Northern Ireland police must stop intimidating equality activists

The force can't claim to be progressive whilst cracking down on those protesting hateful conservatism and oppressive, misogynistic laws.

Kylie Noble
23 November 2017

Members of the PSNI join the Belfast Pride parade.

Members of the PSNI join the Belfast Pride parade. Photo: Peter Morrison/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“Fuck the DUP” – ballsy or rude? If you’re DUP politician Jim Wells, it counts as hate speech. He reported a young woman to the police for carrying a placard with the slogan at the Belfast Pride parade this summer.

Last month the Police Service of Northern Ireland questioned 24-year old Ellie Evans, who is currently waiting to hear whether public prosecutors will decide to investigate her for hate crime, or breach of public order.

The charity worker and activist moved to Belfast from England two years ago to study at Queen’s University. She has also started a “Fuck the DUP” campaign for a more progressive Northern Ireland on Facebook and makes t-shirts to fundraise for LGBT charities in the region.

Many university graduates in Northern Ireland leave and never return. It’s almost a rite of passage: complete an arts degree, do your time in a call centre, search for better jobs elsewhere, and go.

Young people like Evans should be made to feel welcomed instead of hounded. Hateful conservatism embodied by the DUP and others in politics, combined with sectarian divisions and poor job prospects, drives us away.

Today Northern Ireland's police is trying to position itself as a progressive force – while intimidating equality activists and those who dare to challenge the region's harmful, regressive laws.

There is also an nasty irony in Evans’ case, with a member of the DUP, which has a long history of ignoring and cultivating hate and homophobia, considers anger against it, from an equal rights activist, as hate speech.

Badges sold to raise money for charities Rainbow Project NI and Alliance for Choice.

Badges sold to raise money for charities Rainbow Project NI and Alliance for Choice. Photo: Brendan Harkin.

When I last lived in Belfast (part of the army of call centre graduates), my home was in a working-class area which returns a very strong DUP vote. Walls were graffitied with K.A.T; “Kill All Taigs” (a derogatory term for Catholics). On 12 July, when bonfires are lit in loyalist areas, election posters of nationalist and cross-community parties, and the flag of the Republic of Ireland, were burnt.

In the 1970s, the DUP campaigned to "save Ulster from sodomy". Little seems to have changed in its thinking since then. Though, while it’s the party most clearly influenced by conservative Christianity, it’s not alone in holding regressive views on reproductive choice and women’s and LGBT rights.

Only a minority of people seem to share these positions, but they’re over-represented across the political spectrum. The Social Democratic and Labour Party, for instance, are the so-called party of civil rights, yet they are also firmly against abortion rights.

The issue of abortion has divided Sinn Fein. Last year, it changed its policy to support abortion rights in cases of rape or foetal abnormality. Outgoing party leader Gerry Adams has declared himself pro-choice.

This month, the party voted to support abortion rights where the woman's physical or mental health is in danger. This is worded vaguely, however, and is still a policy for limited rights.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

What's new is the recent crackdown by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), on those who protest against our oppressive, homophobic and misogynistic laws.

In October, Belfast’s Rally for Choice saw hundreds of people take to the streets to call for the decriminalisation of abortion. People Before Profit Belfast city councillor Fiona Ferguson said on her Facebook page that police warned her to remove any signs saying “Fuck the DUP.”

Earlier this year, the PSNI carried out raids at activists’ workplaces and homes, with officers looking for abortion pills ordered from abroad (which are deemed safe by the World Health Organisation, and which Scotland has started offering on the NHS).

My friend Tyler McNally, editor of a left-wing Belfast website, had his laptop and phone taken by the police in March as part of their investigation into whether he possessed abortion pills or helped women access them. All charges were subsequently dropped, but not for four months.

Of course, the history of Northern Ireland’s police force is intricately tied to that of state oppression.

The PSNI’s predecessor, the RUC, were not neutral actors in the conflict that the British press likes to call “the Troubles.” Members attacked civil rights protesters, intimidated and killed civilians, and colluded with loyalist paramilitaries.

During the conflict, Catholics were a small minority in the RUC. Their representation has increased in the PSNI, though the force is still majority Protestant. Whilst all political parties now endorse it, distrust remains among nationalist communities.

Now, as then, the largest party in Northern Ireland is an extremely conservative unionist party. Throughout, the RUC and the PSNI have been majority male, white and heterosexual. Our police force consists overwhelmingly of individuals who don’t have their rights challenged or curtailed from the top.

RUC police in riot gear in 1998.

RUC police in riot gear in 1998. Photo: PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The conflict claimed close to 4,000 lives, with loyalist and republican paramilitaries, the RUC and the British army all carrying out acts of terrorism and killing civilians.

Amid this violence, concern for social issues that stretched beyond the conflict’s tribal ethno-nationalist framework was (understandably) lower. But we can’t hide behind the conflict forever.

The Good Friday Agreement is now almost 20 years old. An entire generation has grown up without personal, lived experience of the conflict that still rumbles on in the hearts of our political parties.

As imperfect as our peace is, it has opened up space for the patriarchal nature of the state to be confronted.

Evans participated in the same Pride demonstrations this summer that PSNI members marched in, for the first time. Last month, the force held its first recruitment event aimed at Belfast’s LGBT community.

Though the PSNI takes steps to present itself as a progressive institution, we are not fooled: until it ends its crackdown on our most marginalised and vulnerable communities, such posturing will remain farcical.

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