Life after Tim

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It has just been announced this evening that the leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron is to step down as leader at the end of the current Parliamentary session so that a successor can be elected in line with the party rules over the summer months.

In his resignation statement Tim said:

“A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.   “

This was in light of a lot of media spotlight based on his faith and his position on gay rights especially in the lead up to last Thursday’s general election.

Our current local party chair Stephen Glenn was a prominent early supporter of Tim when he stood for the leadership of the party. Today he has said:

“It is a sad day for our society and our Liberal Democrat party if someone of faith does not consider he is able to lead the party and be true to both. Before Tim stood as leader I did have discussions with him about his faith and the work on LGBT+ issues that I was working on.

“As a fellow Christian but also a gay man I was convinced then, as I am now, that Tim Farron is no homophobe and in no way stands in the way of LGBT+ rights. Indeed at every step of the way he has backed every reform wholeheartedly.

“For the past 2 years I have been proud to be one of the Lib Dem cockroaches that Tim mentioned early in his leadership. One of those who would be hard to kill off as we started to fight back.

“I am sad that he felt the need to step down and list his faith as one of the obstacles he saw in leading our party. I wish him well in the future and for the moment will be encouraging all members to think carefully about who can continue to lead the fight back our party still needs.”

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Statement on death of Martin McGuinness

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Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats Chair Stephen Glenn writes about the death of the former Deputy First Minister

Today was a day that all of us involved in Northern Irish politics had seen coming since the announcement in December that Martin McGuinness was cancelling a trip to China because of health reasons. When we last saw him in public it was his resignation as Deputy First Minister but the frailty we saw in him then contrasted to the images of him as a young man during the troubles.
Martin McGuinness

These images also showed the trajectory of the man from commander of the IRA in Derry/Londonderry to the respected elder statesman and one of the architects and sustainers of the peace in Northern Ireland. The tone of his words from his first appearances before the Northern Irish public to those at the latter stages of his political career also reflect the passage of Northern Irish politics.

While there have been some today who have only looked at the early part of his life as his legacy that have failed to realise that only a person from his position within the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin could have used his influence not only to bring about the ceasefire bit to sustain that. While at the start of his career he spoke about armed conflict being the only way forward, he ended it talking of reconciliation.

As the son of a man born like Martin into a community on the Cityside of Derry, although raised in the other working class community on opposite sides of the walled city, I’ve seen the change brough about by Martin.

The Rev David Latimer minister of the Glenn family church First Derry Presbyterian which overlooks the city walls into the Bogside has often spoken of Martin’s influence. This was a church that overlooked the site of the Bloody Sunday shootings, where shots, petrol or paint bombs were fired towards the church. It meant that in my early years when I entered the church even in the morning or afternoon it was dark because of the shutters protecting the windows at the front. When the roof needed replacing due to rot, Martin McGuinness was one of those who was reached out to even though he wasn’t elected for the area.

A hand of peace like that of the city’s famous statue was reached out and Martin was proactive not only in getting the support for the major building works but also in reducing the attacks on the church. He was there for the reopening of the building and the difference in brightness for me is a reflection of the hope he brought for a better future in Northern Ireland.

Yes the story of Martin McGuinness is a tangle of contrasts, but it is also proof that men are not leopards and can change their spots. But the legacy is his part, along with Ian Paisley, of making the impossible not only seem possible but turned it into a workable partnership of working together. We need that as much now as when they first stood side by side 10 years ago.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Reflections on the 2017 Election #AE17

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So as the dust settles on the count of the 2017 election what does the future hold for Northern Ireland?

First lets look at the facts:

  1. DUP did secure the largest vote but only by 12oo from Sinn Féin
  2. Of the 18 seats that the Assembly lost 16 were Unionist (10 DUP, 6 UUP)
  3. There is a virtual dead heat in the parties who will form OFMDFM (28 DUP, 27 SF)
  4. No party by itself can lodge a petition of concern (30 votes required)
  5. The Unionists are not in a majority in Stormont for the first time EVER (40 Unionist, 39 Nationalist 11 Other)

Whatever the reasons for going into the election the unionists have done themselves no favours. Whether it was the DUP support of Brexit or their involved in the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) debacle or they abuse of power with PoCs being just one part of that, unionism has lost big.

Does this mean we are moving to a normalisation of politics? Well listening to the debates before and the comments after it is clear that maybe the politicians especially in the big two parties are far from ready for that, but elsewhere it is possible. UUP to SDLP transfers and vice versa along with those party that designate as other means that these could actually form the largest bloc with 33/4 MLAs . It may mean that a progressive centralist agenda might stand a chance of being advanced especially with the difficulty of others lodging a petition of concern.

There are still a lot of question marks that the next three weeks of negotiations may not provide full answers for, if they provide an answer at all. So we shall have to see if an era of progressive politics may actually have finally arrived in Northern Ireland, if policy commonality rather than community are more important.

We live in interesting times. Watch this space.

