Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The price of peace

So the Queen has begun a historic visit to Northern Ireland, the main talking point of which seems to be the fact that she'll shake the hand of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. I can understand why so much focus has been on this upcoming moment - various journalists have alleged in the past that, not only was he active in the IRA, but he was a member of their seven-man Army Council. The IRA, of course, claimed responsibility for the bomb which killed the Duke of Edinburgh's uncle Louis Mountbatten, and two children, in 1979. So she may well understand all too well that there are plenty of people who have lost loved ones to terrorist actions who will be less than happy with this.

It's therefore a lot easier for me, as somebody who's never been in that position, to say this. But this is, I think, part of the price that has to be paid, and will continue to have to be, to bring about an end to the Troubles. If McGuinness, Gerry Adams and the like had not realised that the way to secure their ends was through the ballot box and not through terrorism, and if the governments on both sides of the Irish Sea had not been prepared to be particularly forgiving of what had been done in the name of 'freedom', there'd have been no Good Friday Agreement. Perhaps things would never have changed.

If Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, for example, can put aside years of mutual hatred and suspicion, and work within a political framework that seemed impossible when I was growing up, then that price has been, for me, worth paying. Anybody who lost somebody in the bombings of Enniskillen, or my home city of Brighton, or anywhere else that suffered during the Troubles, may of course feel very differently, and I'm in absolutely no position to tell them they're wrong.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Taking their ball away

The Church of England, with its response to proposals to legalise same-sex marriage, has shown once again that it is a very long way from modernising. They've behaved rather like a kid threatening to remove his football from the field if the game is not played in exactly the way he wants, by claiming that if they were 'forced' to conduct gay weddings, it would be "impossible for the Church of England to continue its role conducting marriages on behalf of the State".

Make us do it and we'll split from the State so we're no longer the 'official' wedding provider, this is saying. Well, not only is this a ludicrous overstatement of the 'dangers' facing the Church, of which more in a sec, but if I had my way their bluff would be called. Since they're already legally obliged to offer weddings to any UK resident regardless of their religious affiliation, but routinely refuse to conduct re-marriages, for example, how exactly would their role be any different from now, other than in being more inclusive? They don't worry about legal challenges from divorcees who want to marry again, but they do worry about legal challenges from gay people?

They talk about the erosion of the old values of marriage when they should be happy that there are people out there who still want to commit to such an institution at a time when divorce is on the rise and the number of weddings not far above its historic low. Obviously these are just not the right kind of people for them.

For me, they should be allowed to take their ball and told to sod off. Since three quarters of weddings in the UK do not take place in a church anyway, and I believe strongly that the Church should play no role in government in any form, what's to be lost by completely 'divorcing' Church and State in this case? There are plenty of modernist people within the Church who could conduct a ceremony with religious content for those who want it, and plenty of beautiful locations to hold those ceremonies which are not owned by the Church – it doesn't have to be within the four walls of a CofE building. Whether they'd be prepared to leave the CofE to protect the rights of gay people to marry is another matter, of course, but I'm quite sure society, and the concept of marriage, would survive without the Church.

If the law is changed, that only leaves one thing to be sorted out for genuine equality in this area in Britain, which is the right for heterosexual people to commit to a civil partnership rather than a marriage. Surely, in search of equality, this has to come eventually as well.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Jubileave 'em to it

My feelings for this weekend's festivities are mixed, to say the least. I'm not, and never have been, remotely interested in what the royal family are up to. I am, though, very happy to take a couple of days off work. If I'm being less flippant, though, there is a serious question as to the monarchy's place in our culture these days behind all the bunting and flag waving.

I do not, of course, feel particularly comfortable with the idea of a family who, through simple accident of birth, enjoy wealth (or at least the trappings of wealth), privilege and the apparent servility of millions, none of which they've earned. It's an anachronism which in pretty much any other walk of life would have gone a long time ago. But I'm not a radical republican, ready to abolish the monarchy and all that goes with it.

There's a strong argument that many of the tourists to London in particular come to see the Royal palaces, the changing of the guard etc. And what would happen to Windsor's economy if the monarchy went south, for example? Or the area around Balmoral? Whether they're a net benefit financially is very difficult to tell, but they're certainly much less of a drain than some people seem to think.

More importantly, though, for me, is that we would not throw any of the other British constants, the things that help make us what we are as a culture, so readily. It's a source of great pride to me that British people are regarded as tolerant, open-minded, modernist, living in a genuinely multi-cultural society. I believe that the maturity in a society necessary to develop such tendencies comes, in part, from the things that don't change giving us a background of stability. An old Parliament with a long-standing democratic process. A long tradition of immigration and the assimilation of those immigrants into the British way of life. And the monarchy.

This is one of the things that make us what we are. Just as people come from all over the country to stand in the rain for eight hours, waving a tiny flag at a Queen who nips by in a few moments on a boat hundreds of feet away, so are we free to ignore it completely if we so choose. Ditch the thing, and those of us who ignore it will barely notice, but all those poor sods to whom it does still mean something will miss it. We will all, though, have lost a small something of ourselves.