Unionism and the law

The action of removing a wheel clamp on his car last Friday in Belfast by Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA and the party’s justice spokesperson, has thrown up some intriguing issues that go well beyond the superficial issue of an elected representative breaking the law.

Gerry Kelly – removes a clamp that is illegal in the rest of the UK

Wheel clamping on private property was banned in England and Wales in 2012 and in Scotland as long ago as the early 1990s.

Since the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 Ulster unionists have demanded ‘our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom’. They have always  claimed that they wanted to be ruled like any other part of the United Kingdom and not by some other body, such as an Irish or European government. This principle was reinforced only last December when the DUP threatened to withdraw its support from the British Conservative Government because it feared Northern Ireland would be regulated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom and left inside the EU;

‘We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom,’ said Arlene Foster.

Yet the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party before them have allowed many different forms of legislation to prevail in Northern Ireland  since partition: in fact in many cases unionists have actively sought and promoted differences.

Differences such as:

  • Electoral law
  • Party politics
  • Housing law
  • Age Discrimination
  • Abortion
  • Marriage
  • Defamation
  • Energy regulation
  • Employment law

The list of legislative divergences is endless.

Bizarrely it was Irish nationalists who first campaigned for laws to be brought into harmony with the UK, not unionists, when they campaigned for civil rights in the late 1960’s and demanded ‘one man one vote’.

Prior to 1969 voting eligibility for local government elections in Northern Ireland – where only ratepayers could vote – still existed and directors of businesses held two votes. This was different to the rest of the UK where this qualification to vote had been removed in 1946, finally ushering in universal suffrage. But, as is so often the case, Northern Ireland remained different. It took a campaign of civil unrest to force Ulster unionism into line with the rest of the UK as far as electoral law was concerned.

Similarly with abortion and marriage  law. The division is broadly along party political lines with unionists opposing the introduction of UK law to Northern Ireland and nationalists advocating for UK law to be applied.

In party politics unionists have been content to develop local political parties unique to Northern Ireland, based on a sectarian membership, without any representation from the major British political parties that form the government of the UK – unlike in Scotland and Wales.

Even on more narrow issues, such as energy regulation, the DUP introduced a very different ‘Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI)’ scheme to Northern Ireland in 2012 from a tried and tested UK system. This divergence cost the UK tax payer dearly resulting in a major scandal and the collapse and probable end of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

So it is not surprising that yet again a nationalist – Gerry Kelly – highlighted (inadvertently perhaps) a difference in law between the UK and Northern Ireland and not surprisingly unionists did not thank him for it. Instead they lambasted him for breaking the law – a law that doesn’t exist in the rest of the UK – and demanded his resignation.

I can find no unionist who expressed concern at yet another example where Northern Ireland residents are treated differently from other UK citizens.

Many unionists are obsessed with ‘the law’. They never challenge ‘the law’ – even when the law is unfair, unjust and against their own interests because it’s the Queen’s law and, through her, God’s law. They have been molded this way for generations, so that this corner of the empire can be easily administered. The radicalism that once was their proud boast in the eighteenth century has long since been subdued and removed to be replaced with blind obedience to a remote, uncaring and unaccountable authority.

Tell unionists that the law can be wrong, that slavery was once legal, as was child labour and wife beating, that bad laws need opposed and their eyes glaze over. You are denounced as some kind of ‘socialist’ or worse, a ‘republican’, a ‘turncoat’.

Many unionists don’t understand civil rights or even democracy. When I was at school in the 60s such principles were not taught to young Protestants. So when talk of civil rights emerged in 1968 it wasn’t understood – it did not compute. Our rights were guaranteed by the monarch and the flag. That’s what we understood.

If unionists understood these concepts they would know that the foundation of their own British law – Magna Carta – established the right to challenge bad laws by protest and even outright rebellion.

But again that was never taught.

Obviously Irish Catholics have a different understanding of rights drawn from their more recent history.

It’s a clash of cultures that by Gerry Kelly’s actions we see hasn’t changed in 50 years.