Wednesday, 9 September 2015
The Labour Party has unveiled plans to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage over the head of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which voted against its introduction in April.
The party has also confirmed that if direct rule has to return in the event of current talks failing, that too would provide an opportunity for change. Northern Ireland is now the only polity in the UK, the British Isles or the western European seaboard not to have instituted gay marriage.
While such unions offer few if any legal advantages over civil partnerships, the fact that they are now available so widely in Europe and the United States means that Northern Ireland can hardly continue as the odd one out for ever. As such, the Labour plan is a fudge. Granted, including a referendum muddies the waters with regard to the act of overruling the Assembly, which of course looks better politically. It also neatly gets around daft rules on cross-community voting, which have no logical application to the question in hand. However, it also makes a human-rights issue subject to a popular test. If all such issues were dealt with in that way, it would clearly be the end of universal human rights.
Language campaigners will watch with interest what happens with the Labour plan (presumably nothing, given the state of the party). If Labour is so keen to rewrite the rules to bring Northern Ireland into line with the modern world on gay marriage, what about other human-rights issues, some of them connected with language? In Scotland, for example, it is a statutory requirement that a member of the Land Court be a Gaelic-speaker in order to facilitate crofters. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 forbids the use of any language other than English before courts of law. Northern Ireland also commonly requires weighted super-majorities among residents before bilingual street signs can be legally erected. Meanwhile in Scotland, signage at train stations and on trunk roads is bilingual.
One could go on.
Many readers will already have heard the alarming news that the University of Ulster is to end the teaching of modern languages, including Irish — as well as, perhaps even more bizarrely, doing away with single-honours maths.
Some may take the view that if a "university" decides to scratch such courses and continues to think itself worthy of the name, that's its affair. However, UU was always a university, not an upgraded polytechnic, and Irish is not like other languages. For a start, it isn't foreign, and the course is of great importance to the successful implementation of public policy on linguistic diversity, cross-community relations and perhaps peace itself.
Damningly, the proposed cuts come at a time when the university is planning to spend hundreds of millions on a new Belfast campus only a few miles away from its current one at Jordanstown, and when its vice-chancellor is trousering £250,000 a year.
A petition at change.org has already attracted hundreds of signatures.