So-called hate crime law 'could be used to stop the display of the Union flag' in Northern Ireland

​The founder of a high-profile campaign group, set up to defend freedom of expression and oppose cancel culture, has said that people in Northern Ireland “have a real battle on their hands” if Stormont returns and they care about free speech.
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The journalist Toby Young was speaking at the first Belfast meeting of the Free Speech Union (FSU) at the Titanic Hotel on Friday evening.

He described a planned hate speech law, developed by the Department of Justice here, as ‘oven ready’ and predicted that nationalists would be more likely than unionists to use the legislation “to silence and shut down opposition,” given republicans’ taste for "lawfare”.

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The plan to criminalise sectarianism, he claimed, could be employed to prevent the display of certain flags, “possibly even the Union Jack”.

The FSU's gathering in Belfast on Friday night, with Toby Young holding the microphoneThe FSU's gathering in Belfast on Friday night, with Toby Young holding the microphone
The FSU's gathering in Belfast on Friday night, with Toby Young holding the microphone

An FSU spokesperson said the ‘speakeasy’ meeting in Belfast was “its largest regional event, anywhere in the UK,” and showed “the level of concern in Northern Ireland about the threat to free speech today”.

Mr Young made his remarks about Stormont in a panel discussion that covered a range of free speech issues, including attacks on those who reject the idea that people are free to choose their sex, the cancellation of controversial speakers at universities, and the proposed hate speech law for Northern Ireland.

The contributors included gay rights veteran and former UUP councillor, Jeffrey Dudgeon, who said that human rights here are often “weaponised to the detriment of free speech”.

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He said that Northern Ireland was “the birthplace” of identity politics, and served as “a seedbed, laboratory or testing ground” for trends eventually taken up in “London and beyond” and used to inhibit free speech.

While the European Convention of Human Rights is regularly cited “for anti-state purposes”, he said that its provisions on free speech are rarely invoked in Northern Ireland’s courts. Instead, our legal system is, “clogged with legacy cases involving the rewriting of history”.

The event was also addressed by the Sunday Independent columnist David Quinn.

Mr Quinn spoke about the prevalence of "woke” theories in the Republic of Ireland. He said that, while the southern state’s leaders thought it had embraced pluralism by shedding its Catholic past, “it has swapped one form of monolithic politics and outlook for another form of monolithic outlook and politics – and we just call it wokery”.

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He said that he feared that, in order to “live down” its reputation as divided and sectarian, Northern Ireland would become “woke”, but claimed that wokery was just “another form of sectarianism.”

At the event, the FSU highlighted its role in providing legal support for people who experience problems for expressing their opinions. It said it is currently involved in two free speech cases in Northern Ireland, arising from a Let Women Speak rally held in Belfast last year, staged by feminists who reject gender ideology.

The solicitor, Simon Chambers, who is working on both cases, said one involves a woman who was suspended from her work at the Belfast Film Festival, after she addressed Let Women Speak.

The other concerns the alleged refusal by Robinson’s Bar on Great Victoria Street to serve 23 demonstrators after the rally, because bar-staff objected to their gender critical beliefs.

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The speakers were gloomy about the likely impact of hate speech legislation in Northern Ireland, with the Spiked journalist, Ella Whelan, describing it as a “heinous attack on freedom of speech”.

But they expressed optimism that people here would act to oppose its implementation.

Mr Young urged people to "mobilise” and campaign to stop infringements to free speech. He said the alternative was that governments would take away this fundamental human right.