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What's new

Nonviolence News February 2017

Children and Conflict poster series

Editorials: Northern Ireland political swamp, Holding the nerve

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Through the prism of narratives

Readings in Nonviolence: Refugee stories by Máiréad Collins

Billy King: Rites Again

 

 

 

Billy King

Issue 147: March 2007

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

Blood is thicker
The army is in my blood. That is, the British Army is in my blood. So says an elderly and very distant relation (with the same birth surname) who is into the genealogy and tends to phone with long genealogical tales just when I have started cooking the dinner; he is a former British army officer himself. My father’s siblings fought in the British forces in the Second World War. Most of the previous generation fought in the First World War, in fact a great uncle was killed in Mesopotamia (a k a Iraq, plus ça change and all that). Previous generations fought for the British in the Crimean War, the Peninsular War and possibly even further back. Of course if you were a younger son of the Protestant bourgeoisie in those days, your career options were quite limited and the army provided one career path.

I rejected the path of militarism early on in my life, for both political and religious reasons. If I was faced with a ‘1939’ situation, waking up as an adult in that year, and knowing what I know about Hitler, Nazism and ‘final solutions’ (for gays, gypsies and disabled as well as Jews) what would I have done? I don’t know. Perhaps I would, with considerable reservations, have also joined the British forces to fight Hitler. Perhaps I would have still remained a pacifist. What I do know is that the Second World War was a direct result of the First World war, and the First World War was a direct result of imperial rivalries, so for me the most important question is one of where, and how, we ‘break into history’ to end cycles of violence. In recent years, Bush and Blair have merely perpetuated those cycles in a new and dangerous way – not only concerning Iraq, possibly Iran, but also concerning nuclear weapons.

How do I regard those who support the military? Usually more sadness than anger, I think. Many of my school mates from Norn Iron joined the British Army, something I felt sad about but could not affect. I think I understand something of why. Within some circles in Northern Ireland, mainly Protestant, the British military is considered primarily a ‘good thing’, a good career option for a shorter or longer term, and ‘sexy’ in the power that is seen to grow from the barrel of a gun. But the power that grows from the barrel of a gun is a very peculiar kind of power; it can kill, it can maim, it can force, but it is not very good at winning hearts and minds or transforming situations. I categorically rejected that kind of power and have sought to explore the power of nonviolence which I see as different, more inclusive and participative, and does not leave the wounds, physical or emotional, that violence does. I try not to pretend, however, that I have all the answers.

While I do seek to persuade people that nonviolence is a better bet than violence and the military, I also don’t want to be fixated with the military; being opposed to the military is part of my identity as a believer in nonviolence but on a practical and daily basis there are more important things to be doing most of the time – such as trying to support those who are struggling nonviolently for social and political progress. That said, British army recruiting in Northern Ireland has been getting more blatant with normalisation after the Troubles so I would like to keep asking questions in this area and positing alternatives.

The British military can be seen in very different ways. No greater difference is there than that between the ‘News Letter’, Norn Iron’s Protestant/Unionist morning paper (which has become more staunchly and vehemently unionist over the last number of years) and the ‘Andersonstown News’, a West Belfast paper taking a broadly republican and nationalist viewpoint. The ‘News Letter’ of 6th October 2006 issued a souvenir supplement on the UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment, 1970-1991) and Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) as the RIR’s three ‘home service’ battalions were wound down; “A tribute to heroes” the front page proclaimed, with a picture of a soldier saluting a memorial of members who “gave their lives in the service of their country”. The supplement included a roll of all those “Killed by Terrorist Action”, and an article on “Continuing this proud tradition into tomorrow” as the general service regiment of the RIR continues, and along with the Royal Irish Rangers, and the part-time Territorial Army in Northern Ireland, still remain as ‘Irish’ parts of the ‘British’ Army. Produced in association with the UDR Benevolent Fund, the supplement had not a word of criticism.

The “Andersonstown News”, of 6th January 2007 featured the RIR on its cover: “Royal Irish RUNAWAYS”, it proclaimed with the information that “One fifth go AWOL” [Absent WithOut Leave – Ed] “during Iraq/Afghan campaign”, and “Desertion figures come just months after medal for bravery” (referring to a medal, the Conspicuous Gallantry Award, given to them in October 2006 for 36 years service by the UDR and RIR). One in eight soldiers of the RIR has been AWOL since the start of the “so-called ‘War on Terror’” the article regaled. What it did not detail was why soldiers had been AWOL; were they ‘deserting’ because they didn’t fancy going back, or got absolutely drunk and didn’t make it where they should have, or conscientiously objecting to some aspect of army life and work? We don’t know. The ‘Andersonstown News’ might have been better lauding the perspicacity of the soldiers involved, and hoping that some were actually objecting to serving in Britain’s immoral war in Iraq or realising that they could do something more useful with their lives.

