Women only need apply

The announcement by the Republic’s higher education minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor to create women only positions in universities has received responses varying from derision to praise. The idea is to create professorships only available to women so as to even out the imbalance against women in higher education. On a charitable reading we must assume that for O’Connor this scheme is genuinely aimed at evening out the gender balance in the higher levels of academia and not simply jobs for the girls.

Whilst one can praise O’Connor’s commitment to gender equality, one can certainly question her strategy for bringing that about. Such schemes which discriminate against one group so as to correct a historical imbalance against another group fall under the euphemistic title of positive discrimination. Whereas in the past women were negatively discriminated against when entering higher education, now we employ positive discrimination to get them in. The assumption here is that because the discrimination is positive (for women) it is good.

However, positive discrimination for one group is very easily seen as negative discrimination against another. This is because the other group that it impacts, in this case men, are being discriminated against on the basis of factors irrelevant to the post; it does not matter whether one is male or female in order to be awarded with a professorship, what matters, among other things, is one’s experience, publications, qualifications etc.

Now one may argue that historically men have benefited from discrimination against women in the past, and in order to right that we must employ positive discrimination on behalf of women. But this is quite flawed reasoning because it treats individual men and women as part and parcel of the amorphous groups: men and women, and it reasons that if an individual is a member of one group, then he or she deserves the appropriate discrimination. But it is not clear that the individual men applying for jobs in higher education have benefited from historical negative discrimination against women, nor that the individual women who will benefit from O’Connor’s proposals have been negatively impacted by historical negative discrimination against women.

Being a member of a group with an identity does not entail that one is subject to all the privileges and drawbacks of that group. Rather, human beings are individuals, and so if one wants to correct injustice, one must look to injustices upon the individual. This is why when it comes to employment, what is taken into consideration are only those criteria which directly affect the post in question, and the candidate is assessed on whether or not he or she meets that criteria. This is the fairest way of awarding a position to a candidate, since the only injustice that can occur will be one which overlooks the candidate’s fit for the post and judges the candidate on criteria not relevant to the post. In academia, gender is not a relevant criterion for the fulfilment of a post, and hence it would be unjust to wield it against a candidate who applies for a position (or to deny outright the opportunity to apply).

So in this case what we have is one injustice being used to correct another historical injustice; and it is not at all clear that in order to correct injustice we must make use of more injustice. Rather, resorting to injustice to correct injustice only perpetuates injustice, accustoms a society to the universality of injustice, and in this case does nothing to promote excellence in academia. This is why O’Connor’s plan is not only plain silly, it is downright unjust.

Dr Gaven Kerr


UNESCO World Philosophy Day

Thursday 15th November marks UNESCO world philosophy day. This is a day wherein philosophy is celebrated throughout the world. Many departments of philosophy host special events or celebrations to mark this day.

It is right and just that we take a day to celebrate philosophy, for whilst the designation of ‘philosophical’ can often come across as quite negative (‘that’s all just philosophical’), there is an importance to philosophy that often goes unnoticed.

I think the importance to philosophy is illustrated by a famous story said of Thales. Thales was walking along one day and as he was looking at the sky observing the heavenly bodies, he fell into a well. We naturally think that Thales was quite foolish and absent minded for falling into the well, that he could not see beyond the end of his nose and look where he was going. But let’s consider this.

Thales was no fool; he was said to have predicted an eclipse. In order to do this he had to go through the painstaking observations of the heavens and abstract from that the principles of their motion and position in the sky, and then from that deduce where the heavenly bodies would be at a future date. This is a task many today would find challenging, never mind a few thousand years ago. Clearly Thales was a very intelligent individual, so what does his falling into the well have to say about the importance of philosophy?

Thales’s intelligence is revealed precisely in his missing the well because he was observing the heavens. He moves his attention away from the here and now and focuses on those realities without which there would be no here and now at all. Such a shifting of attention can make Thales comes across as stupid, unconcerned with everyday life, useless to the community; but in fact he is thinking through and trying to understand what the community in their everydayness take for granted. And this is what the philosopher does; in pursuing the different branches of philosophy, he goes beyond the concrete particular to consider that without which the concrete particular would be unintelligible. The philosopher is of service to the community precisely because it is he who understands being and its intelligibility.

