Editor's Viewpoint: Identities of all in Northern Ireland must be respected
It was always recognised that Northern Ireland needed fair employment legislation to prevent minorities in any workplace feeling uncomfortable or harassed and to give them redress if a line was crossed.
The laws proved very successful, even if there was some resistance to their introduction in the first instance and while it has proved impossible to totally eradicate all instances of sectarianism from any quarter, importantly those on the receiving end of such behaviour have legal recourse.
However, the public reaction to the statement, under parliamentary privilege, by Lord Maginnis that a civil servant was awarded £10,000 after being offended by constant exposure to a portrait of the Queen in the Northern Ireland Office shows that many people wonder where the legislation could lead.
Of course, we have no details of the civil servant's claim other than given by Mr Maginnis and there is an assumption that other issues may have been involved. Therefore it is not possible to comment on the case itself, but rather its aftermath. In addition, it was reported that all portraits of the Queen were removed from the NIO, although the new Secretary of State, Julian Smith, says there was one in his office when he arrived. There is a general consensus that it is not unreasonable to expect the NIO, which is a department of government and office of the Secretary of State when in Northern Ireland, to have pictures of the Queen hanging on the walls. She is the head of state under whom the government operates.
Surely context must play an important part when deciding if a particular photograph, portrait or emblem is offensive or an expected adornment.
The legislation makes employers aware of the sensitivities in the workplace in a place like Northern Ireland, where conflicting identities are at the crux of the very existence of the province.
Should employers or charities which have been visited by members of the Royal Family be forbidden to display a photograph of the occasion? Similarly, if premises were visited by dignitaries from the Republic, can that visit not be publicly commemorated?
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There is a feeling that we are witnessing a low-level cultural war. Many people, particularly in the majority community, believe that their Britishness is being eroded and that Northern Ireland is becoming an intolerable and intolerant place in which to live. If this is to be a shared space then respective identities must be respected.