The Kids Should Have Rights

Look at that. That’s the kind of crap I’m doing these days. That’s SQL – Structured Query Language. It’s what you use to handle the huge databases of information that all modern organisations run on. What’s more it’s SQL done the hardcore way – from an old-fashioned character terminal instead of your fancy modern graphical interface. It’s really just one step up from reams of paper with green lines on it. And as you can see, just to be extra masculine I’m doing it on Linux. What are the advantages of using Linux rather than Windows here? None at all. Linux actually makes it harder. But that’s how we like it.

“It’s hard to know which way to vote,” my mother said today. We’re having a constitutional referendum on whether children should have the right to be recognised as individuals rather than as the property of their (biological) parents – which, simplifying violently, is the situation as it stands.

Don’t worry, my mother’s not ideologically opposed to freedom for kids. Like many others she was just confused by all the argument. The law requires the state – and state media – to give an equal hearing to both sides of a constitutional referendum. So if we ever decided say to put a clause against genocide in the Constitution, the government would have to publish booklets that were 50% in favour of massacring whole ethnic groups. Which would be interesting.

And this referendum has found so little mainstream opposition that it’s already spotlight time for the loons. Sinn Féin are in favour, for God’s sake. Even the Catholic Church isn’t opposing it openly. So people with some really quite odd opinions have been dug out to appear on TV. “Who is this John Waters?” she asked. “A wanker,” I explained.

There are some opposing arguments that are not irrational, but the overwhelming majority of people who have to deal with issues around child protection seem to be for this change, so it’s them I think I’ll go with. But whichever way you feel, I hope you do vote – if only to take advantage of the chance to protest against the horrific economic punishments being forced on this country. I don’t mean spoil your vote – referendums are too important for that. Someone made a brilliant alternative suggestion:

You have to fold your ballot before you put it in the box. But there are no rules about how you fold it.

Fold it into a paper aeroplane, to symbolise the ultimate fate of the children for whom government professes to care. Imagine the impact it would have when they opened the boxes on national TV if we all did it.

So What If It’s Sharia Law?

This image has nothing to do with the article, I just like it.
(Image by Glyn Lowe Photoworks via Flickr)

It didn’t take them long to find a hater, did it?

A Muslim – an Irish man, not a furriner – was talking on the radio about a hold-up with the new Muslim graveyard in Dundalk. They’ve been campaigning for this for six years, and thought they had secured it – only to be told by the local authority that, according to a law of 1888, all burials are supposed to be in a coffin. Islamic practice is to bury a person directly in the ground.

It should be a human interest story about a community unable to bury their own family members in the town where they live. But, someone has to phone in to complain that Muslims “Always want things their way”. Ireland’s Mr. Creeping Sharia.

Now don’t get me wrong, I revile Islam. The religion is anathema to me because… Well, because it’s a religion. I pretty much despise them all. Religions are dangerous confusions of morality and mythology, systems of absolute authority founded on fear of the different and the unknown.

Which you have every right to believe in. A right, what’s more, that I will defend to the death. This is what religious activists pretend not to understand about secularism. We don’t want to stop you doing your religion. We want to stop you stopping other people doing their religion. The law should not impose one person’s faith on another. Freedom of conscience is sacrosanct. I might think that what you believe causes a great deal of harm to you, but as long as it doesn’t cause you to harm others I have to respect your right to believe it.

Of course there will be times when beliefs and the law conflict, and it goes without saying that the law of the land has primacy – whatever the Catholic Church chooses to believe. But the entire point of democracy is that law can be changed. It is not holy writ, it is decided by people to suit their will and their changing needs. So we can accommodate other people’s traditions – if we want it to.

It would be different if the tradition could harm others, if say there was a danger of disease associated with coffinless burial, but I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that. The law of 1888 serves no function now except to make life that much harder for a small minority. And it seems only to be supported by the sort of bigoted zero-sum shithead who phones into radio programmes to advocate making life harder for minorities.

Sarkozy – Little Brother Is Watching You

EPP Summit October 2010
He'll protect France, even if he has to turn it into a fascist police state

Unable to pass up an opportunity to move his country further to the right, Sarkozy is introducing a law that criminalises visiting sites about violence and hatred “habitually”. Whatever that means.

Can we please apply the brakes of sanity to that? Imagine if there was a law against “habitually” reading books about violence and hatred. Or indeed about habitually reading anything. Or a law against conversations about violence and hatred? Unthinkable. Yet those are the only two things you can do by visiting a website. Read, and discuss. A website is just a form of document after all – indeed, the form that is rapidly replacing books, newspapers and magazines. Yet leaders are eager to make sure that the replacement for printed literature is a thousand times more circumscribed, monitored and controlled than literature has been the birth of democracy. And not only controlled, but controlling – because now we have books and newspapers that can read you back, check you out when you check them out, write reports on you. If it sounds like an old Soviet Russia joke, there’s a good reason for that.

