The different traditions in Northern Ireland sliced communities apart from the 1960s to the 1990s. As the world works to heal these sectarian divides, there’s one organisation that wants to dice Irish society, on top of the slicing.
Foxhunting is a northern and southern Irish cross-community triumph. The League Against Cruel Sports has arrived and is promoting hatred and division.
LACS landed in Belfast in 2019 with a poll on the future of hunting mammals with dogs. Carried out by London-based polling company Survation, it claimed that 80% of the province is against foxhunting.
LACS then enlisted the support of a local politician, John Blair MLA, to run a consultation on hunting sports. Following that, Blair announced he would bring forward a hunting ban bill in Stormont.
So far, so obvious – but there are many more bumps in the road than LACS usually encounters, and the bill’s future is already looking rocky.
First up, there are doubts among politicians that using a poll prepared by LACS is a sound basis for running a government consultation, which also looks like it was influenced by LACS, in order to put forward a bill that LACS wants.
LACS doesn’t want its bill tainted by the hunting community. Gary McCartney from Countryside Alliance Ireland says Blair has not, to his knowledge, consulted with the hunting community. Blair denies this.
“I have engaged with the hunting community regularly and often over the years,” he says. “I do it all of the time. I work with local conservation trusts. I work with local anglers. I know many people individually who are involved in countrysports. I respect what they do.”
John Blair MLA:
'I have engaged with the hunting community regularly and often over the years.'
Survation’s methods are also under scrutiny. Instead of randomly sampling an audience, it allows anyone to join its ‘panels’ by clicking on a button on its website. That makes its results relatively easy to influence without Survation staff’s knowledge if, as in this example, LACS is its client and knows about the survey before it takes place. A Belfast Live online survey on the same subject showed completely different results.
After Survation published its results, Albert Titterington, who runs the Irish Game Fair, signed up for Survation’s panels and has taken part in three unrelated surveys. He wants to see how Survation works. He is not impressed.
“I am not blaming John, because I would say that John is relatively inexperienced at carrying out surveys,” says Titterington, “and I would say that LACS are not inexperienced at carrying out surveys. I think in some ways he has been misled by LACS.”
'This is creating hate where there is no hate, and it is hate based on ignorance of the countryside.'
Survation’s results fed directly into Blair’s government consultation on hunting with hounds. Blair appears to have ignored the Belfast Live poll. Meanwhile, LACS lobbied its global database of animal rights activists to respond to Blair’s own consultation.
Blair denies that his consultation was biased. He admits that many of the responses to his consultation came from outside the province but adds that they came from both sides, pro-hunting as well as anti-hunting.
“John seems to be working very closely with the League in drafting this and, obviously, the information provided is, unfortunately, one-sided,” says McCartney.
'John seems to be working very closely with the League in drafting this and, obviously, the information provided is, unfortunately, one-sided.'
Blair may by now be learning that advice by LACS should be supped with a long spoon. He suggested that sheep farms should consider fencing as a way to keep out foxes. This went down badly among the hill farmers of the Glens of Antrim.
“John should come and try and fence it himself then, and see how good he is at that,” says huntsman Dan Kinney grimly. Kinney’s pack, the Glens of Antrim Foxhounds, is an emergency service for livestock farmers facing fox problems in the hills along Northern Ireland’s north-east coast.
'John should come and try and fence it himself.'
LACS is spending money on Northern Ireland. It is rumoured to have hired Scottish PR agency Message Matters to try to change the minds of the Northern Irish. Unfortunately for LACS, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has come out against Blair’s bill. And they are not the only ones.
“We have always taken the view with our colleagues in the Countryside Alliance and BASC … that fieldsports stand or fall together,” says Jim Haughey of the Ulster Angling Federation. “We very much oppose these moves to ban hunting with hounds and foxhunting and so forth because, apart from anything else, we feel it will be just one domino after the other.
“Once foxhunting with hounds goes, something else will go and something else will go and, eventually, they will come around to fishing. It will be only a matter of time. Our view is that we stand together and we support our colleagues in the hunting fraternity.”
Perhaps as a result of all this, Blair has not finished drafting his bill, even with elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly looming possibly in the autumn of 2021, and definitely by May 2022.
Blair denies that his bill will cover other examples of dogs used on wildlife such as gundogs, nor will it touch falconry, and it won’t ban snaring. He says it is likely to create a vicarious liability for landowners. If someone knows that a hunt is taking place on their land and does nothing to stop it, they could end up with a criminal record.
Bill Montgomery of the Northern Ireland Masters of Hounds Association recalls the last attempt to ban hunting, when Tony Blair’s 2004 ban looked like it might include Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales. “The then Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary went with me to see the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to explain that for him to try to stop hunting, particularly in the border countries, would have turned people who were normally law-abiding into law breakers. None of them were going to give up hunting,” he says.
'My hope is that Northern Ireland will keep hunting away from politics. We have got enough politics in Northern Ireland.'
“We had a wonderful Secretary of State then – who was a Labour Secretary of State – who said: ‘Don’t worry – I will talk to Downing Street’. And of course the bill didn’t apply to Northern Ireland. And my hope is that Northern Ireland will keep hunting away from politics. We have got enough politics in Northern Ireland.”
Blair also wants to ban trailhunting which, in line with LACS claims, he says is a loophole that allows foxhunting to take place. He does not want to ban draghunting.
Curiously, he says that he does not call his bill a hunting ban. “It is not that, never has been that, will not be that with my name on it,” he says. “It is, plain and simple, an attempt to bring a private member’s bill for where dogs are used for the killing of a wild mammal for human entertainment.”
Blair’s bill already looks like ‘LACS draftwork 3.0’. LACS contributed to the unworkable bans on foxhunting passed in Holyrood and Westminster. In Scotland, it made the mistake of banning ‘intentional hunting’ but allowing hounds to flush quarry and accidentally kill it. In England & Wales, not wishing to make the same mistake, LACS’s greatest error was to produce a law that asks judges to uncover the intention of the hound before convicting a huntsman. As a result, there have been a handful of convictions of registered hunts in the last 20 years, though the laws are often used to convict poaching and illegal lurcherwork. Now LACS wants to replace the laws in Scotland and England & Wales with new anti-hunting laws.
Blair’s ban looks like it will be pointed more at landowners and hunt masters than hounds and hunt staff. But that means criminalising the farmers of the North Antrim hills as well as the estate owners of Co Down.
A ban on hunting with hounds may bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK, but it is out of step with Europe and especially southern Ireland.
Jim Shannon MP believes Blair’s bill will not gain support in Stormont, especially and crucially, from Sinn Féin. “The ones that I have talked to told me that – the ones we have had discussions with – and we have had lots of discussions,” says Shannon. “Within the Unionist community, he will garner a lot of opposition. And within those who are small independent parties or independents, I think the issue will become difficult for him to gain… support as well. So, really, it’s going nowhere.”
Jim Shannon MP:
'He will garner a lot of opposition... So, really, it’s going nowhere.'
In the meantime, Blair’s bill still has the ability to damage the social fabric of the countryside. “This is creating hate where there is no hate,” says Titterington, “and it is hate based on ignorance of the countryside.”
There are 12 registered packs of hounds in Northern Ireland and perhaps another 30 unregistered. John Blair – like Tony Blair before him – both of them committed to working with minorities – is trying to drive a wedge into rural communities.
Fellow centre-left politician Tony Blair wrote in his autobiography that bringing forward LACS’s ban on foxhunting in 2004 is one of his greatest political regrets. It will be interesting to see if, oneday, John Blair feels the same.