Nobody should be forced to change their principles
Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30
Until the end of the 1960s, you could read adverts for domestic staff in the papers which added the coda: 'Protestant preferred'.
This is nowadays greatly deplored as arrant sectarianism. But on closer analysis, was it so unreasonable for, say, a Church of Ireland rector in Co Leitrim to seek a Protestant housekeeper to mind his four children? Is it so wrong to want someone employed in your home who would accord with the norms of your family values?
Our contemporary laws say it is unacceptable. Discrimination in Ireland is against the law in the workplace, under Employment Equality Acts, or in goods and services, under the Equal Status Acts. And of course, discrimination in the public arena of employment is highly unjust and also extremely inefficient. When Walter Long, the Chief Secretary for Ireland in the 1900s, urged the civil service to "appoint only solid unionists" to Irish government service, it was an outrageous example of seeking to manipulate a public civil service for political ends.
It was also inefficient - excluding able candidates from jobs and advancement in their working lives. Nearer our own time, we have seen prejudice in the jobs area on both sides of the border.
Yet, shouldn't there be some differences acknowledged between jobs and services in public employment and in big corporations, and the choices that individuals may make in everyday trading matters?
There is an argument for a "conscience clause" to be written into the law if the forthcoming same-sex marriage referendum is successful - which would exempt religious groups from prosecution if they found it impossible to comply with every element of a new law.
I would prefer to call this a "freedom clause" - allowing the individual, family, or small firm to exercise personal freedom in certain areas of trade or practice (and in some specific areas of educational choice too). Otherwise, will the State come to dictate every aspect of private life?
The Ashers' Baking Company case in Belfast was an egregious example of the curtailment of freedom to trade. This Presbyterian family bakery declined to bake a cake with the message 'Support Gay Marriage'" commissioned by Gareth Lee, who is part of a lobbying organisation called 'Queerspace'.
The Equalities Commission in Northern Ireland provided £40,000 to support the case that Mr Lee was discriminated against.
(He said in court that he was "made to feel I am not worthy" because Ashers' bakery declined to bake his cake.)
Judgment has been reserved, so far, but the case should make anyone who runs a family business, or is self-employed, fear for the freedom to trade in the future.
Yet it's been an established tradition, going back to the Mediaeval guilds that buyers and sellers are free to accept or decline trade.
No society which lays any claim to liberty can impose the obligation on a trader to enter into a trading contract.
The lawyer prosecuting Ashers gave the example of a postman delivering a letter: whatever the post contains, the postie is obliged to deliver the mail, equally to all.
But the postal service is a public utility - the postage stamp itself carries the authority of the State. How the State runs its utilities is not the same as how free individuals, families or small firms choose to trade.
Yes, it is right and reasonable to have a level playing field in government services and where big corporations are concerned. The French, inspired by Napoleon, coined the term "careers open to talent" - rather than to class or connections.
But "open to talent" has never meant "open to everyone". Making any choice involves some form of "discrimination".
Some decades ago my late brother asked my mother to lodge a friend of his and his new girlfriend, having left his wife. My Ma said she would certainly help out the pair, but she would put them in separate bedrooms. She just didn't approve of men dumping their wives, she said. "Ah Ma," said the brother. "Don't be narrow-minded."
"These are my principles," she said, "and I shouldn't be forced to change them, under my own roof."
Nowadays, she'd have some human rights lawyer on the doorstep charging her with "discrimination".