The same thought can be drawn from a famous parable in Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, Plato, through the character of Socrates, outlines the myth of the cave. He asks us to imagine prisoners trapped in a cave from birth, unable to move so that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them is a fire and between them and the fire their captors parade objects from the outside world so that shadows appear on the wall before the prisoners. Not knowing any better, the prisoners naturally assume that the shadows are real things and that the talk of the captors comes from the shadows. However, a prisoner escapes and exits the cave. Immediately he is dazzled by the light and can only come out on a moonless night. Even in such darkness he can see that objects have more reality, more depth to them, than the shadows of the cave. Eventually he can come out in the light of the moon and see even more to the objects than before. And ultimately he can stand the full light of day and see objects in all their luminosity. This prisoner cannot return to the safety and confines of the cave; for not only is it not the real world, his eyes can no longer see in the darkness. His fellow prisoners would naturally assume that his journey outside the cave has damaged him and given the chance they would kill him.

There are many interpretative levels to this parable. The primary one is illustrative of Plato’s philosophy of the Forms or Ideas such that our everyday reality is founded upon the reality of the Forms, and it relates to the Forms like the shadows of the cave relate to objects outside the cave.

But there is a salutary lesson here for the study of philosophy. To study philosophy we must escape the cave of everydayness; and the first time we do this it is dazzling (it’s not easy studying philosophy!). We can only glimpse philosophy bit by bit. But the more we turn to it, the more we become accustomed to its light. Once we are at home with philosophy we are no longer at home in the cave, and indeed if we as philosophers try to return to the cave, we are shunned and avoided – we just don’t make sense to people anymore. We are like Thales, looking at things beyond and not focusing on the everyday; to many we seem to be of no use; like the escaped prisoner, our eyes are blinded to everyday reality.

However, the study of philosophy allows us to see the reality behind the humdrum of the everyday. We see things are intelligible and capable of being understood; indeed we offer accounts for precisely how all of reality can be understood and thereby justify what many sciences take for granted. We offer accounts of what it is to engage in action and what kind of action we ought to engage in; thus philosophy is pivotal for thinking through how one ought to live and act. Philosophers are critical in their thinking and do not take for granted something simply because some authority says it is so; indeed logic is the special domain of the philosopher. Through the application of logic and critical thinking, philosophers look for justification for any belief on offer. Indeed, when it comes to God and religion, philosophers engage with these issues and offer systematic defences of the existence of God and the truths of religion. In short, the pursuit of philosophy enables the philosopher to pursue a life lived well. This may not be of immediate utilitarian benefit, but it is something of everlasting benefit, since the life lived well is something that remains even when all utilitarian benefits are gone, and this is because the philosopher living that life remains throughout the comings and goings of riches and poverty.

Philosophy is worth the pursuit and effort that it takes to study it, and whilst many will not study it systematically at a high level, all are capable of engaging with the works of the great philosophers and getting something from them. In doing so, one will find that one becomes more reasonable in one’s thinking and better able to step back from arguments and disagreements in order to take a critical view of matters. Whilst philosophy may not have an explicit utilitarian benefit in the way that business studies might, the ability to adopt a calm and reasonable attitude to vexed issues open for public discussion is certainly a valuable consequence of the study of philosophy in this day and age.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Abortions for NI Women in Wales

In January-February this year the Welsh government set up a consultation on the issue of funding abortions in Wales for women resident in NI. Of the 802 responses to that consultation, only 14 were in support, and not a single one of those came from any NI woman. On the contrary, the majority were against the proposal. That means that 98.254% of respondents opposed the proposal for the Welsh Government to fund abortions for women travelling from Northern Ireland while only 1.746% were in favour. As a result of the consultation the Welsh government decided to ignore the majority of the responses and press ahead with abortion provision for women normally resident in NI. Their reason for rejecting the 98.254% was that they all came from the pro-life sector such that the objections were the same, thus they treated the opposition en masse.

