Friday, 19 October 2012

On being pro life AND pro choice and what it means.

Dawn Purvis - Programme Director of Marie Stopes in Belfast
I wanted to write about abortion last week when the news about Marie Stopes opening in Belfast first came out. I'm quite comfortable with my views on abortion and so it should have been, in theory, an easy post to write. In the end, it wasn't at all easy.

This may not come as a surprise but when I write, I consider the reception to whatever I write. Many of my friends are avidly pro choice, many are just as avidly pro life (please can we ignore the idiocy of the terminology for now?) and I wanted to be careful. That's not usually a consideration for me so it's an indicator of just how polarised the debate is.

Over the last week or so though, considerations for the views and opinions of the other side of the argument clearly hasn't concerned a whole host of commentators or even news outlets so I may as well weigh in. As the title says, I consider myself to be pro life and pro choice and I don't think the two positions are mutually exclusive. Why? Because I agree with many of the arguments presented by both sides. I don't agree with abortion; I consider the termination of a pregnancy at even a few weeks to be the ending of a life whilst acknowledging that the life at that point is little more than a collective of cells and tissue.

So that's my pro life position. My pro choice position is that it's not for me to make that determination for others and it's not for me to judge those who wish to have a termination. There are many valid reasons to terminate a pregnancy and I abhor the implication from some within the pro life camp that women use abortion as a method of contraception. One DUP Councillor referred to 'designer abortions' - about as awful language as you can get.

Abortion should be a last resort. It should be, as Bill Clinton once said, "safe, legal & rare". The part of me that is pro life says I should focus on how to make it rare, because making it illegal will undoubtedly make it unsafe.

So it is the pro life part of me that supports comprehensive sex education for all children in high schools; it's that part of me that supports free contraception for school children; it's the part of me that thinks girls shouldn't need their parents consent to get the pill - only their doctor's; it's the part of me that believes fully funded maternity and paternity leave for all employees should be available; it's the part of me that believes businesses and the state share a responsibility for providing affordable childcare to working parents; it's the part of me that thinks we should stop stigmatising single parents and it's the part of me that thinks adoption should be based on your ability and suitability to be a parent and not based on your sexuality.

You see: you can't be pro life unless you make preventing unwanted pregnancies from occurring in the first place your number one priority. You can't be pro life unless you have a plan to make continuing with a pregnancy the best option. It's not enough to just say 'oh, there's always other options and there'll be plenty of support' - you have to come up with the options, you have to provide the support.

Even after that, you have to cater for the exceptions - victims of rape & incest, genuine & serious health risks to the mother, the likelihood of stillbirth etc - but with the right approach to the issue, abortion will stay as an exception.

Anyone who thinks they'll ever be able to stop abortion from happening is deluded but if the majority of pro-life activists dedicated their time and energy into achieving the measures I outlined above, they'd soon see a huge drop in the demand for abortion and that's a more achievable goal.

Or they can continue to stand outside clinics intimidating women who desperately need help and advice. Yeah, i'm much happier with my definition of pro life.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Banter? No. Just plain old misogyny & sexism.

I am, on an almost daily basis, thankful for the stroke of luck that saw me conceived by western parents in a western country. Life, despite it's various challenges, is generally much better than the lives of the majority of the world. Of course, the added bonus of being born in this part of the world is that I was also born male, so my already OK life was going to be significantly more OK. However, even were I born female, this is still probably the better part of the world to be a woman, despite the continued existence of patriarchal superiority.

So, as I go about life, generally happy with my lot and pleased to be born and living where I am, I often allow myself to be unjustly pleased with how socially developed and progressive we are compared to other parts of the world - I mean, at least women can drive here, right? - but then I find out about a Facebook page such as the Holyland LAD Stories page. Then I want to fucking scream.

Like many, I suspect, I found out about the page from the BBC ( and was, like many, I hope, mightily disappointed that this kind of nonsense, so prevalent in England right now, was now here in Northern Ireland. To clarify: the 'nonsense' I'm referring to is the LAD 'brand'.

The whole theme of LAD seems to be 'banter' about women and drink with a particular focus on the former. There seems to be a fondness for tales of conquests and sexual disasters where, with almost no exception, the women of the tales are referred to in exclusively derogatory terms: slag, slut, beast, ugly mare etc and their features critiqued in the bluntest and most offensive ways: lumpy tits, flabby arse, smelly fanny etc. All of this is passed off as banter.

