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Nonviolence News July 2017

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Billy King: Rites Again

Billy King

Issue 124: November 2004

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

Well, George Dubyaforeignlanguagefilm got back in the same day as I saw the news that all the Arctic ice may have melted by 2070 (the icecap has shrunk 20% in 30 years and the melt is accelerating). It's going fast, folks. Who needs Armageddon? We're doing it ourselves and there's nobody doing it more that the good 'ol folks in the US of A, slightly over half of whose voters gave Gorge-Bash a Rapturous response at the polls. But don't forget that it's a country of two halves - the haves and many have nots, the conservatives and others for whom the President's views and actions may be as obnoxious as he is to the majority of the world.

I always like to bring you what is hot, so, I thought I'd begin with my visit to the "Conflict - the Irish at war" exhibition at the Ulcer Museum, I mean Ulster Museum, Belfast. [That exhibition has only been open the best part of a year - Ed] [Exactly - my comments come less than a year after the exhibition opened, how hot can you get - Billy]. So, I packed my muse and went off to the um...

Conflict - The Irish at War
This exhibition at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, takes a quick tour from stone age through Viking, Norman, Planter/Native, world war and 'Troubles' violence. It is a brave attempt to get to grips with an age old issue and problem across a huge time range. And the handsets provide comments from various citizens (including children) on some of the exhibits which add a very human and accessible dimension.

But I think my problem begins with the title. "Conflict - the Irish at war" is an interesting choice of title and subtitle but one which doesn't do any favours to overcoming stereotypes about 'the Irish' and a supposed predilection for violence. The modern approach to history is not supposed to be just about battles but this exhibition risks being mainly that. All right, so a bronze age skeleton showing injuries to the chest and without a head is, literally, a very human and graphic illustration of violence a long, long time ago, but what about all the other skeletons which might show no violence whatsoever? In other words, violence to one cannot show how other people lived or related to violence.

Don't get me wrong. A nicey nicery interpretation of Irish history would be futile and pointless. Violence has been a major factor in Irish history, and this is also reflected in Irish mythology. But the subtitle 'The Irish at war' does not even include how Irish people have rejected violence, sought to work in other ways for change, and even in antiquity may have rejected violence. In fact they mention three things that might be considered 'anti-war'; Adamnán's Law, the anti-recruiting song 'Arthur McBride', and Witness for Peace and the Peace People in the recent Troubles. A brilliant starting point could have been the Céide Fields in north Mayo four or five thousand years ago, showing that there were people around that long ago who lived peacefully and cooperatively with no defences (and presumably no attackers) [see 'Nonviolence - the Irish Experience' quiz on the INNATE website]. The exhibition claims that "It shows that the Irish of all traditions and creeds have spent much of their long history fighting - each other or someone else". I don't think that case is proven for the time span that the exhibition tries to be about - from the coming of the first settlers 10,000 years ago through to the current day. Total it up.

And it misses the question of what happened if Ireland did indeed become militarised. Was it the old one of an escalation to arms, a stone age or bronze age arms race, where one set of people became militarised and others followed to try to protect themselves? We cannot know but a bit of speculation might have been helpful. It also misses the question of whether this was at the same point as society became patriarchal rather than matriarchal, if that is what happened (i.e. the two things moved together and reinforced each other, or one led to the other). All right, there may not be evidence on that but I would have liked to see more analysis and speculation beyond the initial 'clash of hunter gatherers and agriculturalists' type analysis given. Why did people fight each other using violence? Power, control, land, wealth, kudos? And why did other people not do so?

But my problem is not just that it doesn't really cover those who rejected violence. I feel it doesn't really cover those who, during the Second World War or the recent Troubles, for example, just put their heads down and tried to get on with their lives. Ordinary people tried to live ordinary lives and often tried to ignore extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The sub-title means that these may not necessarily be included - were they 'at war'? They weren't fighting. If I could extrapolate backwards, there would have always been people in this category. It may be difficult to find their stories but it would be a fair assumption that there were always such people.

