As Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon John Bercow has taken on the external roles of being an ambassador for Parliament and an advocate for democratic politics. A frequent speaker around the world, last night’s delivery of the annual Amnesty international lecture at Belfast Pride was his third visit to the city. On his previous trip to the PSA 2012 conference he asked what a 21st century parliament should look like?
Verbose, fond of word play and a little reminiscent of a loquacious Russell Brand, John Bercow was entertaining as well as informative as he delivered his lecture to an audience of over a hundred and answered their questions in the Europa Hotel
exhibition hall. He was glad to be back in Belfast, though admitted “visiting politicians are scarcely a novelty in Northern Ireland this year”. basement
While careful to remain impartial about party politics, he felt free to be partial about people who serve Parliament. East Belfast MP Naomi Long was in the audience and he described her as “courageous, principled and dedicated”.
He presented “some sobering figures” [some of these seem to be from the 2003 Youth Net Shout survey]
- 63% of LGBT young people experience harassment at school due to their sexual orientation;
- 57% of LGBT people employed conceal their sexual orientation to some extent at work;
- 29% of LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
Bercow outlined why he wanted to associate himself publicly with causes like Belfast Pride week. He admitted that it was a departure from the traditional role of Speaker of the House of Commons, but he “believed with conviction” that a Speaker’s support for human rights was both “legitimate and essential”. Visiting other countries, Bercow says he hasn’t been shy about condemning human rights abuses.
He spoke at length about the work of the “workaholic” Joint Committee on Human Rights. With members from the Lords and the Commons, the committee scrutinises every government bill to ensure measures are compatible with the Human Rights Act and recommends amendments that don’t always please the ministers proposing the legislation. He also highlighted thematic investigations – eg, into the right of disabled people to independent living – conducted by the Joint Committee. Bercow emphasised that rather than being majoritarian, Parliament had to represent the maligned and marginalised too.
At home and abroad it’s increasingly hard to engage in human wrongs without witnesses.
He noted that human rights was now much more embedded in the thinking of Parliament than when he was first elected. And it wasn’t just the MPs with a legal background who were engaging with issues. Bercow said:
Politics is not just the art of the possible [but] the art of what we choose to make possible.
In the question and answer session after his speech, Bercow addressed LGBT issues in Northern Ireland. He was careful to respect and not criticise local devolved institutions
[The NI gay rights] journey has been in the right direction but sharply slower than we have enjoyed elsewhere in the UK.
While Northern Ireland is “considerably behind us”:
… if it’s won through in the rest of the kingdom it will prevail in Northern Ireland.
Bercow dismissed DUP MLA David McIlveen’s statement about there being “two types of equality” at the Pride Talks Back event earlier in the week, saying
It’s nonsense on stilts.
He also addressed questions about the some media’s use of the phrase “human rights” as a slur; Lord Tebbit’s worries about a lesbian Queen producing an in vitro heir; equal marriage arguments – for and against – from people with faith. He finished with a terrific impression of Tony Benn.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.