Opinion

Newton Emerson: No absolute right to remember dead

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

John Finucane speaks at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast last year to mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising
John Finucane speaks at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast last year to mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising

It might be best to hear what MP John Finucane has to say before critiquing his address at tomorrow’s IRA commemoration in south Armagh, although a surprise seems unlikely. However, what Sinn Féin has been saying – “everyone has the right to remember their dead” – is not the unanswerable defence many seem to believe.

While funerals and religious services have some special protection in law and custom, acts of remembrance have no general exemption from legal and ethical standards.

Enough republicans understand this to regularly object to loyalist and British military commemorations, citing various legal grounds and sensitivity to victims. Sinn Féin certainly understands it. The Bobby Storey memorial parade broke parading as well as Covid restrictions.

A right to remember your dead might sound like something that ought to exist without qualification, but it does not, and with good reason.

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Ulster University has apologised for an extraordinary episode last month, when it disowned a report by two of its academics on the cost of segregating schools.

Vice-chancellor Prof Paul Bartholomew said the university should not have asked for its logo to be removed from the report, no matter how “uncomfortable or controversial for some” its findings may have been.

The initial complaint about the report was made by the Controlled Schools Support Council, the Protestant Churches’ equivalent to the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools. The Department of Education then took the unprecedented step of condemning the report as “misleading” and “inaccurate”.

There has been no apology from the department or explanation as to whether or how it applied pressure on Ulster University. Any such pressure would have been highly inappropriate.

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Northern Ireland’s sex education curriculum has been updated by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris via Westminster regulation, due to Stormont’s absence.

Pupils aged 11 to 16 must now be taught about access to abortion and contraception. The DUP has condemned this as a breach of devolution, as if that was not in its gift to fix. But the party is also clearly delighted by a culture war distraction very much in its comfort zone. It has accused Heaton-Harris of seeking to “promote abortion” against “majority opinion”.

In reality, most polling shows majority support for abortion in Northern Ireland. How parents view teaching it in schools is another matter. As the Ulster University story above shows, religious influence in education remains pervasive.

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Shadow Secretary of State Peter Kyle has given the game away on Labour’s trigger for a border poll. Asked by the BBC’s Nick Robinson what his conditions would be, Kyle tried to deflect the question by saying this is set out in the Good Friday Agreement as a “sustained majority” in favour of a united Ireland.

Robinson had to point out the Agreement says a majority must only appear “likely” to the secretary of state “at any time”.

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One of the final acts of the assembly before it collapsed last year was to approve a curious arrangement where England’s new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) also covers Northern Ireland.

This was the DUP’s alternative to the independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland, promised in New Decade, New Approach.

The Greens expressed concern this would be ineffective but their fears are turning out to be misplaced. The OEP has just ordered a pause to planning applications for some farm buildings, to the horror of the Ulster Farmers' Union, as part of an ammonia pollution investigation it began last month into Stormont’s Department of Agriculture. If a local watchdog would have been this proactive, it would have been a first.

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A fifth of children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty, according to a UK-wide study by the University of Loughborough. Much media coverage of this missed the point that it is (relatively) good news.

Child poverty is almost always between a quarter and a third, due to the way the statistic is defined. Northern Ireland’s figure of 22 per cent is the lowest in the UK, compared to all the devolved and English regions. It is also the most improved rate, down 3.2 points since 2015.

Stormont cannot claim much credit for this as it was collapsed for half the time, although perhaps it would not want the credit. Another statistical feature of child poverty is that it tends to fall in recessions.

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China has closed all the police stations it was running covertly in the UK, including one inside its consulate in Belfast, according to a report in The Times. Another station was closed in Dublin last October by order of the Irish government.

This saga has hence ended in Northern Ireland with barely a shrug. It is known from elsewhere that the police stations were used for surveillance and intimidation of Chinese citizens and ethnic Chinese citizens of host countries. This might have generated more interest among our media, politicians and public, given Northern Ireland’s established Chinese community and significant Chinese student population.

By contrast, when the consulate built an unsightly perimeter wall three years ago and upset local residents, it made headlines for months.

We can be a very parochial people.