Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: No matter how Belfast Books tries to slice it, discrimination against people, whatever their viewpoint, is always wrong, always illegal, always a political and moral outrage

Plan to ban DUP elected representatives is all the more depressing because it's a bookshop ... they're places for open, curious minds, not for closed ones, writes Fionola Meredith

Belfast Books boasts of its contributions to a disadvantaged part of Belfast — but its work is undermined by a narrow-minded stance against DUP politicians
Belfast Books boasts of its contributions to a disadvantaged part of Belfast — but its work is undermined by a narrow-minded stance against DUP politicians

Now, let me see if I have this right. A small, cash-strapped bookshop in north Belfast, which most people have never heard of, has announced - to great fanfare and controversy - that it has decided to ban DUP elected representatives.

Please note, the Duppers are not to be banned from the bookshop itself, but from a cafe that the owners propose to build on the premises - if they can raise enough money. Why the selective censorship? Well, it's all because of the party's opposition to same-sex marriage.

So, Belfast Books is fine with Nigel Dodds coming in to have a browse among the Marx and Engels volumes, or to search out a bargain-basement Katie Price book, but he is not, absolutely not, permitted to have a non-existent chai latte in a non-existent coffee shop, by diktat of the management.

Got that? You with me so far?

Cynics among you may, quite reasonably, wonder if this is a crude, shamelessly virtue-signalling publicity stunt to drum up cash.

No, no, no, says John Junk, aka the self-styled Mr Books, who is the proud shop owner. Absolutely not.

It's true that Belfast Books has past form in courting publicity - sorry, I mean in "taking principled stances", as they prefer to describe it. They got a fair bit of attention when they refused to accept Bank of England notes, because they objected to retailers in England refusing Northern Ireland bank notes.

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There's a huge difference, of course, between banning bank notes and banning people, even when the cafe you are planning to ban them from is just a lovely dream in your head.

But let's play nice and take their word for it. Let's accept that it must be a pure coincidence that Mr Junk has decided to junk the DUP at the very moment that his bookshop has, by his own admission, "pretty much ran out of money".

At the time of writing, the crowdfunding page to support the shop is standing at £840, with a target of £15,000.

That's a long way to go.

Look, for all I know, this little bookshop on York Road may do great work. They are certainly keen enough to tell you about it.

They point out that they're a volunteer-run store, situated in a disadvantaged part of Belfast. "Some days in the winter months we don't have a single paying customer at the shop," writes Mr Junk in his crowdfunding appeal, "but we're still there, helping the community with housing issues, writing letters to government bodies for people with learning difficulties, supporting people with mental health difficulties, alcoholism and drug addiction. We're much more than a bookshop."

He says that they have gone "right into the dark heart of illiteracy", bringing "Rowling, Steinbeck, Orwell, Pratchett and Wilde at cheaper than Amazon Marketplace prices to a working-class area".

Hmm. I wonder what Orwell, who warned against closed minds and "groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook", would have made of this particular stunt. Would he be on the side of Junk, or the side of political freedom?

Some of the shop's customers, perhaps thinking the same thing, took to Twitter to express their revulsion. One showed a picture of a teetering pile of books, which she or he had previously purchased, and wrote: "@BelfastBooks Here's a small selection of what I've bought from your shop this year and it'll be the last. I'm no fan of the DUP but the decision not to sell to people you disagree with politically is disgusting, shame on you."

I could have written those very words myself. I have long been a critic of the DUP and its policy on same-sex marriage, as well as the repressive tactics, such as the petition of concern, that they have used in the past to force through their intolerant agenda.

But this is intolerance writ large. Seeking to exclude people purely on the basis of their political convictions has more than a hint of the totalitarian mind about it.

Responding to some of the criticism and defending the move, Belfast Books tweeted: "It got the message across that you don't have the right to be offended if someone unilaterally bans you on principle after you yourself have relied on 'principle' to justify discriminating against the LGBT community."

And with that piece of preening illogicality, we are back on Ashers territory and the seemingly endless saga of the gay cake.

You'll recall that it finally did end, in October, when the five judges on the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the refusal to make a cake with the slogan 'Support gay marriage' did not discriminate against Gareth Lee, the LGBT activist who ordered it.

As a few of us lonely, old-fashioned liberals said right from the start, it was always about the cake, never the customer. The veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell put it perfectly when he said: "Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas and opinions."

Now, if Mr Lee had, indeed, been discriminated against - which, let's remember, he wasn't, whatever social justice warriors on Twitter may say, with their expert legal opinions - would it be right to ban DUP politicians, or conservative Christians, or indeed anyone at all, from left-leaning bookshops?

Of course not. Discrimination against people, whatever their viewpoint, is always wrong, always illegal, always a political and moral outrage.

Even the Equality Commission, which dragged us into the divisive, expensive Ashers mess, is clear on this one. It issued a statement in response to the Belfast Books controversy. "There is no cafe service in existence at the moment, so no discrimination is actually occurring, nor can it occur until such time as the cafe opens," it stated. "If the cafe were open and someone was refused service because of his/her political beliefs, then a case of unlawful political discrimination could be taken."

To me, there's something particularly depressing about this case, because it involves a bookshop. Bookshops are some of my favourite places in the world. They are places for open, curious minds - not closed ones.

So, I'll not be dropping by for a fictional cappuccino in Mr Junk's fictional cafe, should it ever open. I prefer my bookshops ideology-free.

Belfast Telegraph


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