Aside from the fact that the government should not have been surprised that pro-life responses would in fact be uniformly pro-life, the government ought not to dismiss the individuality of those who did engage with the consultation. Indeed, what is the point of such a consultation if the government intends on doing what it wants in spite of majority opposition?

As an indication that all the pro-life responses should not be treated en masse, but that individuals took time and care to construct reasonable opposition to the proposal, we here publish a submission made by Mary Lewis BL to the consultation. Hers is just one of a number of such submissions which the Welsh government has chosen to ignore. This submission was made in early 2018, and so some of the details pertaining to the SDLP’s position on abortion have changed since then, nevertheless they were true at the time the submission was made.

Response to the consultation on funding abortions for non resident women from Northern Ireland

An unjustified interference

Abortion is not a devolved matter for the Welsh Assembly yet it is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly which has voted on the issue a mere two years ago[1] and rejected a liberalisation of our law on abortion. It is totally inappropriate for the Welsh Assembly to act in any way regarding abortion or any other internal Northern Irish matter.


The consultation document insists on using the euphemism “Termination of Pregnancy,” tritely abbreviated further to TOP, to lessen the reality of the horror of the process, otherwise known as abortion. It should not be forgotten that this procedure ends the life of the most vulnerable human beings – in certain cases up to full term, e.g. where the baby has a disability.[2]

Numbers of Northern Ireland Women who undergo a lawful abortion in Wales.

It is our understanding anecdotally that very few women from Northern Ireland actually avail of lawful abortion in Wales. The Welsh Government will be aware of precisely how low this figure is. This raises the question:  why does the Welsh Government consider it necessary to take action on this issue? How much did this consultation cost?  If there is virtually no demand by Northern Ireland women for abortion in Wales why should scarce  resources, which could be spent in other multiple ways, not be used  to fund the  health of Welsh citizens who are already suffering long waiting lists for essential medical treatment because of  existing NHS constraints.


The Abortion Act 1967 does not apply in Northern Ireland because the democratically elected Members of the Legislative Assembly have not voted in favour of its extension. Indeed the SDLP, which is a sister party of the Labour party has a mandate not to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.[3] Other political parties including the two with the largest mandate ie the DUP and Sinn Fein equally have stood for election on the basis of being against the extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. The proposal to fund Northern Ireland women to have abortions in Wales brings the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland by the back door.

The Labour party does not operate in Northern Ireland and the Conservative party has an almost negligible level of support. It is arrogant in the extreme for either of these party groupings to presume or predetermine what is “best for Northern Ireland women” or citizens more generally.

Effect of the Abortion Act 1967

Since abortion was legalised in England and Wales just over 50 years ago,  there have been 8.8 million abortions – the equivalent of the entire population of  London. This translates to 1 in 5 pregnancies ending in abortion[4]  and an abortion every three minutes.[5] Abortion is no longer an exceptional response to a crisis, as is evidenced by the fact that 38% of lawful abortions in England and Wales last year were repeat abortions. [6] Surely there must be a better, kinder  way for women, babies and families in crisis than a default assumption that abortion solves the problem.

Appetite of Welsh taxpayers for this proposal

The residents and taxpayers of Wales have not been asked prior to this consultation whether they wish to have pre-existing stretched NHS resources redistributed to facilitate Northern Ireland women to have abortions in Wales. The public is constantly advised that the NHS is at breaking point, yet resources are to be found to pay for medical procedures for non-residents of Wales. The consultation document is unclear whether this funding will emanate from the Government Equalities Office (as in England) or whether the Welsh Government will have to find the funds from its own budget.


The proposals outlined in this consultation lack evidence of economic, equality, or any other justification and  I respectfully submit  that they should not be pursued further. I note that the Welsh Government proposes to review the position “six months after they come into force” which suggests that this consultation is a fait accompli. In any event, if the proposal is passed, there  will be many in Northern Ireland who will also closely monitor the situation through Freedom of Information channels and any other appropriate manner.



[2] S 1 (1) d  of the Abortion Act 1967 as amended by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act 1990.

