It’s a pungent irony that, in Northern Ireland, the political movement that tried to murder its way out of the UK uses words like ‘equality’, ‘rights’ and ‘respect’ incessantly.
It’s even more ironic that Sinn Fein has been allowed to subvert these terms relatively unchallenged, while so many people, particularly the young and naive, have been taken in by its trickery.
When republicans talk about ‘equality’, they’re not demanding equal treatment under the law, or an equal opportunity to work, or equal access to benefits and a home, or even freedom from discrimination, because all those things are guaranteed already by some of the most stringent legislation in the western world.
Instead, Sinn Fein’s idea of equality is a pretext to attack Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
In Shinner-speak, any outward symbol of the province’s Britishness becomes a sign of inequality and the institutions and emblems of a nationalist Irish state deserve ‘parity of esteem’. This manoeuvre is designed to sidestep the ‘principle of consent’, which underpins the Belfast Agreement and establishes that our constitutional position will be determined by a majority of people here.
Similarly, when it refers to ‘rights’ Sinn Fein does not mean the type of universal entitlements to life, liberty and a fair trial that usually meet that description. The UK is a signatory to the European Convention, so Northern Ireland falls under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and the freedoms it protects were incorporated directly into British law by the Human Rights Act, in 1998.
For republicans though, ‘rights’ are endlessly versatile and cover just about any aspiration – cultural, economic or political – that their movement proposes at a particular time.
Just now, they include diverse aims like positive discrimination for Northern Ireland’s tiny population of Irish speakers, membership of the European single market and legal recognition for same-sex marriage.
However, the list of ‘rights’ Sinn Fein espouses can change suddenly and without warning. When its spokespeople talk about a ‘rights based society’, it’s another way of saying that they want their demands to be accommodated constantly, without recourse to tiresome formalities like debate and democracy.
Meanwhile, ‘respect’ is something Sinn Fein demands repeatedly, but refuses to extend to its rivals. The party perceives a lack of ‘respect’ in situations that range from perfectly legitimate opposition to republican policies through to bringing up inconveniently the provisional movement’s violent past.
The word is a particular favourite of Mairtin O Muilleoir, who now styles himself an advocate of a diverse ‘new Belfast’, but previously sat on the city council while his more practically inclined colleagues blew its streets and citizens into smithereens.
Sinn Fein has been allowed without serious challenge to abuse language habitually and portray unionists as the only disrespectful, hate-filled bigots in our community.
Its success highlights not only the party’s extreme chicanery, but also the extent to which ‘parochial stupidities’ have prevented unionism from modernising and articulating its own case effectively.
At the last election almost 30% of voters supported a movement that, just a generation ago, was engaged in a brutal campaign to murder their neighbours into a united Ireland.
Rather than flags, or bonfires, or contentious music, that is the clearest symbol of hatred, tribalism and disrespect in Northern Ireland, and it is also, by some distance, the most damning indictment of our divided society.