During the disorder on the streets of North Belfast on Monday night following the annual Twelfth celebrations, water cannons and rubber bullets were deployed on the protestors. It is very timely then that, in what the BBC today described as breaking news, it was announced that Home Secretary Theresa May will not authorise the use of water cannons on English and Welsh streets.
You may remember that the Water Cannon topic came up a while back when (pseudo) bumbling (but actual) fool Boris Johnson bought three of them from Germany for £218,000. According to May, water cannons “without safeguards” have “the capacity to cause harm”. No surprise there really. Water cannons break bones, injure people and even blinded a German pensioner in 2010. It’s not surprising that vast quantities of water indiscriminately fired at a high speed into a crowd of people might cause harm. So I’ll say something I rarely say, well done Theresa May. Congratulations on, for the time being at least, preventing a potentially dangerous police tool being used on the “British mainland.”
Firstly, might I quibble about definitions? There is Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and there is Northern Ireland. Together they make up The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yes, Northern Ireland is on a different landmass, but it’s land is no less “main”. I am aware that this is a largely academic distinction, that many people in Northern Ireland identify as British and choose to class Northern Ireland as part of Britain. Though I’ll admit that I do not hold this view personally and that is a discussion for a different time. Alongside any disagreement within Northern Ireland, the distinction between the “British mainland” and Northern Ireland in the eyes of the UK government and in the national press remains.
“The people of Northern Ireland are second class citizens in the UK.”
I believe this phrasing and the timely topic of water cannons highlight a much bigger issue. That the people of Northern Ireland are second class citizens in the UK. I’m sure this topic will be highly controversial. Many people will be insulted by my insinuation that we, the proud people of Northern Ireland, The North of Ireland, Ulster, The Six Countries, what-ever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-it are second-class to anyone; and that is exactly my point.
Whether or not you want Northern Ireland to be a part of the United Kingdom, it is a part of the United Kingdom. That is a fact that we must accept, and for the time being I am content to accept that. What I am not able to accept is that we are not afforded the same rights as citizens in other parts of the country. Water cannons are unsafe, dangerous and violent. Too much so for British streets , but not in Northern Ireland, where they are used on a semi-regular basis. Boris Johnson bought three waters cannons for use in London (pop. ~8.6m). Northern Ireland has six (pop. ~1.8m). Rubber bullets have been fired twice in the UK outside of Northern Ireland. Once in 2002 and once in 2011. However, the Police Service of Northern Ireland continue to fire off baton rounds (essentially the same thing) despite the fact that we know for sure rubber bullets kill.
Our police are already significantly more militarized than those in the rest of the UK. They carry live firearms, drive around in fully armoured trucks and wear bulletproof vests. Gathering and protesting is not illegal. The Police have a duty not to use indiscriminate tactics against anyone. Water cannons cannot possibly aim at individuals fairly and rubber bullets are known to ricochet wildly. Why are police tactics that are deemed unsafe for the rest of the UK allowed to continue in Northern Ireland?
I know what you will be thinking, that Northern Ireland is different; we have a different political past, a different cultural past, and a history of violence. This is undeniable, though the use of police tactics is not all I am referring to. Northern Ireland also falls behind the rest of the UK in social issues. It is very difficult to measure ‘social attitudes,’ and near impossible to point out exact reasons why certain attitudes prevail, though we can point to particular laws as standard bearers of social and political opinion. Some examples that have been in the news recently include the fact that abortion remains illegal and incredibly difficult to access in Northern Ireland, as well as the ongoing refusal to afford NI citizens the same marriage rights their neighbours in “mainland” Britain (as well as those in rest of the island of Ireland.)
This means that people from Northern Ireland do not have the same human rights and do not have access to the same medical procedures as people who happen to be born in other parts of the UK, and yet are expected to be content to be given the rights to be indiscriminately shot at by water cannons instead. Some people would say that these are legal issues, and that each part of the UK has a right to define the laws in their own way. That these legal issues are not human rights issues. I disagree. You might say that this is a Northern Irish issue, it is up to the people of Northern Ireland to resolve it. While it is true regional power and politics are important and power tools in empowering people we must also consider this.
The views of the government and political parties are not just abstract notions of politics and law but ideas that actively influence and inform public opinion. The United Kingdom lays claim to the Northern Ireland. That is said as neither a good nor a bad thing; it is simply a fact. As long as that is the case the Government of the United Kingdom has a duty to protect the people of Northern Ireland too, and to hold the local governments to the same standards they hold themselves. As long as the United Kingdom continues to hold the people of Northern Ireland to lower standards than the rest of the UK the longer we will remain second class citizens.