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Letters / ‘It should never have come to this’ – open letter to the Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee

Peter Hamilton outside Lerwick Town Hall last week. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Sirs, I write with increased concern for the future of your splendid festival. This is informed by my considerable disappointment that the convenor of Shetland Islands Council is still claiming to believe his internal legal advice.  Please realise you will not continue to be allowed to use the George V playpark for the galley burning and receive the hospitality of his office on the day of your splendid festival indefinitely.

Malcolm Bell is, of course, free to claim he believes whatever he feels like claiming he believes. Pigs fly upside down over Bressay.  The UN Rights of Women to Freedom from Discrimination do not apply in Shetland.  An all-male private party was held after hours in the Clickimin in order to celebrate Chinese New Year early.  What you choose to believe is up to you.

Some ten days ago I held a silent vigil outside Lerwick Toon Hall, and enjoyed many a fine cuppa from the staff (thanks again!) and many a fine chat with old friends and new acquaintances.  Whether you or Malcolm Bell believes that my low key protest was a private party, a community event or a silent vigil is also up to you, but some consistency could be helpful.

I was asking the council to get around the table with you so that they could quietly let you know of all the many reasons why things have got to change.  I gave them two weeks to make progress with that before I take matters south.

That is the same length of time it took you to ban black face after the murder of George Floyd.  Bell ended up refusing to ask you around the table, but had he invited you in, everybody knows, in this day of social-media connectivity, you would have been able to agree to turn up pretty quickly.

Now, instead of agreeing to promptly meet a group of women you have long ignored to talk about their concerns, you have decided to consult the “Up Hella Aa community” and give over a bit o time at your next mass meeting to hear what your male members think of women and girls being allowed to take part in their community festival/your private party.

Please try to remember the Up Helly Aa community does not represent the Shetland, or even the Lerwick community.

It sometimes looks like you believe you are a law unto yourselves, outside of the equalities legislation which is in place to protect us all from discrimination, and the greater evils that flow from it. Perhaps you are not aware that voluntary groups such as yours, with fees for services and use of facilities, are also required to comply with duties under the Equality Act?  This is a fact. It does not require a vote.

You did not consult the entire Up Hella Aa community when you decided you needed to broaden your ranks by including men across Shetland.  So why would such consultation be necessary to open up for all genders?  The game is up. Enough diddly dallying.

If Up Helly Aa is a community event you would be meeting immediately with people who want to help you include folk. 

If it is a community event, you should be keen to learn how it feels to grow up trans or gay in Shetland, and whether the all-male nonsense makes them want to stay, leave, or indeed leave and never come back.

Many young Shetlanders are on an entirely different page on issues around gender and sexuality and feel increasingly alienated from your hyper-gendered outdated version of UHA, which has only just turned its back on racist portrayals of men, but still has nothing to say about sexism, transphobia and homophobia.

Everyone knows that you, the committee, are in touch by phone and social media and can make rapid decisions when needs be.  You could agree overnight to meeting the group of women from Up Helly Aa for Aa who have asked to meet you.  You could agree overnight to meet them before this month is up.  The talks would likely be well mediated, productive and would help to heal the bleeding sore others have left you with.

Let’s be absolutely clear.  If yours is a private party, you may have to find a private burning place next year.  Somewhere up the back of Staney Hill perhaps?

Properties in the ownership of Shetland Recreational Trust have to comply with the equality duties which apply through the Office of the Scottish Charities Regulator.

Charities cannot fund or provide services and facilities to “community” bodies that are not properly constituted and lack an equalities statement.  These cannot be provided to private parties that practice discrimination either.  The same equality duty applies to public buildings and parks run by our council.  None of this should be news.  The wide-reaching equalities duty is why Lerwick Community Council no longer funds the Junior Up Helly Aa.

It should never have come to this. Such is the influence the festival wields in our community, and such is the social power that those who are deeply involved wield, that local politicians have been running scared.

The Liberal Democrats nationally promote inclusion and want council workers to receive unconscious bias training (might not be a bad idea for you either boys, seriously).

The convenor has still not responded to my email of 15 November directly to him, asking by what right, legal and moral, he supports you with the use of our facilities.

You might have heard him on the radio last week claiming he always responds, and claiming also that the civil ceremony, held to honour a bunch of men, does not discriminate against women because some are allowed in to watch.  That type of thinking is not going to convince anyone sooth.

With no disrespect, I am not sure it was wise of your secretary Robert Geddes to speak on Radio Shetland about the poisonous debate on social media, when it is your supporters whose vile posts are taken down.

Possibly they resort to xenophobia and other insults because they cannot justify the continued discrimination in any other way?  People should not have to move away because they think your sexist discrimination is not fine.  The last vile post I read was about how women should only be allowed to da hop night so that you can aa set aboot dem.

Shetland’s level of recorded sexual crime is half as much again as that for Orkney.  In the 32 reporting areas of Scotland our neighbours are third from the bottom for reports per head of the population, whilst we are eight from the top.

Turning a blind eye to sexist comments and promoting discrimination feeds into our shameful statistics, and these figures are just the tip of an iceberg that is made up of real people.  This your daughters, your pal’s daughters, your son’s girlfriends and their pals we are needing to make safer by changing the attitudes towards women and girls in our community.

However fine folk most of you likely are, the practices you have inherited are dangerous.  One way or another this has to change, and change fast.

By the way, I actually thought Robert Geddes did a fine job speaking on Radio Shetland last week. It isn’t something everyone would care to have to do.  But he accused me of spinning out my message on social media, when I think this is my fifth or sixth written contribution to the local media in as many months.

I have tried time and again to show the known harms that result from gender discrimination and gender stereotypes.  This is why it is looking increasingly like deeds are needed.

I am not short of words.  I am short of patience.  Robert Geddes stated whilst I had claimed to have been in contact, you have never heard from me.  Nice bowling Bobby boy! I have never been in contact before this week, nor have I ever claimed to have even tried.

Why not? Your current committee membership is perhaps not fully aware that it has rejected approaches from women and girls to be allowed to participate on an equal footing time and time again since 1985, if not before.  If you won’t listen to them, why on earth would I be expecting preferential treatment?  I did say you do not engage.  Isn’t it great dat things can change?

Boys, I am sincere in hoping we can all look back at this in a couple of years and wonder what all the fuss was about.  There is nothing to be afraid of in speaking to a group of women that only want to help where others have let you down.

It is not your fault this has landed on you, but here it is. There may be something to fear in what will happen after Tuesday in the coming week if you choose to call my bluff though.  Believe me, I dunna mind for a minute making four different complaints to prove how wrong the convenor is.  But what comes of that is on you, not me.

Instead of wasting time watching for flying pigs over Bressay, you might want to quickly let the lovely women from Up Helly Aa for Aa know you would be delighted to accept their invitation to talks, and without any form of delay.

Peter Hamilton
Scalloway