks the city of Belfast. It was accompanied in 30 foot high letters with the slogan “Ériu is my Queen”, referring to the folklore goddess of Ireland from which the name Éire derives.

This display was denounced by DUP MP for North Belfast, Nigel Dodds, and the TUV’s Jim Allister, both of whom called the PSNI to demand the removal of the sign. The former argued the aim of the flag was to ‘provoke’, that it disrespected the views “of the vast majority of people”, and calling for a criminal investigation. The latter stated the sign was “clearly conduct liable to cause a breach of the peace” and looked forward to “swift action” from the police.

The PSNI responded by indicating that no crime had been committed. There are limits to freedom of expression. Expression advocating violence, racist and sectarian expression or slanderous remarks can all be legitimately limited. It is the case that in some states the ‘dear leader’ is revered and untouchable from criticism. In a democratic society, however, freedom of expression is supposed to allow legitimate criticism, including of heads of state, regardless of whether their supporters regard it as disrespectful or offensive. In fact it is usually this type of expression that is most in need of protection.  This helps explain why the PSNI had indicated no crime had been committed. It is less clear why the police reportedly subsequently deployed a helicopter “to try to use down draft to blow away the giant flag and the slogan.”[2]

The police were not the first ones to try to remove the flag.  On the Tuesday (26 June), a group of people attacked the five protestors who were with the flag with hatchets, hammers and bars, leaving at least one man hospitalised. The reporting in Wednesday’s papers was contrasting. The Irish News headline was “100-strong Loyalist mob try to destroy 120ft-wide tricolour.” The near full page article (albeit on page 7) quoted a local Sinn Féin councillor and a witness who stated a man sleeping in a tent by the flag had been beaten with hatchets, hammers and baseball bats and was left “drenched in blood. It was just a frenzied attack.” Nigel Dodds MP’s comments are left to the very end of the article. By contrast, the Newsletter headlines not with the attack but, in a small article tucked at the bottom of a page on the visit, that there was “Anger at anti-monarchy message on mountain.” The brief piece almost notes in passing there had been ‘tension’ leading to violence and one person being injured and focuses on complaints and opposition to the flag. Reporting in the Daily Mail moved further away from the conceptualisation that there had been a sectarian attack on a protest towards the more familiar explanations of mutual and reciprocal antagonism leading to ‘clashes’ between the two tribes. The article also appears to hold the protesters ultimately responsible:

“There were also skirmishes between Protestant and Roman Catholic groups after republicans put an Irish flag and a sign which said ‘Eriu is our Queen’ on Black Mountain overlooking the city.”[3]

The Guardian online reported subsequent events stating that the “The Loyalist attack” had led to “hundreds of republicans” to take to the hills where the flag was situated as well referencing a ‘riot’ in the St James/Broadway area (in which it was subsequently reported nine PSNI officers were injured). This article notably used the concept of ‘dissident Republicans’ to describe the protestors. [4] This is exactly the type of label (partly through conflating creative lawful protest with unlawful paramilitary activity) that can be deployed to soften up public opinion that certain ‘suspect’ groups are less worth of basic rights than others.

Last week the ‘good news’ stories filled many column issues.  It seems also abundant is intolerance of dissent and the downplaying of sectarianism, something that should worry us all, regardless of which message we may, or may not, support.

[1] ‘42 days? Try 18 Months: This European targeting of illegal immigrants is hypocritical, draconian and undiplomatic’ Evo Morales, The Guardian, 16 June 2008.

[2] “Republicans refuse to end Belfast mountain protest against Queen’s visit”  Guardian Online, 26 June 2012

[3] “With a handshake, the Queen forgives: She greets Martin McGuinness – the man who headed terror army that murdered her beloved cousin – and even manages a smile”, Mail Online 27 June 2012

[4] Republicans refuse to end Belfast mountain protest against Queen’s visit, Henry McDonald, the Guardian online, 26 June 2012.