Socio-economic rights and the Challenge of Austerity to Equality

Civil and political rights dominate the anti-discrimination debate. Focus is placed on obstacles toward the equal participation of people in social institutions such as the workplace, schools, or public life. Less popular are economic rights and the obstacles poverty poses to the enjoyment of equality. Yet the links between economic capacity and political participation are plain and obvious. In the following clip, I examine the debate through the lens of the European Union with emphasis on the Hartz decision (Germany) and the notion of a subsistence minimum. I also consider the impact of austerity measures on living a life with dignity.

Understanding Multiculturalism: An Irish Story

Multiculturalism is both political concept and buzzword. As political concept, it is used to describe a culturally diverse society or a policy to encourage the development of a culturally diverse society. As public policy, it remakes the dominant conception of citizenship to facilitate the full incorporation of newcomers without the loss of cultural identity. In the following clip, I consider the strengths and shortcomings to the Irish (including Northern Irish) approach toward multiculturalism.

Affirmative Action ‘In Action’: The Case of Northern Ireland

Affirmative action is a legislative strategy intended to achieve two objectives: to positively alter the composition of workforces to raise the representation of disadvantaged groups and to reduce instances of bias toward these groups while promoting greater social cohesion. In this clip, I explore this strategy and its application to Northern Ireland.

Equality in Conflicted or Post-Conflict Societies

The pursuit of equality is tricky at the best of times; when in a conflicted or post-conflict society, it becomes near impossible. Some have argued that a ‘separate but equal’ doctrine is the best approach, as integration is too difficult between rivalrous ethnic groups. Others, however, argue that this approach will ensure continued tension. Both positions are explored in this clip.

Hate Speech in Northern Ireland

Rarely do I bother with the ramblings of pastors, clerics or other members of religious orders. This is a long-standing personal choice as I’ve always felt there’s a type of hubris inherent to interpreting the supposed word of God. If I’m inclined to live my life by the teachings of a holy text, I should be literate enough to read the book and act accordingly (it is hardly a coincidence that the first word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel was read).

And so, just as I had no time for the blathering of Abu Qatada on Christians and Jews – who the Qur’an refers to as People of the Book (all three religions descend from Abraham) – I dismissed Pastor James McConnell’s prattle on Muslims without a second thought.

That was until Northern Ireland’s First Minister spoke on the matter. Peter Robinson seemed eager to add fuel to the fire, offering a curious and slapdash defence to the pastor’s assault. Apparently demonising a billion and a half people or labelling their faith “Satanic” and “evil” is not indicative of any hatred on the part of the speaker. In fact, according to Robinson, McConnell was the Good Samaritan denouncing “false prophesy.” Hubris is not solely the purview of religious leaders.

Outside the comment section of newspapers, the backlash has been swift: officials from across the UK have denounced Robinson’s remarks as “irresponsible” and “disappointing”. Many have also rushed to defend Muslims and Islam in general, pointing to the millions of “law-abiding” Muslims living in Europe and describing Islam as “a religion of peace”.

Some more combative commentators have even highlighted the double standards endemic to the “Islam is evil” faction. They ask how many Muslims have been killed by the myriad of bombing campaigns unleashed by the self-professed Christians running the UK and the US. They enquire whether Catholicism might also qualify as an evil religion, sexual barbarism among the priesthood seeming to know neither limit nor remorse. These are all fair points and while I am sympathetic to the aims of their proponents, as a law lecturer, I find most of these responses misguided.

Putting aside the (valid) moral critique, I note that expressions of hatred are prohibited by the Public Order Act 1986. This includes threatening, abusive and insulting words that the speaker uses to stir up racial hatred or for which there is a probability that racial hatred will ensue. The purpose of the provision is self-evident: to protect people from the violence occasioned by the hatred of others toward their personal attributes.

Notice that the provision focuses exclusively on the perpetrator: words that the speaker uses. This is typical to criminal law. A state is concerned with the actions of the offender rather than the character of the victim. Just as a woman’s sexual history is irrelevant in a rape trial so too are aspects of Islam (real or imagined) immaterial to a charge of stirring up racial hatred: what matters is what McConnell said and not who he said it about.

The appropriate response to McConnell then is an investigation into whether his words warrant prosecution under the Public Order Act, an investigation the PSNI is presently conducting. For Robinson, however, the matter is rather different.

The First Minister enjoys a fair bit of governmental power. To carry out his duties competently, there is an expectation that he would familiarise himself with statutes relevant to his mandate. Included in his responsibilities are equality and human rights across Northern Ireland, both of which are intimately connected to hate speech.

When Robinson claims that not trusting a section of society is not a hate crime, he is being misleading in his intepretation of the law. It is true that neither McConnell nor Robinson can (nor should) be prosecuted for not trusting Muslims … or Jews, or Catholics, or Protestants, or Blacks, or women, or Roma or whomever else they choose to discriminate against. Freedom, also guaranteed by law, allows us to decide who we trust and who we do not, who we consort with and who we steer clear of.

Using a pulpit to warn others about the supposed wickedness of neighbours solely because of the faith they practice, however, is a different act altogether (and hardly parallel to “not trusting politicians” as Robinson has alleged). If the First Minister is unaware of the law’s purpose or its applicability, there are more pressing concerns than his views about Muslims.

With this in mind, I extend an invitation to the First Minister. Many Northern Irish Muslims have offered to meet with McConnell to help “educate him about Islam”. This is their prerogative and, admittedly, outside my domain of expertise or interest.

My offer is to the First Minister. One of the modules I teach at Queen’s University is Discrimination & the Law where we consider the law’s relationship to equality and the obligations it imposes on government officials. Should he be so inclined, I would be happy to have a conversation with him about hate speech – consider this a form of legal guidance – and we can leave trips to the shops to his children.

[A redacted version of this piece was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 30 May 2014. The edits were decided by the editors.]