Maybe even join us.

Can’t stand the heat: “defending” unionism

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So the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minster this evening has sparked all sorts of accusations from the DUP.

Arlene Foster now totally unable to speak for her ministerial office has said:

“Let me make it clear the DUP will always defend unionism and stand up for what is best for Northern Ireland.

“It appears from the deputy first minister’s resignation letter that is what annoys Sinn Féin the most.”

Now let us look at just what Mr McGuinness said. Before even addressing the current Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) crisis he says:

“The equality, mutual respect, and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice.”

This attack goes far beyond sectarianism, indeed it was only last week when Arlene Foster was mocking the attacks on her as being misogynistic, she also dug up the past. In his resignation letter while acknowledging the past say he has worked with those “diametrically opposed ideologically and politically” to work on a peaceful future.

The thing that has pushed him over the edge is the way the RHI has been handled by the Mrs Foster. He states that it is the public that are demanding “robust action and accountability” on this matter despite all the distracting and denial from the DUP. It is the DUP leader who has a conflict of interest as the scheme was drawn up on her watch at The Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI).

The way that Arlene and her DUP colleagues have dealt with this is in isolation, lacking humility and thinking the people who left the barn door wide open are the only people who should be allowed to sort out all the slurry that has escaped and put it back in the bottle. The are claiming they can keep the scheme at zero cost to the tax payer, something that the Finance Minster’s former economics professor has called  ridiculous.

The heat is on in Stormont. The public are tightening the noose. RHI could bring the DUPers down the public outrage on this and the other issues that Mr McGuinness has mentioned means that defending unionism as the DUP may not be as important as defending the public coffers.

RHI is certainly not doing the latter and that means that as Sinn Féin will not nominate a replacement within 7 days that we live in interesting times.

Opinion: Self-determination post-Brexit

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The following is a personal opinion piece looking at some of the issues Northern Ireland face it is not a policy position of Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats. Other members may well post alternative views on this issue.

We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles.

Extracts from the Premable of the Liberal Democrat Constitution

The Referendum on Thursday was allowed that sovereignty to rest with the people, but as Liberal Democrats we also recognise that decision making power should lie with the nations and regions of the UK. Thus is was that on Friday when the result was known Northern Ireland had voted to remain while the national vote as a whole was to leave.

The issue in Northern Ireland is further frustrated as the result on Friday now means that the border which some of those who argued for Brexit want to control is largely unprotected for 300 miles from Lough Foyle in the North West to Carlingford Lough in the South East. While there are already controls that an be established at airports, port and even the Channel Tunnel there are 300 miles of open countryside that in the past 2 decades we have taken down control points, reopened some access routes and made almost unrecognisable from the time of The Troubles.

Within hours of the decision Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the “majority of people in Northern Ireland are content with the political
settlement established under the Belfast Agreement [sic] and Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.” The problem is the settlement with which they were content shifted in the early hours of Friday morning.

Northern Ireland’s place with in the UK is passed primarily upon the Northern Ireland Act, which itself is entrenched within the EU and its institutions. Much of the rights and protections which the parties here spent years negotiating were backed up not only by the UK but also the EU. If we leave the EU and by default its protections the Northern Ireland Act is a void, it needs to be redrafted and readopted by the people. Therefore to start with the foundations of Ms Villiers arguments are crumbling.

The second issue is that the settled will of the people in 1998 was based on both Ireland and the UK having been members of the EU from the point in time. The people agreed that within the EU there was a wider settlement to the peace, a further layer of mobility, flexibility and security. The contentment of the people on Wednesday should not be assumed by anyone without further knowledge to have been the same by Friday. I have seen a number of friends already say that while before they would never have envisioned voting for reunification now they consider it the best option.

Not only did David Cameron take a gamble and lost, the DUP took a different gamble. The DUPs was to be vocal in supporting leave and the people of Northern Ireland would still largely want to be a member of the United Kingdom whatever the outcome. But a number are starting to say they would rather remain part of the EU rather than in an isolationist UK. There are a number of reasons for this and a number of reasons while small u unionists are starting to look elsewhere.

The economic unionistsThese are the ones who look at the financial implications. During the 80s and early 90s many of these could have been persuaded to vote for reunification as a resurgent Ireland would have invested more in jobs and infrastructure in the North than the then Conservative government in Westminster was doing. The fact that the shortcomings of that Tory government came in a large part from EU peace monies is another reason why now these people might vote for a united Ireland.

The liberal unionists: These are the ones who would always have looked at which of the nations had the more liberal legislation. Historically these had always sided with the UK. They have not envisioned at any point to leave as previously the Irish government was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. But this has become less of an issue now. Indeed the Republic is now more liberal than Northern Ireland which was not the case even in 1998. These people now could look at the change in situation as it being more likely to get improvements in liberal values not from the angry mob that controlled the Brexit message but by a more welcoming and inclusive Ireland.