Harmless fun, apparently. Anyone who doesn't see the comedy is a humourless, man hating feminist. Were I to go on the site and state my view, it wouldn't be long before one of the 'lads' helpfully informed me that my attitude of respecting women wouldn't make feminists have sex with me. That's how they see things; if you're not laughing with them, then there must be some hidden agenda because how could you not laugh at their incredible wit?

What I have never understood and, frankly, am never likely to, is the logic at play. It's evident that most of the contributors are fond of having sex and, from their contributions, it would appear the more sex they can have, with as many women as possible, the better. Now, I have no problem with that at all - people should have more sex, more often in my view. But these 'lads' seem to think that the best way to achieve their aim - getting laid - is to portray sex as somehow shameful, as though women who enjoy sex on the same terms as them are to be denigrated. They are sluts, slags, whores.

That's not banter. It's just downright nasty. It is sexism at best, misogyny at worst. And to top it off, it's self defeating too.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

If you won't put your empty house to use, the state should.

I am constantly frustrated when people talk about a 'housing shortage' in the UK. There is no shortage of housing: there is a shortage of housing available to those who need it. It may seem a matter of semantics but it's not. The language is key in driving housing policy. If you start from a position of shortage then the most obvious and only solution is to create more housing. From that point on, ideas about bringing properties that already exist back into the active housing stock are sidelined and deemed not as important.

Within Northern Ireland there is currently no legislation that allows local authorities to properly deal with vacant and abandoned properties. I say 'properly deal' because, whilst there is some legislation, it doesn't adequately address the issue and it's solutions are not framed to meet what should be the key objective - the reintroduction of housing stock to the market.

In England & Wales the Empty Dwellings Management Order within the Housing Act allows councils to enter and take possession of (but not ownership of) vacant properties or properties that have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair. These orders go way beyond the legislation in Northern Ireland because they allow authorities to make the properties fit for purpose AND put them into the rental market.

The good thing about EDMO's is that the owner of the property still retains property rights but in a situation where the owner cannot or will not carry out the necessary repairs - often in the case of an inheritance - but the council takes on the responsibility for the property. Any repairs and maintenance carried out by councils to make the property right are recovered through subsequent rental income. Any deficit will be included as an attachment to the deeds of the property & recovered on sale.

It may just be the left wing, socialist in me, but I can't see a downside to this kind of action. The owner, who has shown no interest so far, gets to retain his ownership rights whilst at the same time, his property is maintained and possibly improved. The state, without having to build or buy houses gets to address the issue of the shortage of available housing. In addition, there is the added bonus of those properties not being a blight within communities.

I remember that only a few months ago, when the subject of vacant properties was raised in my own area, North Down, that one of the DUP's senior MLAs wrote that it was a shame to see so many vacant properties in the area and whilst he wished that something could be done, it was 'impossible' to take over the properties and fix them up. I was genuinely angry about this attitude coming from a legislator because the only thing that stops this being possible is legislation. So let's have it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Why I'm happy for the BNP to have the oxygen of publicity.

Well, what a wonderful few days for the media in Northern Ireland. Seasoned hacks who have been struggling to get to grips on boring issues like housing (er, is it housing for catholics or protestants?), healthcare (er, are closures in catholic areas or protestant areas?), welfare reform (er, will this affect catholics or protestants more?), were given welcome relief in the form of Parades, Racists and Homosexuals. They know what they're doing with those issues, that's for sure.

But let's focus on racists for now. In particular, the racist, sexist, homophobic leader of the racist, sexist, homophobic British National Party. Nick Griffin turned up at Stormont on Saturday during the celebrations to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. As is to be expected, he then set about trying to offend as many people as he possibly could in the shortest space of time that he could making full use of Twitter's ability to reach an audience of thousands.

I'll not go into details of his particularly offensive tweets - if you want, you can get detail here - because pretty much everything he spouts is offensive in some way but I do want to talk about the reaction. It was, as ever, pleasing to see widespread condemnation for Griffin and the BNP, particularly from many members of the Orange Orders and our Unionist politicians who made it clear he was not a welcome presence (though I think referring to the covenant celebrations as being inclusive was taking it a step too far).