I would also argue that even within war and violent conflict there were examples of humanitarianism which do not necessarily come out. Take General Sir John Moore who took back Wexford for the Crown in the 1798 rebellion. Moore was later celebrated in the Top of the 19th Century Martial Poetry Pops when Charles Wolfe in 1817 wrote 'The burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna' about Moore's death in Spain in 1809. But, I digress, back to 1798 and Moore might have been expected to at least flog deserters from the yeomanry who had come back to try sort out their affairs after the rebellion as they needed to do if they wanted to get on with their lives. But he didn't flog them. He treated them humanely, in some cases with short terms of imprisonment and in some cases he even welcomed them back with a banquet! Maybe the fact that he was educated on the mainland of Europe gave him a more humanitarian viewpoint but it is an intriguing gesture - was he just being magnanimous, generous in victory?

And because war and violence are the focus, and not the totality of war, violence, rejection of violence and attempts to deal with issues non-violently or even nonviolently, there are only the few mentions of a 'rejectionist' approach, as mentioned above. Adamnán's Law is featured but not explained so that readers of the blurb would find it difficult to put it into context. This was a highly significant piece of what amounted to human rights legislation to protect women, children and non-combatants in 697. I was interested to learn that the song Arthur McBride ('and I made a football of his row-de-dow-dow'....) may date back to the 1840s, I suppose I had thought of it as an early twentieth century Irish/nationalist rejection of the British army. It is true that Witness for Peace and the Peace People were the highest profile peace groups during the Troubles, and the description is as follows: "Public outrage at the spiralling sectarian death toll in the mid-1970s was largely demonstrated by the formation of two peace movements, each of which enjoyed massive, though brief, public support. Similar movements in the 1980s and early 1990s, including cross-border and cross-channel peace initiatives in the wake of bombs in Enniskillen and Warrington, were also short-lived...."

But come to think of it, there is no attempt either to explore similarities in military ideology between Crown forces and 'republican' rebels, North or South, from 1916 onwards ('republican' in inverted commas because they weren't all of that persuasion at 1916), or other opposing forces. Some of the 1916 leaders were pretty militarist even if in a sacrificial sense. The IRA of the 1970s sought to win a military 'victory', just as the British government and army did. Military/militarist ideology is so 'taken for granted' that there is no critical evaluation of it all.

What should the title of the exhibition have been? 'Conflict, war and responses to violence in Ireland', or something similar, would have been better in allowing a more rounded interpretation, allowing also conflict to have been understood in the sense of a clash of ideologies as well as a clash of swords, rifles or bombs. To have ignored the evolution of constitutional nationalism and a figure like Daniel O'Connell seems a strange interpretation of conflict in Ireland in a wider sense, like I said, more an interpretation of history as battles than anything, though reference to constitutional nationalism is made in the context of 1798 (when 20,000 - 30,000 people were killed in the rebellion); "The last quarter of the eighteenth century witnessed a series of constitutional, political and military developments that would lead to one of the most serious conflicts ever seen in Ireland, the 1798 rebellion. From this cauldron would emerge the political profile of modern Ireland; constitutional nationalism; the concept of the 'armed struggle'; the role of paramilitary armies; the Orange Order and its Catholic counterparts; bitter sectarian rivalries; the Union of Great Britain and Ireland and those who defended or opposed it." It refers to the French defeat at Ballinamuck, Co Longford, in 1798 as "the last time an invader fought on Irish soil". - which depends in whether you considered Britain 'an invader' or had it ceased to be one, being merely an 'occupier'????

But it did focus on some lesser known battles, e.g. Edward Bruce's 1315 invasion from Scotland, getting as far south as Cashel and Limerick but then defeated at Faughart near Dundalk in 1318. A Polish sword from the 13th century found in Co Armagh was a fascinating example of the arms trade of the time. The exhibition says "the Vikings taught the Irish by example and militarised Irish society". At the risk of seeming to argue against myself, was Irish society or parts of it not already militarised? Maybe it became militarised in a different way. I'm not enough of a historian to accept or reject that statement. And the idea of Danish Vikings killing Norwegian Vikings in Dublin, recorded in 851, shows the complexity of some of this violence. But even the Vikings became traders, settled, and were integrated.

