Having Your Cake (And Eating It)

I may be an old man but I am not one of those who goes around complaining about Political Correctness. You will rarely, if ever hear me say “it’s Political Correctness gone maaaaaaad”. This is because Political Correctness is a very good thing…it is simply good manners.

But that Appeal Court Decision on Mondayq about the “Gay Cake” controversy is maybe ….ahem……Political Correctness gone maaaaaaaad.

Ashers Bakery make exceedingly good cakes. That’s the first point Id like to make. But a couple of years ago, did not want to bake a cake with a seemingly pro-Equal Marriage motif. They were sued and had to pay damages. It is a family-run business and the family has Christian beliefs, more fundamental than my own. The Appeal Court today upheld the original decision.

It seems a shame that such a trivial matter should be dealt with in such a heavy manner. A family-run business seems a soft target. After all, Equal Marriage is not on the statute book…I wish it was…but it isnt. A more difficult target for Gay Rights activists might be the DUP and UUP MLAs at Stormont who have blocked the legislation.

Belfast might be different now but Seamus Heaney understood that smoke signals are loudmouths in the land of the “password, hand grip, nod and wink”.

Some anecdotes. We paid the utility bills at the City Hall  (circa 1962) and as we were leaving, my father told me that the cashier was wearing a masonic badge and ring. The “wee newspaper man” came into our street from the Protestant end of the street…carrying his News Letters and Northern Whigs and scurrying past the Catholics with his head down. I went into his shop once and thought he was a bit ignorant with me….but as my father said “hes a bitter wee man….theres plenty of them around”.

Fast forward to early 1970s when my mother bought my shirts in a very large department store with a poor record on employing Catholics. When I protested, she said she only bought me the best.
Of course the combination of Legislation, Enlightenment and Boycott ended a lot of Discrimination in Employment.
But as my father would have acknowledged, Catholics can be bitter wee men (and women!). If you rejoice that the wee lassie in the bank displays a name tag “Saoirse”, you might find that the wee lad with the name tag “Norman” is actually nicer to deal with.
Thats how we are …all the same under the skin.

In Belfast, the number of department stores and multi-national firms and a city centre which was effectively a “neutral zone” hid a lot of sectarianism. Or alternatively it facilitated people who were not obsessive about such things.
But in the provincial towns with the shopping areas like Scotch Street and Irish Street and the grapevine, things were very different.
Getting a haircut in Belfast even in the 1970s, I never thought of such things. Dungannon was different. Unable to find a barber at 4.30pm on a Saturday, I crossed the town and was subjected to a lot of very blunt interrogation “we dont get Catholics in here….”
It still rankles with me that I crossed town and was badly treated.
Not typical…which is why thirty five years later, I still think about it.

Of course it is wrong for employers and businesses to act in a sectarian way. There are sanctions. But I wonder if there are appropriate sanctions on consumers who act in a certain way. In Norn Iron, we live in parallel universes….we go to different churches and schools. We read different newspapers. We live in different areas. We play different sports…..and even when we go  “up the town shopping”, we seem to be happier in Scotch Street or Irish Street.

But there are no penalties for not thinking about using the barber, the hairdresser, the newsagent, the chemist, the florist in Scotch Street (or Irish Street) and heading for the barber, the hairdresser, the newsagent, the chemist, the florist in Irish Street (or Scotch Street).

Few of us are actively sectarian. There is a passiveness to it all. Few businesses are actively sectarian. There is not much profit in appealing to one section of a divided population. Few business owners raise their head above the political parapet. They are as political or as apolitical as the rest of us but as some business owners called out by the Orange Order to protest about Parades being re-routed….and the business owner was seen on the TV News….then it was certainly a disincentive for Catholics/nationalists to use his business.

Be honest. If a prominent member of Sinn Féin opened a coffee shop in Belfast City Centre or a prominent DUP member opened a chemist shop in Belfast City centre would you make a point of supporting it, not supporting it….or would you be indifferent?

If “bitter wee men (and women) ” can run a business is it possible for “bitter wee men (and women)” to be customers?
Is It a bad thing to support or boycott a business because the owner is white/black, Catholic/Protestant, Muslim /Christian/Jewish, Gay/Straight? But is it somehow ok to support or boycott a business because the owner has a different political outlook to our own?. We might argue that Politics is about Choice.
But isnt it also about Perception. Can we assume that the more traditional Christians, Jews and Muslims have conservative views that we as liberals might not like.

Take…..cakes. Birthday Cakes….Wedding Cakes ….etc. Most cake shops will hardly refuse to bake a cake. No great problem for the Scotch Street baker to put “Happy Birthday Saoirse” on the cake. Taig money is equally valued. No great problem for the Irish Street baker to put “Happy Birthday Norman” on the cake. Orange money is equally valued.
But in the provincial towns with parallel lives and Scotch Street and Irish Street values, people are concerned about causing offence. We must NEVER cause offence.
So that “First Communion” cake will be iced in Irish Street.
So that “12th July” cake will be iced in Scotch Street.
While it is unlikely that any Baker will refuse the commission, it does not seem unreasonable to discomfort anyone with ordering and declining.
Is it really so different from New York or London?
Would ordering a cake with a pro-Palestine message “offend” a Jewish baker in New York?
WOuld ordering a cake with a pro-Zionist message “offend” a Muslim baker in London?
Most liberal minded people would say that it would potentially offend and that there is an onus on the person ordering the cake to be more considerate.
Certainly it would seem high handed for a court case to result.

But in Belfast, it is deemed illegal for a Christian owned business to decline to ice a cake with a message they deem secular and offensive.
It would have not have happened in Scotch Street. Or Irish Street.
Can it really be the case that some liberal gay people were so outraged that they could not buy a “gay cake” in a Christian baker….that they called in the Equality Commission to fund a court case and appeal?
Can it really be the case that a Christian family had to defend themselves on this charge? Yes, in the process they were backed by broader fundamentalists with the assertion that Christianity was under attack.

The problem with LetsGetALongerism (and forgive me if I have said this before) is that it is remarkably selective.
If I go into a Muslim-owned bakery and ask for a cake featuring a portrait of Muhammed (peace be upon him) and the order is refused as portraits of Muhammed are offensive….then I can contact the Equality Commission and have them fund my case against the Bakery????
Maybe Patrick Corrigan will stand outside the City Hall with one of his famous placards “Je Suis Fitzjames Horse”?

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3 Responses to Having Your Cake (And Eating It)

  1. Sinn Féin Supporter in County Tyrone says:

    SF is stronger on LBGTQ+ rights than the SDLP or other parties, I think.

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