Republicans and nationalists seem to have very thin skins. This readiness to take offence is almost impossible to address, least of all politically, in a civil society. In Northern Ireland, Republicans have been adept at turning an emotional response to something misunderstood (deliberately or by default) into a political cause. ‘Resident’ groups have regularly claimed the great offence taken at Loyal Order Parades, without any great examination or challenge as to the nature and cause of that offence. There has followed the “right not to be offended”, again almost taken as read.
The summer interview with Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty by the Economist (below) will not have been welcome in Republican Nationalist circles.
Around 12 minutes in, Ms Chakrabarti says: “I would say to people of faith, and to people who are not of faith, that the one right that none of us should ever have is the right not to be offended”.
The debate on a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights is in a trough. Unsurprisingly. Listening to many supporters of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights brings back memories of the old Eastern Bloc Communists listing rights at conferences to show superiority over western capitalist systems. Of course it was a fantasy that the written and legal rights of the Soviet bloc could ever create wealth or well being. The hell was where such ‘rights’ could also be used to enforce exclusion and a narrow sectarian view of the world where those who questioned such rights were marginalised, at worst to the gulag.
Rights proffered by Republicans and Nationalists (and assorted leftists) are not for the benefit of the people, but as a route to power over others. Thus in the recent Sinn Fein publication on a Shared Future there is apparently objective consideration of rights and responsibilities, eg. “the right to live free from sectarian, racist or any other forms of harassment”, and “Peaceful, inclusive and unthreatening expression of culture and cultures.” At the same time there can be no doubt about the subjective interpretation (which we have heard all too often from Republicans and Nationalists) that systematically demonises Loyal Order processions as triumphal and sectarian, and has a clear outcome of the ability (or right) to exclude or dictate to the Orders on their processional routes.
The Sinn Fein document is considerably shorter than the OFMDFM working draft (you may need to save the pdf as the link from the DUP page is temperamental). But then Sinn Fein’s agenda is considerably narrower. Perhaps presuming that the route to adoption of its ‘rights’ agenda is unlikely to be through a Northern Irelands Bill of Rights, Sinn Fein has hit on the idea of creating a process whereby there is official sanction of its narrow sectarian parades agenda: creating areas where Sinn Fein is in a place where it is able to decide whether or not a Loyal Order Parade can walk. A document on a Shared Future seems an inappropriate place to impose the policy for that process.
It is interesting that dialogue on the accommodation of Parades, first around the Ormeau Road, and more recently around Ardoyne, has never succeeded in identifying the cause or nature of the offence taken by Republicans or Nationalists. Those across the table from the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the North & West Belfast Parades Forum have never isolated the specifics of how a five minute walk by some shops can be of such offence that people feel the urge to violently react; hurling missiles at the participants and police.
Republicans have desperately locked themselves into an parades agenda that first demonised, and then demonised some more, and continues to demonise members of another community that, however different and British, express their culture peaceably and in good order. It would be encouraging to think that Republicans and Nationalists might seek a way out of the parades issue that was a win:win for all. Such opportunities in the past, on Ormeau and in North Belfast, have been passed by. A win is sought at any cost, regardless of the wider consequences for society.
Instead of taking offence, or sensing grievance, Republicans and Nationalists need to work towards building a shared future. That task, for the foreseeable future, is one that means working for all the people of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom as agreed within the Good Friday Agreement. Republicans and Nationalists can talk to themselves as long as they like about a United Ireland, but unless they can share a street every now and then there will be little respect for their larger ambitions from within the broad unionist community. Republicans cannot complain of lack of respect in Government when they show such disrespect to the ordinary Protestant on the street. Alternatively, meaningful engagement and commitment to working for a shared future will benefit everyone and earn Republicans the respect they crave.
Jonathan Sacks, as Chief Rabbi, summed up the prize for a society that lives with its differences, which has echoes of Shami’s words: “In a plural society – all the more in a plural world – each of us has to settle for less than we do when we associate with fellow believers…. Yet what we lose is more than compensated for by the fact that together we are co-architects of a society larger than we can construct on our own, one in which our voice is heard and attended to even if it does not carry the day. Just as community is built on the willingness to let the ‘I’ be shaped by the ‘We’, so society is made by the readiness to let the ‘We’ of our community be constrained by the need to make space for the other communities and their deeply held beliefs.” from The Dignity of Difference, a plea by Jonathan Sacks for tolerance in the age of extremism.