These are the opening remarks of Jeffrey Dudgeon MBE, one of the panellists at our first Belfast Speakeasy. The event was held on Friday 26th January at the iconic Titanic Hotel and attracted the largest audience so far at an FSU event outside London. The speakers each shared their greatest concerns for free speech in Northern Ireland. Jeffrey Dudgeon has held office in the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA) since its foundation in 1975 and has led landmark campaigns for gay rights and personal freedom. He was awarded an MBE in the 2012 Honours List for “services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Northern Ireland.” Between 2014 and 2019 he served as an Ulster Unionist Councillor to Belfast City Council and was chair of the council’s Diversity Working Group.
I would like to welcome the FSU to Belfast – the birthplace of identity politics.
I am especially pleased to be on a panel with such distinguished campaigners from England and the south of Ireland.
It is wonderful to see so many people in the room tonight. Such a turnout indicates how great a need there is for people of like mind on these issues to have a home. That people are here in such numbers is itself a victory for free speech.
It also reveals a big hole in Northern Irish politics, not met by any political party. Significantly, so far, the state broadcaster has run a mile from reporting this event.
In truth, we have no real culture of human rights in this country; instead they are weaponised to the detriment of free speech.
Northern Ireland is a seed bed, a laboratory or testing ground, for so much that has come to predominate in London and beyond.
We have a panoply of commissions on rights, equality, and all parading with the same individuals popping up interchangeably as commissioners. NGOs or GONGOs a plenty. But none devoted to free speech.
The European Convention on Human Rights is regularly invoked and used for anti-state purposes. The Convention Articles on freedom of expression and religion, numbers 9 and 10, barely get a mention, and certainly not in academia where the Article 2 dogma alone prevails. Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd is one exception, but it took the Supreme Court in London to address the compelled speech aspect of that case.
Our Courts are instead clogged with legacy cases involving the rewriting of history which is why I have devoted the last five years of my life in the Malone House Legacy Group (which I convene) to arguing the case for drawing a line, putting the past behind us. It goes unsayable and unsaid but since 1998 we have already had a series of amnesties.
Politics here are largely done through human rights with one-sided ‘lawfare’ rampant. Rights are instead used to advance identity. Very little of the old liberal, secular element remains.
We have had many free speech battles in the recent past and, if the stacked-up legislation awaiting Stormont’s return is anything to go by – on hate speech and conversion therapy for instance – many more to come.
Previously, the FSU intervened in the then pending Hate Speech legislation being developed by Minister of Justice, Naomi Long, following the Marrinan report, which was intent on illegalising private conversations, and commissioned an opinion poll from Lucid Talk on the matter.
According to the results of that poll, 60% of those polled said they felt less free to express themselves compared to 10 years ago, while 65% agreed that freedom of speech is hindered by political correctness.
Over half of respondents were also worried they would fall foul of the proposed new laws with greater concern amongst the unionist community.
Four out of five respondents believed robust protections must be included in any new legislation.
It was a poll that sparked serious criticism of the proposed Hate Speech Bill, but I fear that view will have little purchase once Stormont is back, given its composition.
I have to say that it is the cruelty of cancellation that has drawn me into resistance.
Where ‘gay’ was concerned, I was unaware of how things were creeping up on me, and innocently participated in the corporate takeover of the issue, speaking to three financial institutions, for a small fee: I was more pleased at the apparent thoughtfulness involved.
Silently, gay disappeared from gay pride, and I did not notice.
It has become, not a matter of pride, but one of a new conformity which does not tolerate dissent, let alone opposition.
Queer became de rigueur, although I resisted that one having too many bad memories. Most avoid that usage but do not argue.
I have spent my life disagreeing with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But the reality is they have changed or adapted. They have a lesbian councillor and young gay members.
In this very room I spoke to Arlene Foster, the then (First Minister about how her party, along with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness had agreed, when I asked, to let Westminster legislate over the gay pardons law for men convicted of abolished gay sex offences in Northern Ireland. This was a first, and as she said, “the right thing to do”.
There have been other victories locally, not least in relation to defamation.
I and my party pushed for years to get the libel law reform in England extended here. We succeeded with Mike Nesbitt’s Defamation Bill in 2022, which protects journalists from chilling legal threats. Sadly, however, the new law was gutted with the key “serious harm” element being removed at the behest of the two big parties.
But the courts have none the less spotted the dangerous SLAPP element of so many recent cases which involve frightening off critics. There have been several recent signal victories, north and south, not least that of journalist Malachi O’Doherty, after Belfast Crown Court threw out a libel case against him brought by Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, calling it “scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”.
He never expected it to end up in court but rather in some punitive financial settlement. He didn’t recognise he was up against a fighter in Malachi, as he is also still with the writer Ruth Dudley Edwards, who he is suing over an article she wrote about him in the Belfast Telegraph in 2019.
Sinn Fein, and Kelly, chose to sue freelance journalists, not the broadcast media, assuming they did not have the finances to resist.
Our newspapers in particular are terrified of the colossal and prohibitive cost of defamation suits – sadly, in Northern Ireland so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (or SLAPPs) do work as a threat.
Every issue in Northern Ireland is seen through the prism of identity, that is nationalist or unionist identity, perhaps the earliest form of identitarianism.
The question we must address is how do we go from representing a majority of the population, who at least share our common-sense views, to putting to flight those who use government, media, academic and corporate power against us?