The ludicrousness of offence culture

Apparently paintings can now breach your human rights.

Noel Yaxley

Topics Politics UK

Lee Hegarty, a civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, was paid £10,000 in compensation because he was offended at having to walk past a painting of the queen. He said having to do so day in, day out breached his human rights.

Speaking recently about the case, which was settled under David Cameron’s premiership, parliamentary under-secretary of state for Northern Ireland Lord Duncan of Springbank said ‘the Northern Ireland Office takes its responsibilities under fair-employment legislation very seriously and seeks to ensure a good and harmonious working environment for all staff’.

The queen is, as with the rest of the UK, the head of state in Northern Ireland. But to many she is still a symbol of colonial rule. Discussing the case this week, the author Kehinde Andrews said on Good Morning Britain that he was not at all surprised someone working in the Northern Ireland Office would be offended by images of the royals.

Now, I am no fan of the monarchy. Unelected hereditary power is anathema to a functioning democracy. And I understand there are specific sensitivities around the monarchy in Northern Ireland. But this demand that the portrait be removed because it is ‘offensive’ is highly questionable.

How is it a matter of rights that this painting be removed? Hegarty was not really demanding his rights in this situation — he was demanding a privilege. A right applies to everyone in society, and it exists prior to government. A privilege, meanwhile, is something granted by government. What Hegarty did here was demand the privileging of his own offence.

If we accept that people have a right to cleanse their working environments of things they find offensive, where will it end? We are all offended by something, and this case could very well set a ridiculous precedent. It could lead to a proliferation of civil servants seeking compensatory damages due to hurt feelings.

There are parallels here with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University a few years ago. There, students demanded that a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes be torn down, because its presence was an ‘act of violence’. But just as you can’t change the past by toppling statues, you also can’t change the present by removing portraits.

Indeed, what has Hegarty achieved here? Other than to receive some handy compensation. The queen is still the head of state in Northern Ireland, regardless of whether her portrait hangs in the Northern Ireland Office.

This strange episode has only trivialised the issues this civil servant seems to care so much about.

Noel Yaxley is a writer.

Picture by: Getty.

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jessica christon

19th August 2019 at 7:44 pm

We need about a year of not caring whether anyone is offended by anything. After that, we can get back to the sensible medium we had before the offense culture took over.

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 11:12 pm

I don’t understand why everyone else working there wasn’t going for the 10k.

Ven Oods

9th August 2019 at 6:30 pm

At 10k a pop, I’m happy to think up some imaginary stuff that offends me.
That’d go some way to buying my Cameronista-style garden caravan for when I cobble together my memoirs.

Marvin Jones

12th August 2019 at 3:08 pm

BUT! you would have to think of something so ludicrous, that it befuddles the minds of the fools who only solve the silliest of problems with public money because of their ignorance and ineptness to think with a modicum of intellect.

Willie Penwright

9th August 2019 at 2:21 pm

“But just as you can’t change the past by toppling statues, you also can’t change the present by removing portraits.”

You can alter the present to improve the future and in the bizarre territory/statelet/colony of Northern Ireland tribal symbols should not be displayed in the interest of peace and harmony among the people who live there.

steve moxon

9th August 2019 at 4:36 pm

Beside the point. Even if there were any offence it most definitely does not warrant compensation; and even if taking offence were anything anyone could be bothered about, it cannot ever work if this is subjective; and objecting to the head of the state that’s not merely paying your wages but you are serving as a civil servant, should be rewarded with instant dismissal and a review of how such a person ever got a job there.

James Knight

9th August 2019 at 4:44 pm

Yes, I’m sure 10 grand compo will help with that.

Ed Turnbull

9th August 2019 at 12:19 pm

Hmm? I too work in the civil service and a colleague has a small bust of Mao Zedong on his desk. (We’ll leave aside the fact that the Civil Service Code requires civil servants to be apolitical; in reality that only applies if your politics aren’t full-on leftie). Surely this breaches my human right to not have to look at images glorifying mass-murdering commie dictators. What do you think are *my* chances of gaining a five figure sum of compo? I’m sure Mr Hegarty will have been supported by his trade union, will I get similar support from my union when I launch my own claim?

steve moxon

9th August 2019 at 4:38 pm

That’s precisely what I’d be doing now if I worked in the Civil Service. The rabid nutters haven’t a leg to stand on.

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