Following this reaction though, Stephen Nolan sought the public's views on whether he should interview Griffin on his TV show or not. This itself was a surprising development as I never imagined Stephen Nolan considered anything other than ratings when choosing his guests. I may still be right because Griffin is going to be on his show despite what was, in my own view, an emphatic NO response to Nolan's suggestion.

But I am pleased Griffin will be on. No matter how offensive you may find him, Griffin does represent a legitimate (in the most literal sense of the word) political party and it is essential that we don't make exceptions to our desire for freedom of expression for those who we disagree with, no matter how awful we perceive them to be. What is particularly important is that small political parties are given a platform to discuss their policies and inform the electorate of their agenda and ideology.

This platform doesn't need to be equal to that given to bigger parties, for obvious reasons, but there is a need for it to exist. It seems pretty obvious but I'll point it out regardless: if we don't give small parties the chance to showcase themselves then the big parties are left with a virtual monopoly within the media and that is good for no one. Of course it is the job of political parties to win the votes that warrant more and more airtime but there has to be a starting point and those that say the BNP shouldn't be given any airtime seem content to throw the baby (all small parties) out with the bathwater (the BNP).

We've had - and continue to have - this discussion in Northern Ireland about the TUV. So called progressives cry foul every time Jim Allister is on TV and the radio but those same progressives never seem to mind if Steven Agnew is on air (unless it as the expense of one of their representatives) and the desire for that kind of selective censorship makes me very uncomfortable.

It's understandable, though. The idea of Nick Griffin spouting his vile views on TV is distressing. The way we combat that, though, is by not letting him talk about the things he wants to talk about. If he wants to parade as a full service political party, then he should be taken to task on that. Ask him about Healthcare, Education and the economy and don't let him pivot to his go-to excuses such as immigration, foreign aid or human rights. I wrote some time ago that it was important that we don't just attack the BNP for being racist but that we interrogate and critique all aspects of their agenda. It's still true. They're still incoherent.

Bring them on, and let's embarrass them in front of a big an audience as we can muster. Nick Griffin, after all, likes an audience.

On Equal Marriage and the Political Process.

So, as anyone with even a passing interest in Politics (or has caught any of The Stephen Nolan show recently) knows, the Northern Ireland Assembly has now debated Equal Marriage and rejected it, albeit by only a small majority. Much may well be written about the debate, about certain contributors, about certain non-contributors and about homosexuality and homophobia in general. I, however, want to write about the process first because, for me at least, yesterday was a small victory for the democratic process.

That may seem an odd claim to make, considering the way that the DUP perverted (I can use that word, too, Jim Allister) democracy with their use of the petition of concern which ensured the motion could only pass if a majority of both nationalists and unionists supported it. I still stand by it though, and here is why: The motion was brought to the house by the Green Party. The smallest party in Stormont.

Yes, it wouldn't have gotten to the chamber without Sinn Fein adding their support and selecting it for debate, but I am convinced that Sinn Fein wouldn't have done so (or at least not at this point in time) where it not for directed lobbying by Steven Agnew MLA, Green Party activists, LGBT activists & voters. Remember - the Green Party tabled this motion last February and it sat there, waiting for others to support it until the Assembly term ended. When Sinn Fein started their campaign of getting councils to vote on motions in support of Equal Marriage, it gave us an opportunity to say to Sinn Fein "well, if you'll debate it at council, why not at the Assembly". To their credit, they clearly listened and did just that.

The motion from Steven Agnew came about after the 2011 Green Party conference. As is the norm, motions were proposed by members and one of those motions was that the Green Party 'vigorously campaign and, where possible, vote in support of Equal Marriage'. The motion was overwhelmingly carried and, as such, became policy. Policy that became a motion tabled in the Assembly. Policy which saw us put the question to Sinn Fein. Policy which eventually secured the debate and vote in the legislature responsible.

So consider that. One member, from the smallest party in the Assembly, brings a motion to their party conference and what follows is a process that ends up with that motion debated (and nearly passed) at the highest level. Now consider what would have happened had the motion been something not as controversial, nor as divisive. That motion may well have been passed by the Assembly. The Executive would then have to consider how to respond to will of the Assembly, and that may result in the eventual change that was sought.

All from one member, of one party, with one motion.

No, it's not always easy, but if you have the will and you believe in your cause, it is still possible to effect change, even in our form of democracy.