Belfast Telegraph

How devolution has dragged us all back to the Dark Ages

Fionola Meredith

Perverse. Outrageous. Shameful. Embarrassing. These are just some of the words used by free speech campaigners to describe Stormont's so-far unexplained decision to opt out of the new Defamation Bill, which passed into UK law last month.

The much-needed Bill is designed to prevent libel bullying of scientists and human rights groups and to put an end to the culture of 'libel tourism', where wealthy foreign litigants gravitate to the UK to take advantage of its stricter libel laws.

Now the rich bullies have a cosy little corner of the country, where they can still throw their weight around, crushing legitimate dissent and opposition.

What's more, as the respected Northern Irish historian Paul Bew recently pointed out in the House of Lords, the Bill is not just concerned with Press freedom, but with the enhancement of wider public debate, including academic freedom. He described the Stormont opt-out as "almost a self-mutilating act".

Yes, we're good at those here. Our leaders are also pretty adept at acts of autocratic arrogance, blinkered stupidity, heedless pettiness and breathtaking, sub-Stalinist entitlement.

The philistines are in charge and we pay the price for it every day. And the sweetest irony – as pointed out in the new issue of Private Eye, the fearlessly satirical organ which we'll probably not even be allowed to read here in Northern Ireland for much longer, in case it gets us riz – is that Assembly members themselves are free to run off at the mouth as much as they like, since they appear to be indemnified against libel costs by the taxpayer.

Whatever you say, say nothing, has just been turned on its head – if you're lucky enough to be an MLA.

And the tally of iniquities keeps on mounting. An agreed policy on abortion, which allows women to take control of their own reproductive destinies and is simple, dignified and humane? Forget about it.

This is the place where Protestant and Catholic political and religious leaders find unity in their rabid opposition to the mildest kind of abortion rights and then have the audacity to describe this heartless collision of prejudices as evidence of a shared future in action.

Gay marriage? No chance. What's the point in them getting hitched, since they're going to burn in hell for their abominations, anyway? (And any public-spirited gay men, who might be considering offering a blood donation, can think again. It would probably be sent back to them by return, stamped with the word 'unclean'.) Creationists, on the other hand, are flourishing in the new fundamentalist-friendly Northern Ireland. Don't imagine that their foothold in the Giants Causeway centre – where they were permitted to advance their baseless and bizarre claims that the Earth is merely a few thousand years old – will be the last we hear of them.

Like Aslan, they are on the move. But they're a lot less cuddly and reasonable than CS Lewis's big, holy lion. If they get their way, they'll be standing up in science classrooms, telling our kids that Adam saddled up dinosaurs and rode them round the Garden of Eden. Fact.

This is more than a reputational issue for Northern Ireland. It's a matter of the moral, social and intellectual values by which we choose to live our lives.

It's a matter of whether we want to live in the 21st century, or in a punitive and repressive medieval timewarp.

The sad fact is that we are governed, largely, by over-promoted town councillors, with defiantly archaic attitudes on everything from free speech to reproductive rights.

Perhaps the time has come to admit the inadmissible and acknowledge that we would be healthier and more enlightened as a society if we were governed under direct rule.

At what point do we finally concede that the Brits could do it better? Look, I don't want the suspiciously smooth-faced former PR man "Call me Dave" Cameron in full charge here any more than I suspect you do.

I shrink from the thought of Theresa Villiers, formidable in her spiky heels, drumming us all into shape. But at least we would be protected from the wilder, thornier excesses of our local overlords, shielded from their weird and furtive obsessions. The German writer Goethe once remarked that "the Philistine not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own, but also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own." That's who we have in charge here. The Stormont Philistines. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph