25 October 2007 Edition

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Bubble bubble - media and unionists cook up Assembly crisis

By Laura Friel

IN THE RUN-UP to Halloween, it’s been all ‘hubble, bubble, toil and trouble’ in the Stormont Assembly. The media has been predicting strife for weeks and all that crystal ball gazing seemed to be paying off. At last, the Irish News could blow the dust off the banner headline “Executive in crisis” and go to print.
“Stormont showdown,” announced a triumphant News Letter. But just what was the “crisis”? And where was the “showdown”?
Unionists have been rehearsing for a little seasonal mischief-making for weeks. The News Letter has provided the backdrop, peddling spurious horror stories of discrimination against English speakers and the “intimidating” and “disrespectful” use of Irish. Their favourite disguises were back from the dry cleaners and all that was left was to get into costume.
Unionists were “fed up with the Irish language being thrown in their face,” UUP MLA david McNarry told the News Letter.
The spectre of the Irish language might be stalking the corridors of power and frightening the children but, never fear, the DUP Minister for Culture was all super heroed up and determined to “crush” the Language Act.
The Irish language was divisive, could damage good relations, increased polarisation and entrenched antipathy and suspicions, said Edwin Poots. In such circumstances, denying Irish language rights could not possibly be construed as a blatant display of intolerance and anti-Irish racism. In the DUP’s Halloween pantomime it was almost humanitarian.
Human rights were also preoccupying Poots’s party colleague, Michelle McIlveen, or, more accurately, the Bill of Rights. Human rights, according to the DUP, are anti-unionist.
“Those of the unionist tradition have no difficulties with the issue of human rights,” the DUP MLA assured nationalists. “We need only to look at the Bill of Rights enacted in 1689 as a result of the activities of King James II,” continued McIlveen, eager to illustrate unionist contributions to the centuries-old struggle for civil and religious rights, conveniently ignoring the fact that this was swiftly followed by the Penal Laws.
Having underscored 1689 as the high water mark of unionist engagement with the issue, McIlveen went on to complain that “over the years, the human rights sector has been hijacked for political purposes by anti-unionists”. Now take a moment to consider this. For over 80 years, unionist politicians presided over a one-party, sectarian state which systematically discriminated against non-unionists in relation to the right to vote, the right to work, the right to be housed.
When a civil rights movement emerged, unionists responded with mass repression in a desperate bid to ensure their continued domination. No wonder, in the topsy-turvy world of unionism, conceding to fellow human beings rights that were once exclusive to unionists can be misconstrued as detrimental. The simple truth is that equality and human rights threaten no one. But that’s not the message the DUP wants the unionist community to hear. So bring on the ghouls and ghosts and let’s get on with the party.
Not only were the Gaelgeoiri haunting the DUP’s imagination, so were Fenians and Reds. The Bill of Rights was in danger of becoming a “left-wing wish-list” said Michelle McIlveen and “little wonder, with the panel of communists, Marxists and socialists that has been assembled”.
Worse still, some of them are known to have friends who are friends of republicans. It was pretty scary stuff. One Bill of Rights Forum member was once on the board of a West Belfast community project that was co-founded by a member of Sinn Féin! The fact that the person in question has worked in the Children’s Law Centre for years cut no ice with the DUP. Human rights are universal rights, but that’s another truth the DUP doesn’t want the unionist community to hear.
In a scene reminiscent of the time DUP leader Ian Paisley ‘outed’ Catholic families living in the Shankill to an Orange mob, McIlveen named members of the Bill of Rights Forum she claimed to be “anti-unionist”. Amongst those singled out by the DUP MLA was an Irish historian, a member of the Committee on the Administration of Justice whose “documents reek of anti-unionism and anti-Britishness” and lawyers “published by the CAJ”.  
So there we have it: Halloween on the Hill and, like all good horror stories, the plot may not stand up to scrutiny and the players may be unconvincing but, as the lights go down, who knows what you will be prepared to believe? Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble... whooooh... Irish language... whooooh... human rights. It is pretty scary.

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