Affront to democracy (Jonathan Wills)
Let’s see if we have this right: the chairwoman of the SIC education committee, who is a member of the Church of Scotland, has vetoed my compromise proposal for some sort of public discussion forum on education, which would have satisfied the reasonable request by Shetland’s religious communities to have their views on religious education taken into account by the committee.
In using her veto, the chairwoman ensured that a representative of the Church of Scotland would be appointed (perhaps “annointed” is a better word) to the committee as an unelected member with a vote. She also proposes to try to find a way fairly to represent all the other religious communities in our islands on the committee with just two more unelected representatives, again with a vote each. That is clearly impossible.
The chairwoman used her veto in the belief that (a) she had no conflict of interest as a member of the church being given privileged and discriminatory rights and (b) that she had no option, having been informed (mistakenly, in my opinion) that the council had no legal alternative. She also refused to defer the matter to see if a reasonable compromise could be reached.
The education committee currently has 11 members. Soon it will have 14 and a fifth of them will be unelected appointees. I imagine that most reasonable persons, be they of a religious bent or otherwise, will regard this as an affront to democracy. It is, in a small way, the sort of clerical interference, in properly secular matters, that British troops have been fighting against in Afghanistan.
Tom McIntyre is no Taliban and a very fine councillor he would make, I am sure, were he to submit himself for election, as I hope he will in the SIC elections next May. But he has no right to be on the committee, other than the flimsy and literal-minded interpretation of the law that was presented to bemused councillors at Thursday’s meeting.
This craven decision, which conflicts with European law and the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (both of which forbid religious discrimination) makes the council look foolish. More seriously, there is a danger that it will bring Shetland’s religious communities, and particularly the Church of Scotland, into disrepute. I am not a religious person but I respect the rights of those who are. Those rights include being taken seriously by the body responsible for education in these islands. We can do that by establishing a public forum of some sort.
The last one met infrequently and people with an interest in religious education felt it did not listen to them. The solution to that problem is to set up a forum that does meet regularly and does listen – not slavishly to obey an outmoded law for fear the government will send a policeman to the Town Hall to make us behave.
I can assure the chairwoman of education that the government, which has let this sleeping dog lie for a very long time now, has no wish to see a test case, for reasons apparent to anyone familiar with West Central Scotland.
If this forum requires an amendment to the council’s new constitution, I am sure we have legal staff who could manage to draft the necessary fine print. The chairwoman of the education committee should be asking them to do just that, rather than chucking her weight around by vetoing the efforts of a councillor to broker a workable compromise. If a forum cannot clear the legal hurdles, there is nothing to stop the education committee inviting religious representatives to address its meetings from time to time, or inviting them to one of the famous “seminars”.
Hopefully the people appointed to these three unelected positions will have the good sense and the democratic decency not to take them up, but instead to take up this suggestion of a different forum where they can air their views and exert such influence as reasoned argument may afford them. We have enjoyed religious peace in Shetland for a very long time. Thursday’s veto endangers that because it gives religious minorities good reason to feel discriminated against.
Cllr Jonathan Wills