29 June 2004

Reality against myth

For once, everybody agrees with Tony Blair. The debate over the new EU constitution will indeed be ‘reality against myth’. The trouble is that there will be absolutely no agreement on which issues belong to which description.

There will of course be a referendum. Referendums present the acceptable face of mob rule. Every London taxi-driver will become an expert. Pontius Pilate gave the people a famous choice 2000 years ago. They chose Barabbas in preference to the man from Nazareth. The implications have been enormous.

But all that has actually happened last week is that 25 countries have knocked together a fragile document about which every single participant will have some quite serious reservations with plenty of time to develop more. If enough countries say no, nothing will happen. Some might of course say ‘maybe’ or ‘yes if certain assurances are given’. That will protract the debate even further.

Poland and Spain will never be happy with the proposed system of voting. Several neutrally-minded countries will not like the mutual defence clause with its obligation to come to the military aid of other members. Most are nervous about the idea of a president. But hold on, there has always been a president, each one on duty for a mere six months. Small countries want to retain that system – they get a turn at the job (after a possible 12 year wait) and that brings a bit of glory and works well for the hotel industry.

Then there is the proposal for some sort of EU foreign minister. Actually what is proposed is to collapse two existing posts into one – the external affairs and the foreign policy directorates. Few people know why there were two in the first place.

‘Constitution’ is the difficult word. Unlike almost every other country in the world, the UK never felt the need to have one for itself. Let’s just think of it simply as a set of rules. There has been a set of rules for members right from the beginning but there were only 6 countries then. With 25, perhaps it’s a reasonable idea to give the rules a makeover.

The EU Presidential election will be some fun. My guess is they will agree on some earnest nonentity from one of the don’t-matter members – a kind of Kofi Annan from Malta or Slovenia.

Or is the smart money on Barabbas?

22 June 2004

Human rights?

Fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Shabina Begum exercised her right, along with others, to wear a form of Muslim attire agreed by her school. She then decided to wear the ankle-length jilbab gown. The school said no.

Last week the High Court upheld the school’s view.

Interesting. At all the equality training sessions I ever attended the classic example of ‘indirect discrimination’ (as it is called in the trade) concerns a shop assistant who refused to wear the company uniform skirt for similar religious reasons. She won her case.

So what is indirect discrimination? Hard-pressed Northern Ireland employers are issued with the following official definition and asked to make it known to all their employees.
Are you sitting comfortably?

Indirect Discrimination (say the guidelines) can occur when a requirement or condition, which cannot be justified on grounds other than sex, marital status, religious belief, political opinion, race, nationality or ethnic/national origin, is applied equally but has the effect in practice of disadvantaging a considerably higher proportion of persons in one or other of the above groups.

Still with me?

In order to establish a complaint of indirect discrimination, an applicant must show that a requirement or condition has been applied; that the said requirement or condition adversely impacts against the person because of his/her religious belief, political opinion, sex, marital status, race, nationality or ethnic/national origin; that he/she has suffered detriment by reason of being unable to comply with the condition or requirement.

Ready for some more?

Employers are required to set up complaints procedures but such procedures do not replace or detract from the right of the employees to pursue complaints under the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 to an industrial tribunal or, under the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976, to a Fair Employment Tribunal.

I hope that’s clear.

The legislation in Northern Ireland was designed primarily to address our own little tribal concerns and it has worked well. It has also spawned a vast number of unfair accusations. This week I talked to a very decent County Down employer who, totally unjustly, was threatened with a tribunal. Rather than run up vast legal fees he was advised to pay £1000 to his accuser to shut him up.

Nothing wrong with the legislation, but there is a whole cottage industry out there abusing it.

15 June 2004

The future is orange - and every other nice colour

There are many views on whether or not integrated schools are the best way to bring our children together. I am a strong supporter though I respect other approaches.

But we must all agree that, whatever the means, promoting understanding between our two communities from the earliest age is the only way forward. Over 95% of the people of Northern Ireland live in ‘single community’ areas in a voluntary ­– and often sadly necessary ­– apartheid. Research has demonstrated that in such areas many children, by the age of 4, have already developed sectarian attitudes strong enough to last the rest of their lives.

Integrated education has not, and must not, be imposed by any general policy or authority but when groups of parents get together, and work hard together, to establish integrated education for their own children, that can only be a good thing.

By any measurement, integrated education has been a huge success, limited only by the small but growing percentage of new schools across the Province. Every single one of them has been something of a triumph and perhaps the obvious reason for that outcome has been the unique cooperation between teachers and parents. My nearest integrated school is in Crossgar – vibrant, enthusiastic, child-centred and going from strength to strength.

The latest project is in Ballynahinch. The bigots have swung into action in a bid to destroy it but they are careful to conceal their deep-seated abhorrence of children of different denominations sharing a common educational experience.

So they hurl every other brickbat they can find.

Integrated education, they say, is a middle-class hobby ­ – an obvious untruth. The parents’ committee has not followed proper procedures – sheer invention. The site is on a historically important field, the heroic dead are being dishonoured ­– nothing like throwing in a piece of phoney history. The entrance is within a housing estate, extra traffic will create havoc – the entrance is not within an estate. Only 12 children are enrolled – true, but many first class schools have started that way.

The strategy is clearly to generate a bit of fear, threaten individuals, cajole the meek into signing petitions and pray, yes pray hard brothers and sisters, that inter-community cooperation and harmony will be scuppered.

But we’ve seen these antics before. They will again fail and I’m pretty certain these 12 little Ballynahinch apostles are going to enjoy life together.

01 June 2004

Chamber of horrors

When the pictures of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners first emerged, Donald Rumsfeld’s instinctive reaction was to cling to the moral high ground. Words of contrition were forced upon him later but his initial response was to describe the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison as ‘un-American’. That defence seems to suggest that, while other nations might transgress, it’s not the American way.

Thus the integrity of the vast majority of the military is preserved – and by implication the rightness of the invasion itself ­– and the blame can be laid on an exceptionally few individuals acting on their own.

Two thousand photographs later – plus some horrifying videos – and with the expectation of many more, the Rumsfeld defence seems to fall apart.

A report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, passed to the US authorities last February, said that the ill-treatment of Iraqi inmates went beyond exceptional cases – it was a practice widely tolerated. Yet when the first pictures later appeared in the media, top brass affected total surprise.

The rot started post 9/11 and in Afghanistan when the White House conveniently invented a new class of prisoner, neither a prisoner-of-war entitled to rights under the Geneva Convention, nor an accused entitled to a fair trial.

The political fall-out from Abu Ghraib will be incalculable, and I don’t just mean the domestic shenanigans in the run-up to the Presidential election. American values – Western values – have been irrevocably damaged.

There’s an added irony. Received opinion in the West is that Muslim women get an unfair deal and that Western-style equality is a basic human right. Few may quarrel with that point, but when the Muslim world sees evidence of ‘liberated’ Western females sexually abusing males, ultra conservatism within the Muslim world can only be strengthened.

More horrors. There is footage of a screaming prisoner being mauled by a dog, and of a prisoner with a broken ankle being zapped with a stun gun as he is dragged across the floor.

But that was 1996 in Brazoria County Detention Centre in Houston Texas. One of the prisoner’s lawyers explained to the Houston Chronicle; ‘the jury was not as responsive to the videotape as you would have thought . . . Everybody was of the opinion that is what prisoners should get.’

Civilised people, of whatever creed or culture, do not share that opinion.