In Defence Of Jamie – And Others Like Him

Writing in, Sophie Long gets to grips with the endless assault on freedom of expression. Sophie Long is a PhD candidate at the school of politics in Queens University Belfast.

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I have watched, with interest, the ongoing exchange on Eamonn Mallie’s site, between Jamie Bryson and Brian John Spencer. The two figures represent two, opposing camps, within ‘Unionism’, in its loosest sense.

Spencer, the spokesman for the “silent majority”, is emblematic of liberal Unionism, or, as they are often called, ‘garden centre Prods’. Bryson, on the other hand, speaks for a different group, perhaps best characterised as ‘T.U.V. supporters’, or anti-Agreement Unionists. We don’t have much time for anti-Agreement Unionists in the new Northern Ireland, and I believe that is a dangerous place for us to be.

Indeed, some commentators have criticised Eamonn for giving Bryson a platform, and dismiss Bryson’s views as inconsequential, unrepresentative, or downright irrational. They believe he should be excluded from sites such as this one, because he advocates things which are anathema to them. I am writing in defence of Jamie, not because I agree with him, but because I believe we need more dissent, not less, in Northern Ireland.

Dissent is necessary to a healthy democracy. We are a multi-faith, often no-faith, class-stratified society, which is undergoing rapid internal change, and is subject to the external shifts of Unions which we are part of. The dominance of one group and one set of beliefs, in such a society will not lead to progress. Disagreement and dissent benefits us all.

What shape that dissent takes might be uncomfortable for some, in particular readers of Eamon Mallie, who perhaps prefer their political narratives to be palatable, and broadly in line with their already held beliefs. Those same readers appear relatively happy to consume Spencer’s musings, indicating that there is something about Bryson, and what he is saying, which prompts a particular reaction.

We could, as some readers have demanded, cease to give Bryson, and those we most vehemently disagree with, a platform from which to speak. But what good will that do? We are a society emerging from conflict. We haven’t dealt with the past. We lack mature, political leadership. We are divided on a number of issues, not least what the new Northern Ireland ought to look like. Therefore, at the very least, at a civil societal level, we should be seeking more voices, not less.

That means welcoming all of our citizens into the discussion, and listening to what they have to say. There are sound reasons for doing this. If we only talk to those whom we agree with, we will reproduce the same narratives, and exclude those voices which unsettle those narratives. Political theorist Cass Sunstein argues that dissent performs a critical function in society:

Dissenters are often portrayed as selfish and disloyal, but Sunstein shows that those who reject pressures imposed by others perform valuable social functions, often at their own expense. This is true for dissenters in boardrooms, churches, unions, and academia. It is true for dissenters in the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. And it is true during times of war and peace. (2004)

I am not suggesting that Bryson ought to be granted special rights, after all, he is only one, but instead arguing that we would do more damage by excluding him, and others like him, than letting them speak. He is using a keyboard, not waving a gun. He is making arguments, and taking criticism. He is engaging with those who are unhappy with the outcomes of the peace process. A group whom, I might add, are not small in number. Why are they unhappy with the peace process? What shape would they like peace to take? I’d like to know, and I’m happy to listen.

In addition, I would agree with Bryson that you can be anti-peace process, and pro-peace. I don’t doubt the logic of that position. We have achieved a marked reduction in organised violence, post-Agreement. But we do not have a peace which includes all of our society. That’s a serious problem, and one which won’t go away, unless we begin to talk to those who have been excluded. What would you prefer those people to do, rather than speak up?

Of course, some argue that his views are offensive, or incoherent. I agree with him on some issues, such as the one outlined above, and indeed on the case which he makes against a neutral Northern Ireland. To me, neutrality means an absence of that which makes life interesting, and the presence, instead, of sanitised, consumable cultures and products.

On the other hand, I am firmly opposed to what Bryson has to say on equal marriage. But listening to him, or reading his articles does not harm, or oppress me. It offends me, on occasion, but that is not the same as harm or oppression. I can argue with him if I wish. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I would rather he was on a site like this, and talking to a range of people, than isolated.

What harm do incoherent arguments, or morally offensive statements, cause us? If we follow the reasoning of John Stuart Mill, who claimed that free speech was vital to a liberal democratic society, we must accept the right to free speech of all, even those voices which make us uncomfortable.

Because, as Mill argued, if we allow a range of claims to be made in the public arena, we are not obliged to agree with them. We can dispute them. If they are untenable, then they will be revealed as such via democratic argument. If they have some merit, we will improve our position by considering them. Debate, therefore, acts as a crucible, out of which we can only hope to produce some form of ‘truth’ As such, we have nothing to fear from dissenting voices. We have everything to lose from silencing them

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

6 comments to ''In Defence Of Jamie – And Others Like Him"

  1. I agree that he has a right to speak just as we all have a right not to listen....

  2. I like free speech. But Jamie is a highly sensationalised character, and he is very well placed as an agitator. Particularly on social media. He has a lot of information to give us, the public. Why? Who gives him the information? Is it really a matter of free speech? Or are we public a free audience of idiots? Drooling over the snippets of chickenfeed the Brits throw out at us, in this remarkably and rapidly changing Ulster. Does Jamie really want to bring down the Robinson dynasty? Or does it make Robinson and Stormont more powerful? when the public realise the Robinson's et al are as untouchable as people like Ken Clarke or Leon Brittan? Jamie is a little gem, and worth every penny to whoever is pulling his strings. The public love to hate him. He gives top-class entertainment. Wee Lord haw-haw Bryson.

  3. Great post.we need to hear from those disaffected and marginalised. Not the nicccceee alliance type and fucking castle Catholics who
    With big house unionists have screwed this country stupid and are still at it the NAMA scandal just the latest example

  4. Everytime he gets in front of a camera, its a wasted chance for Loyalists to put their case coherently. As such I would be firmly against any censorship of him from a strategic point of view (if nothing else) . Contrast that with someone like a John McMichael who was deadly because he was handsome, articulate and could lead others, a foe worthy of effort.

  5. Daithi D beauty a cara is surely in the eye of the beholder, as for Mc Michael being articulate well a cara you could say the same about Adams and we know who writes his scripts, put either of them on the spot and its a different matter,Mc Michael was indeed deadly he had the backing of SB, RUC, FRU, the brits udr etc .loyalism doesnt really have a voice because in reality they have no argument other than maintaining an undemocratic brit presence here though the threat of violence.

  6. Marty, I broadly agree with you, I havent seen Mc Michael put on the spot, but definately Adams segued into inanity to distract the questioner when troubled. Adams himself was/is very handsome too, as was MMG save for a dodgy 90's (Alan Partridge said he looked like a clown without makeup!).
    Anyway,it seemed Loyalist used to at least have a bit of panache, at the time of writing I imagined JB was in his undies watching Jeremy Kyle, not thinking up brilliant things.


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