The exhibition is quite correct in detailing the military exploits of the Irish abroad, e.g. in the armies of France, Spain and elsewhere from the 17th century, and increasingly Britain. By 1850, 40% of the British army was Irish born or sons of Irish emigrants. With extremely limited job opportunities this is not surprising, particularly when you consider that at the time of the Famine, the population of Ireland was almost half that of Britain (if membership was even across the islands of Britain and Ireland, "Ireland's proportion" would have been over 30% anyway). It is also correct in saying that army life was held in low esteem and soldiers widely regarded as disreputable. And you can add to that nationalist rejection of serving the British Crown.

Other points it makes correctly include the heavy death tolls in the relatively few times when Belfast did get bombed in the Second World War (in the worst case, 900 in one night), then the presence of 300,000 GIs preparing for the invasion of mainland Europe, and "the south, though formally neutral, contributed significantly to Britain's war effort." Very telling was one black GI's account of racism experienced in Antrim, unfortunately prescient of racist violence as a phenomenon and also possibly a substitute or replacement for sectarian violence in our current era in Northern Ireland (interestingly, Carrickfergus got written about positively in the same letter - hold your head up, 1940s Carrick).

The exhibition ends with a reflection/sitting area, audio and audio-visual materials (including the moving Radio Ulster 'Legacy' testimonies from 1999, 2-minute items on how violence profoundly affected people) and the opportunity for people to make comments, an opportunity well exercised. Most who commented had words of praise. Some people from outside this island wanted more chronology, more 'history'. Some locals didn't want reminded. Some were grateful of the opportunity to revisit the terrors of the past. Some welcomed the fact that it engendered strong feelings (as expressed by comments). Some felt the way forward was not covered (a rather different exhibition perhaps). A 'Scottish/English/Indian friend' said "Well done Belfast! Now you have to deal with your racism!! Keep up the good work." One person said it was a "Splendid exhibition. War is a crime inflicted by politicians on common people." Another (with a name indicating most likely a Catholic background) said "I found the exhibition very biased and one-sided. I worry that the wrong history and facts will be passed to others". Another indicated the "need for the Irish to grow up, reject the past and face the 21st century without baggage...."

The exhibition is worth a visit if you're in that neck of the woods [Belfast's Botanic Gardens hardly counts as woods! - Ed] [Speaking metaphorically - Billy] [Sure you're always speaking something - Ed] but for me the problem with it begins with the title and subtitle. If that had been differently phrased then we might have had a more rounded, complex picture of violence and conflict on this particular island, and one that fitted the stereotypes less well. It might also help us to see not only the immediate consequences of violence (which are generally well covered and illustrated in the exhibition) but also the alternatives throughout the ages. This might have made it a larger exhibition because it needed to cover more ground but better a fuller picture than one which is too narrow in focus and which does nothing to question the stereotype of the 'fighting Irish'. And resultantly I don't feel that it is as helpful as it should be in helping us all to 'move on' beyond the Troubles and to create a society where support for violence of any kind is minimal. Because if it's what we have always been doing (and I don't accept that), what's different now, what indication is there that we're going to stop at this juncture? And do we just stop fighting each other and instead move on to support other people's neo-imperialist wars (as with Irish permission for US forces to use Shannon airport) and violence elsewhere?

[The exhibition will run at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, through to spring 2005 and possibly longer]

Water under the bridge
People in the Republic managed to avoid water charges some years ago, largely by popular resistance. In Norn Iron water charges are on the cards, cheapest likely £150, maximum maybe £750, based like Rates on property value and on top of existing Rates (or local taxes) I suppose I have been a bit torn between the green part of me and the socialist/justice part of me; water is a resource which, while Ireland has a considerable supply, costs to get from reservoir to tap. Yes, the water infrastructure needs much work which has to be financed somehow but undoubtedly this is also a preamble to selling it off to a private owner and that I find obscene. On the world level, water privatisation has severely restricted the access of poor people to water (i.e. they can't afford new, privatised charges and so they are cut off - and have to resort to unsafe supplies with severe repercussions regarding their health and wellbeing) and while this may not happen in Northern Ireland, the idea that people on benefits should pay 75% of even the minimum charge - and many would pay more - is obscene.