[3] A policy which has persisted since 1984.

[4] 190406 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in 2016 as reported in  Of these , 185 596 were on residents of England and Wales. There were 696271 live births in England and Wales in 2016 see

[5] As reported by Lord David Alton in a speech given at St Bride’s Hall, Belfast on January 25th 2018.

[6], p 6.


Human Rights and Human Dignity

We are accustomed these days to rights talk. Rights have a significant degree of authority behind them. The European Convention of Human Rights is a foundational document ratified by a number of European countries. The concept of rights contained therein appears to command the assent of a number of Western democracies. Not only that, when an appeal to some human right (or the violation of such a right) is made it is often capable of putting to rest most social and political discussions.

Nevertheless, there remains some confusion over the nature of human rights, and whilst public discussions may often appeal to rights and rights talk, such discussions are rarely ever principled or follow a logical train of thought. Not only that, significant public voices addressing the issue of rights in relation to abortion, including representatives of Amnesty international, have stated that one is only a subject of rights if such rights are afforded to the individual by some governing body. Hence, if, on their reading, the unborn are not afforded legal protection, then they are not subject to rights and human rights do not apply to them.

This confusion quickly clears up when we actually read the human rights documents, that is, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The UDHR is quite clear in linking the ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ with human dignity, and the ECHR follows the UDHR in listing those rights that pertain to all humans in virtue of their dignity.

It is human dignity that grounds rights, and human dignity is something that one possesses not in virtue of being a member of a privileged group, such as all those who have been born, or some positive law granting one legal entitlements; rather, human dignity is something one has in virtue of being human. This dignity flows from human nature, and it does so precisely because human nature is rational nature. Human beings are the kind of things that are rational, whether they exercise their rationality or not. Hence they are the kinds of things capable of determining their own ends (regardless of whether they do so or not), and as so capable they themselves must not be the instrument for anybody else’s end; for that would be to treat them as less than human. Hence every human being is to be treated in light of the dignity that they have; regardless of the legal recognition or otherwise of such dignity. Indeed, it is precisely because humans have such dignity independently of state recognition that one can criticise the state or its authorities for abuses of such dignity.

Rights primarily flow from dignity insofar as human beings must be treated in such a way that their dignity is not violated. This fundamentally entails not subjecting their lives to the will of others, in which case we have a right to life, a right not to be tortured, not to be enslaved or put into forced labour. Flowing from this freedom from being subject to the will of others humans have a right to liberty and security, a fair trial when accused, and a legal framework within which punitive measures are exercised. Being free from the will of others all humans have a right to a private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and the right to marry.

It is clear then that beginning from the principle of human dignity we draw out these various rights all of which revolve around dignity; failure to respect these rights is a failure to treat humans as fully human. Effectively what these rights ensure are the conditions by which we can live lives in accord with our human nature. In focusing human rights on human dignity, the drafters of the human rights documents did not envisage human rights as things conditional upon state or legal recognition. At the time these documents were drafted Europe had just emerged from a second war which saw some serious human rights abuses, and it is doubtless that having states sign up to these rights and ensure compliance therewith is a good thing. But compliance or otherwise with these human rights by a state does not entail that one is not subject to these rights. Hence, regardless of whether or not a state grants to humans or a certain class of humans, such as the unborn, these rights, those human beings nevertheless have these rights. Any sort of rights talk which classifies humans in one way or another and attributes rights to one class and not to another is absurd and contrary to the nature of human rights which all humans have in virtue of being human.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Clarity from the Supreme Court

On 10th October 2018 the Supreme Court, the highest UK court,  delivered its much anticipated judgement Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd [2018] UKSC 49.

The story has been well rehearsed – Ashers is a company owned by committed Christians, the McArthurs. Mr Lee was gay and worked for Queerspace. He was an existing customer of the bakery and in May 2014 wished to have the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” iced on a cake he ordered. This was refused and the charge of discrimination commenced, aided by the Equality Commission NI, which sought to test the legal boundaries of discrimination and confirm that Mr Lee had been discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or  political opinion. Mr Lee succeeded in the County Court and NI Court of Appeal for reasons which were somewhat obscure to lawyer and layman alike.

