The Blanket

Freedom of Whose Speech?

Paul A. Fitzsimmons • 9 August 2002

Leave it to the wry editors of The Blanket to contrast, back-to-back in its 8 August 2002 edition, articles detailing rather opposite views on public speech: Anthony McIntyre’s “Frances McAuley - Resisting The Loyal Sons Of Hate” - reporting the earnest and determined anti-free speech efforts of a Northern Nationalist who advocates that Northern Unionist paraders’ speech is only conditionally permissible (“they have to enter into dialogue if they want to march through communities like ours where clearly they are not wanted”) - and the intensely pro-free speech article “Intense Winters” by Miguel Castells Artetxe, apparently a Basque nationalist (“[F]reedom means being able to choose among different things. There is no freedom when one cannot opt for a thought that is different from the official thought, different from official doctrine.”).

That contrast brought to mind a letter I wrote two years ago to one Steven King:

July 13, 2000

Mr. Steven King
Belfast Telegraph Newspapers Ltd.
Royal Avenue
Belfast BT1 1EB

Dear Mr. King:

In light of your piece today, I thought I’d send along my greetings and a copy of my small work on Northern Ireland.

While I have read with interest your various Belfast Telegraph writings, and while your [“When you're in Ireland do as the Romans do?”] article today starts out with an interesting comparison[ regarding parade rights], nonetheless your overall analysis therein is - with all due respect - grievously flawed; moreover, it reflects a pervasive confusion in thought that continues to lead to a great deal of personal and social conflict in your region.

You write: “[N]ot a single representative of the Catholic or nationalist tradition, from Bertie Ahern to John Hume to Archbishop Brady, came out and conceded that there is such a thing as freedom of assembly, even for people they don't like very much.” Your reference to the absence of such a concession necessarily assumes that a “freedom of assembly” actually exists, which it does not in the United Kingdom. While, perhaps, U.K. residents might try to look to European Union law in support of such a “freedom,” none exists under British law per se. This point is clear today as it was a decade and a half ago when I wrote the enclosed work (see especially footnotes 25 and 26 on pages 154 and 155, quoting from a British Government Central Office of Information publication: “[R]ights, such as the right of personal freedom, the right of discussion, and the rights of association and public meeting, which are commonly considered more or less inviolate, are not protected against change by Act of Parliament, and the courts could not uphold them if Parliament decreed otherwise.”). This illaudable system necessarily results in “the total absence of civil rights, but instead merely the presence of ‘civil license,’ to be granted or revoked at the pleasure of Westminster’s reigning majority.” (Book at 154.)

Your own writing today implicitly concedes this point. At the end of your article, you assert: “What Brendan McKenna really wants is a right to apartheid. There is no such right. The place to prove it is in the courts, not on the streets, though.”

Under that entirely appropriate standard for determining, in your society or any other, whether a claimed “right” actually exists, it is virtually unarguable that the Orange Order’s asserted “right” to parade down the Garvaghy Road would but be rejected: the Parades Commission is duly constituted by Act of Parliament and it made a legally binding determination prohibiting that proposed march, and any British court of law would so hold.

The basic premise underlying this overall situation concerning “rights” is a very simple one but nonetheless one which many in your Isles seem unable to fathom (or, at very least, seem unable to recognize and admit): there is no right without a remedy. If one cannot go to a court to obtain vindication for a supposed “right,” that “right” does not in actuality exist and is, in fact, no more than a hugely inaccurate description of one’s own personal though legally-unsupported desire. The Orange Order might, therefore, make the following honest assessment: We want very much to march down the Garvaghy Road, but we have no right to do so.

Please make no mistake about my position in this regard: the very existence of a “Parades Commission,” in my view, is an abomination. However, I also regard a system of government - such as established through the British Constitution - that recognizes no personal rights in its citizenry as being, at very best, massively deficient.

(Recently here in the District of Columbia, the Metropolitan Police Department was giving serious consideration to suing the organizers of a neo-Nazi march. However, the suit was not to prevent that group’s planned march. Instead, the lawsuit under consideration was to recoup damages because the group belatedly elected not to march: after the police had gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange for the march’s security, the group reacted to near-universal - although entirely peaceful - public opprobrium by voluntarily canceling its parade. Perhaps one might say that only in America would police consider suing neo-Nazis for not parading, but it is a result in which Americans can rightfully take a great deal of pride. Notwithstanding the many failings of our society, we have “down,” very well and firmly, fundamental aspects of our country’s governance. Even after many more centuries of history, the United Kingdom - not least in light of its Province of Northern Ireland (see, e.g., Drumcree I through Drumcree VI) - would have great difficulty honestly arguing a similar claim.)

By the end of this year, we may know better whether the Good Friday Agreement will survive; in light of the persistence of such difficulties as police reform and “actual” decommissioning, we should not be entirely surprised if the answer turns out to be “no.” If the Agreement fails, perhaps learned people in your region will feel moved to consider some alternative thereto.

I’d be most happy to receive any comments you’d care to voice. Thank you for your kind attention.


Paul A. Fitzsimmons






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A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular.
- Adlai Stevenson

Index: Current Articles

15 August 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Put Spotlight On Republican Aims
Eamonn McCann


No Hierarchies Here!
Anthony McIntyre


Freedom to Dissent

Dorothy Robinson


Freedom of Whose Speech?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


Political Intimidation
Anthony McIntyre


Class War is Over!
Billy Mitchell


11 August 2002


Class War
Newton Emerson


Nationalist Euphoria - Unionist Despondency
Billy Mitchell


Silent But Lethal

Anthony McIntyre


Democratise Democracy
Davy Carlin


The Pentagon's Secret Weapon
John Chuckman




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