So my position would be a very definite no to the water tax. I hope Ulster says no. As a green, I would favour metering of water if there was a 'free' supply for the 'average' household and adequate support for those on low incomes who needed more. There is nothing wrong in encouraging responsible use of water through metering. There is everything wrong with a basic human resource being run for profit and being financed by an inequitable taxation system (charged per house valuation rather than by ability to pay).

For those who fancy getting involved in opposing the water tax proposals in the North, you can choose to be involved through the trade union campaign, see www.ictuni.org, or phone NIC ICTU 028 - 90 24 79 40, NIAPN (Northern Ireland Anti-poverty Network) 90 87 50 10, CAWT (Communities Against The Water Tax) at 90 87 50 10 or other, local, political groupings, e.g. 'No To The Water Tax', PO Box 547, Craigavon BT63 5WZ, ph 0773-2954843, e-mail organise_armaghdown@yahoo.ie or 'Communities Against The Water Tax', 54 Manor Street, Belfast BT14 6EA, ph 028 - 90 74 91 47, e-mail cawt@btconnect.com

Be very afraid
Yes, Hallowe'en is over for another year but we have reason to be very afraid. Fear isn't necessarily the best motivation for change, personal, social or political but realities and possible realities have to be faced. I am going to deal with the dreaded 'CC' again (Climate Change). Most of you will know about the severe repercussions for our climate if the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic current changes course or stops. But the Guardian newspaper of 14th October took a look at twelve places where the devastating effects of climate change could be felt. What follows is just the briefest of summaries of eleven of these.

The Sahara itself may benefit from additional rain, but dust from the Sahara will be flying about the planet less which may mean big problems for the Atlantic (which with less plankton may increase global warming further) and even the Amazon. But the Amazon itself may be threatened by a decrease in rainfall there. An enormous amount of methane is tied up in Siberian permafrost and ocean floor sediments; this may be destabilised and released adding enormously to greenhouse gases. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet could add up to 7 metres to sea levels. Monsoons in the Indian subcontinent may be severely affected. If the North Atlantic current stops, then sea levels can rise one metre and Iceland, Scotland and Norway drop 10 degrees (presumably Ireland wouldn't be too far behind). If the Tibetan plateau melts it will stop acting like a giant mirror and further assist the earth's warming. The ozone hole may be magnified significantly by global warming which may lead to considerable increases in skins cancers and blindness. Ecosystems may be in great trouble around what are known as salinity valves (between adjacent seas). El Niños may become both more frequent and severe with massive effect on food production in Indonesia, the Philippines, south-east Asia and some of Australia. If the West Antarctic ice sheet melts, that will be a 6 metre rise in sea levels. Finally, the effect on the Atlantic circumpolar current may slow the rise of nutrients, badly affecting marine life.

We live on a fragile plant of amazing complexity and also sophistication in how it is balanced. That fragility is going to be tested to its utmost this century. Humanity may suffer from its own foolishness but as usual it will be the poor and resource-less who will suffer most but - and that is the message of the previous paragraph - most people may suffer significantly one way or another.

Sorry for such a sombre ending but it all makes sombre reading. You have of course heard of the Mile High Club but I'm thinking of forming a Feet On The Ground Club (with no sexual implications!) for those who commit not to fly by plane and therefore cease to add that very significant contribution to global warming. Planes? Ban them! And not just the ones flying US military personnel through Shannon. Airports? Mothball them! Ryanair? Forget about it. I am, I regret to say, deadly serious in raising the issue. Learning to live with less travel may be difficult but until we have relatively non-polluting means of getting from A to a distant B then something has to happen. Unless of course we want all twelve of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (above) to come riding by.

Anyway, until we meet again, always look on the bright side of life, yours,

Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

Copyright INNATE 2014