The Supreme Court’s  judgement, however,  is a model of clarity. It held, regarding discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, that:

1. This was a case of “direct discrimination or nothing.”

2. Direct discrimination is by definition, treating people differently.

3. The correct comparator was other people, not different messages.

4. The circumstances of any comparison needed to be “the same or not materially different.”

5. Support for gay marriage was not a proxy for any particular sexual orientation, since anyone of any orientation could support it.

Lee v Ashers therefore differed from James v Eastleigh [1990] 2AC 751 – free swimming related to differing retirement age for men and women – and Preddy v Bull [2013] UKSC 73 (B&B accommodation only for heterosexual married couples). The complainants in these cases were adversely affected in law, because of a proxy for the protected characteristic.

6. There was no associative discrimination here – evidence of Ashers previously serving gay customers including Mr Lee himself and  employing gay staff, all put paid to that.

7. “In a nutshell, the objection was to the message and not to any particular person or persons.”

The Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that in this case, the cause of equality was done “…no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope.”

The Supreme Court also examined discrimination on the grounds of political opinion. It accepted that

1. Support for gay marriage was a political opinion.

2. It pointed out that discrimination can arise irrespective of motive.

3. The legislation was designed to protect those who held an opinion from less favourable treatment, as compared with others who did not hold such an opinion.

4. It was clear that Ashers had previously served Mr Lee in other ways. Likewise they would have refused to ice the cake with this message, irrespective of the political opinion of the person asking for it. The Supreme Court took the view that it was not Mr Lee’s opinions or beliefs which resulted in the refusal of the order, rather:

“The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not the man.”

An interesting aspect of the judgement was how the Supreme Court dealt with the European Convention rights of the McArthur’s who owned Ashers, as opposed to the company itself. It concluded that in order to uphold the qualified ECHR rights of the McArthurs under Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and Article 10 (freedom of expression), the company should not be found liable. This differed from saying that the company had Convention rights.

Rather, to ensure that the McArthurs were not obliged to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed or indeed be compelled to provide goods facilities or services expressing  a message with which they disagreed, unless justification was shown, the Convention rights could be invoked to protect the McArthurs, since to do otherwise would negate their Convention rights.


Significantly the Supreme Court was unanimous in reaching its decision. No dissenting voices confused the issue. Individuals are protected from compelled speech whether in icing, print, or orally. The groupthink mentality has been curtailed at least in the context of offering goods, facilities, and services.

Whether this is a victory for religious or political freedom has already been widely debated. However most commentators agree that the Supreme Court has stood up for freedom of expression, something which unites Baroness Hale, Peter Tatchell and no doubt, supporters of Iona (NI), on a significant area of social policy.

Shortly after she issued the judgement in Preddy v Bull, Baroness Hale gave a lecture at Yale Law School on Religion and Sexual Orientation: the clash of equality rights. She examined the case law on the subject and dealt with criticisms from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Attorney General of Northern  Ireland on how  equality law had developed, particularly as it appeared increasingly to sideline religious belief or indeed fail to understand or show sensitivity to it.

Baroness Hale defended the role of the courts by explaining that the Law Commission had dismissed calls to legislate against offending religious feelings. However, she noted in examining Canadian case-law, that provision had been made there for a “reasonable accommodation” defence in dealing with conflicts of rights. She also acknowledged that some Christians did feel a lack of respect for their beliefs and queried whether a more nuanced view would be better.

She concluded:

“I find it hard to believe that the hard line EU law approach to direct discrimination can be sustainable in the long run. But I am not sure how comfortable I would be with the sort of balancing exercise required by the Canadian approach.”

Perhaps in Lee v Ashers we can see the arrival of some much-needed nuance into the conflict between competing rights through the mechanism of freedom of expression.

Although the Ashers have been vindicated in this matter, there will undoubtedly be many more conflicts to come where rights will clash. Freedom of conscience in medical matters such as abortion and euthanasia is one which might benefit in part by this decision but I very much doubt if it will be the last word on conscientious objection.