But surely monitoring people’s reading habits is unthinkable in a democracy? Nope, not at all. In fact such laws already exist. It’s just that they’re specific to child pornography. But all around the world, laws that undermined a basic principle of democracy for just that one extra-super-special, won’t-someone-think-of-the-children case are being broadened and repurposed – precisely as predicted.

All you need to pull this off is an urgent threat to security. Say, the threat to security that a shooting spree by one madman who’s now dead so clearly represents. Once you establish the principle, it becomes perfectly legitimate to police people’s reading. And so easily, you have made it a crime to be the sort of person you think might commit a crime.

Legal Loop

English: Mr. Justice Edmund Sheppard, ca. 1874...
A judge this morning

This is precious. A judge in Kerry has been summonsed – to appear before himself.

He had, it is alleged, failed to display an NCT disc. (This shows the vehicle has passed a roadworthiness test.) A Guard issued a summons to appear in the local court – the very court said vehicle was parked outside of. Little did the officer realise that in doing so he was creating not merely a minor court case, but a dangerous instance of philosophical feedback.

Sadly the worthy took the safe way out, recusing himself from sitting in judgement on himself – presumably on the grounds that he might be prejudiced. I feel though that he squandered a marvellous opportunity. Could he not have dashed quickly from one side of the bench to another, or perhaps set a full-length mirror up in the dock? Or best of all, learned ventriloquism and arraigned a “Little Justice” glove puppet.

Honestly, some judges aren’t even trying to be funny.

No On Both Referendums

"Well Connected" - Photo Irish Independent

Turnout is low. Too low.

Late in the day as it is, I want to urge people to get out and reject both referendums. There is a lot of confusion about them, I do not think government has paid sufficient attention to explaining them – in itself a reason to refuse their request for a change – and in particular there seems to be misunderstanding over the judges’ pay issue with many associating it with the exorbitant legal costs, of the Tribunals in particular.

The legal profession does need to be reined in, but this amendment simply has nothing to do with that. It is the fees charged by barristers and law firms that make legal action so expensive. Judges are paid by the state, and the cost of employing them is almost trivial by comparison.

Of course reducing their pay would save some cash. But not a lot, and it would come at the price of a very important principle. What is there to stop a future government, with a bill being tested in the Supreme Court for constitutionality, threatening judges with drastic pay reductions? If this amendment passes, nothing.

The independence of the judiciary is essential to a free country, and we shouldn’t even be dreaming of compromising it.

As for the other amendment, I think the Oireachtas should have the power to hold parliamentary enquiries. But I would rather we did without them for a bit longer than give excessive powers to government. This amendment seems very vague, and I simply can’t believe that broad new powers for TDs and Senators won’t end up being abused for political ends. We need to examine this more carefully.

And as for the Presidency, that’s turned from a fun game into a desperate last-minute attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of Fianna Fáil. You may not be a fan of Michael D., but he’s the only one now who can prevent our next President being a man who, increasingly, looks like a new Bertie Ahern.

Please, get out there and help.

Confession Under Pressure

priest
Image by filipe.garcia via Flickr

Is the seal of confession above the law? It’s a question that’s been asked over and over again, in one crappy TV movie after another. The answer – if any final answer there can be – is no of course not, don’t be stupid.

Characterizing this as some sort of revolutionary break with church domination is the sort of nonsense we can leave to others. A priest who, to take a fiction-friendly example, knows that a murder has been committed cannot escape criminal charges by saying he was told about it in confession. He escapes criminal charges because failing to volunteer information is not a crime. It’s up to his own sense of right and wrong. That’s why you can get a good hour and a half out of it.

So this measure is revolutionary, but its effect on the lives of priests is of trifling importance compared to how it affects all of us. It creates a new crime of not telling what you know – something that does not fit at all well with basic ideas of a free society. To commit a crime you have to actually do something wrong. It is not a crime merely to know something, and it is not a crime not to do something. Exceptions are specific – you can commit a crime by omission only if you have a specific duty of care. If you don’t feed your horse it’s a crime. It’s not a crime if I don’t feed it.

Professionals have specific duties of care that come with the job. A doctor has to act if they believe someone is endangered for example. Under common law principles, the rest of us don’t. You would think that a priest or bishop could be said to have a professional duty of care over the children of their parish or diocese, and I don’t know why this legal route was not taken. Perhaps it would involve the state in the professional regulation of clerics, something it feels it’s better well out of.

Instead, this proposed law would seem to create a universal duty of care towards children, incumbent on all adults. Your kids actually will be my responsibility. I think this is actually civilizing and might be a good idea anyway, but I can see big objections and big potential problems.

It may simply be unworkable. If it is a crime to not report suspected sexual abuse of children, how can you ever convict someone? You’ve got to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that they had reason to suspect abuse which was specifically sexual. What’s more, in the one situation that everyone is assuming this applies to – the sacrament of confession – you will never get a conviction anyway because it will always be one person’s word against another’s.

So if a law is both useless in practice, and breaches a fundamental principle of the common law tradition, I’m very much afraid it will either never happen, or actually be worse than nothing. We will need to think hard about this.

Wouldn’t it be simpler to just ban priests?