The stability unionists: These are those who have always maintained what they felt was best for stability. These are the type who historically were nervous about the unknown of the Irish Free State and felt that they would keep as much of Ireland as possible part of the UK. The take a mix of a economic view and a security view into the situation. With the future of the UK uncertain we have to see where those who have considered the UK the most stable future will pitch there tent.

However, whatever you think of this argument nobody at present can know for certain if there is a desire or will within the people of Northern Ireland to have a border poll. The goal posts have been moved dramatically in recent days and nobody if currently certain by what rules we will play the game. Theresa Villiers cannot have determined as she did on Friday that there is no reason to call a border poll, similarly the DUP cannot know if that is not to be.

We live in interesting times, confusing times and changed times.

More heel dragging over Fatal Foetal Abnormality

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Last night was almost 10 months after the Minster of Justice announced he would seek to introduce legislation to allow abortions in the case of Fatal Foetal Abnormality. This also came after some 18 months of careful examination of health and justice officials including a public consultation.

However, despite all this oversight an review the DUP proposed that the Health Minister set up another working group to look into this matter. This could take at least six months to report back, enough time for this issue not to be considered before the Assembly elections this May.

This is unacceptable and the 59 votes against making the change now from mainly Unionist* and SLDP* MLAs continue to fail to help the women in our part of the UK. They will for the next sixth months of longer still face the tough decisions about what to do if they are diagnosed with a Fatal Foetal Abnormality.

They will have to decide what they will do in isolation as health care professionals are not allowed to give them any advice. They will have to decide if they go somewhere over the Irish Sea where they possibly know nobody else to access services that are seen a medical procedure across Great Britain, to avoid all the trauma, illness, physical and emotional toil that carrying to term impart.

Our MLAs refused last night to take the tough decisions, so that the tough decisions that some of our women have to take remain tougher than elsewhere. They were not being asked to deny another life from existing, the clue is in the first word of extention that was being asked for.

These abnormalities are not ones that can be carried through into adulthood, or even much of childhood. They either don’t survive outside the womb or for a very short period. A short period during which there may be attachment before that is ripped apart.

The emotional and physical well being of our women was not a consideration of the delay of another 6 months by our elected representatives yesterday. The fact that we are almost 50 years behind the rest of the UK in not allowing our women to abort if there is a FFA means that 6 months is not just six months too much it is the 98th six month that is too much.

* Unionists in favour were Mike Nesbitt, Andy Allen and Michael McGimpsey UUP, Basil McCrea NI21 and John McAllister Ind.

** Claire Hanna of the SDLP Abstained by voting in both lobbies.

Statement on Ashers ruling

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Today the full judgement of in the case of Gareth Lee v Ashers Baking Co. Limited, Daniel McArthur and Karen McArthur was handed down in court.

In her judgement Judge Brownlie found that the company and the McArthurs directly discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of religious belief and/or political opinion [paragraph 66].That Daniel and Karen McArthur directly discriminated against Mr Lee on the ground of his sexual orientation [para 46] because they had the knowledge or perception that Mr Lee was gay and/or associated with others who were [para 39]

She also stated that the company were not a religious organisation but a business existing for profit and therefore not exempt from the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.

In concluding she made the following finding:

[93]  This compelling analysis of the necessity of the Human Rights and Equality jurisprudence articulates all I could have hoped to say albeit not so fluently to demonstrate that the law must protect all. It must protect the rights of the Defendents to have and to manifest their religious beliefs but it also recognises that the rights of the Plaintiff not to be discriminated because of his sexual orientation.

If the Plaintiff was a gay man who ran a bakery business and the Defendants as Christians wanted him to bake a cake with the words “support heterosexual marriage” the Plaintiff would be required to do so as, otherwise; he would, according to the law be discriminated against the Defendants. This is not a law which is for one belief only but is equal to and for all.

The Defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others

Speaking of the decision Northern Ireland’s representative on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats Executive Stephen Glenn said:

“This ruling shows the importance of the Human Rights Act and the equality legislation as it currently stands in striking a balance between the rights and responsibilities of conflicting opinions and beliefs. Something that our party has already stood up against the erosion of by the current Westminster government.

“It also champions the rights of LGBT+ individuals to be treated equally under the law as anyone else. We are not seeking to have special rights merely the same rights to go about perfectly legal activities without fear of someone denying us goods, facilities or services.

“While I hope this is the end of this particular matter, past experience is that Christian Institute backed cases of this type will be challenged to the nth degree through every level of appeal. I personally wish for the sake of Daniel McArthur and his family that this added pressure, scrutiny and attention is not allowed to continue and further hurt and heap pressure on them.

“The Northern Liberal Democrats also fear the reaction to this ruling by some of our politicians. The statement of the Judge that ‘this is not a law which is for one belief only but is equal to and for all’ is something that I hope Northern Ireland politicians heed. There is no need for a conscience clause, indeed implementing one would eventually also open up the rights of people who oppose the views of people with genuine, deeply held faith to exercise their conscience.”