As of last year, British soldiers objecting to serving in a particular country (e.g. Iraq) are liable to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment! So much for freedom of conscience; when you sign up to the army, you can throw most of your conscience out the window. So partial ‘conscientious objection’ is impossible (it is still possible to claim to be a conscientious objector to war per se but if you don’t do it in the right way, and cease obeying orders before you have got your claim in, then you’re for it). Fascinating as the Andytown News’ alternative picture of the RIR is, it is a mirror image of the News Letter’s uncritical coverage.

For the likes of the ‘News Letter’, as for most Northern Protestants, the British military is not just ‘our army’ but also the bulwark that is seen to have protected the Protestant community from attacks by the IRA and other republican militarists during the Troubles. There is thus a really close identification with the military, not just as something ‘out there’ but as something ‘in here’, as part of the community, as part of people’s identity. It is thus no surprise that attacks in the Troubles on local members of the UDR/RIR, seen by republicans as ‘Crown forces’ along with the police and thus legitimate targets, were seen by Protestants as attacks on the Protestant community per se. The republican failure to perceive this at the time was a major cause of division between the communities in the North and represented a major ‘intelligence’ failure by the Provos and other military republicans.

What do I admire about the military? Not their machismo, their misogyny (of which I have directly heard sufficient examples to specify this), not their unquestioning obedience, not their violence. Where there is self discipline, yes, I could possibly admire that. Courage? Do I recognise military courage? Well, yes. But the quote “Greater love has no man than that he lays down his life for his friends” (from the Christian gospel of John, 15.13), while arguably true, doesn’t say “Greater love has no man than that he tries to kill as many enemies as he can so that his friends, and himself, are not endangered” – which is usually the hidden sub-text when this is quoted, and a very definite misreading or misunderstanding of these words.

Military ‘courage’ may be courage or foolhardiness, or blind loyalty. Take Prince Harry, third in line to the English throne and a ‘hotspur’ to go with his army regiment to Iraq; loyalty to his mates, yes, but not an ounce of political sense in his body. Britain’s war in Iraq has been a disaster and his wanting to go with his mates is also political naivety, an unquestioning relationship to decision making and politics – despite his exalted position in his country - which places his head firmly in the desert sand. Courage of any kind should be subservient to political and moral issues, and a modicum of common sense (please note that I am only say some common sense because what is commonly regarded as ‘common sense’ is often not sensible).

And, when it comes to courage, I would put the quiet, determined and often dogged courage of the oppressed or the freedom worker, the human rights activist, the peace worker, the political activist fighting for an ideal, way ahead of the kind of courage which is shown in military courage in the face of enemy fire. But, how could I also not admire an uncle of mine who, as a merchant seaman in the Second World War, moved an unexploded bomb and threw it overboard from his ship? Or another uncle who commanded a small craft returning from the British/Allied evacuation of Dunkirk with the craft literally falling apart? That is courage in risking one’s own life with high stakes rather than courage in trying to kill others.

I suppose in looking at how I personally relate to the British military I also have to consider my wider political views. Is some of it because I do not relate to things British simply because they are British, i.e. that is not my own personal identity? However, while I do not identify with things British or indeed US American per se, nor usually with the doings of the respective states, I do get lots of ideas and also entertainment from both those directions, and ‘some of my best friends are…..’. So I would certainly not feel ‘anti-British’ or ‘anti-American’ (US variety) but feel able to pick and choose what I identify with and what I don’t. This is not that different to how I relate to groups, parties and policies on the island of Ireland where I do identify as ‘Irish’. So I do not feel that how I relate to the British army is simply a result of having a viewpoint that might be considered broadly, though atypically, nationalist. By nationalist I mean identifying with the whole island of Ireland; and I also have a broader identification as an Earthling.

How, then, do I see the Irish army? Its purpose within the Republic has been threefold; 1) Ceremonial or a perceived part of what being a state is about, 2) Counter-paramilitary, internal security duties, largely a by product of the conflict in the North, and 3) Service with the United Nations. The danger is that a fourth role is being added – “Service with the EU” which may be benign in its initial stages but may grow to become simply part of an EU army with all the dangers that entails (particularly in the context of possible resource wars later in the 21st century). This last role is the greatest danger. And No. 1 is because people have not yet had the imagination of perceiving the possibility of a state without an army. Service with the United Nations has largely been an honourable one within the context of non-belligerent military intervention in situations of conflict and contrasts with the useless wars the British have fought (in Falklands/Mavinas, Iraq to name but two) over the last few decades.

Because it is patently not an external aggressive force, unlike the British armed forces and its nuclear-toting missiles, the Irish Army has been relatively harmless; I may not want to be involved in supporting it but I might not go too far out of my way to oppose it. It has been a totally different creature to the British Army in that the latter is an arm of British post-imperial policies (in the case of Tony Blair, being second fiddle to the USA’s tragic global role and global misunderstanding). Undoubtedly some of the same machismo pervades the Irish Army as the British so in form it is just another army, but within the military frame of mind it has often been progressive in how it has seen its role internationally. That said, the role of the Irish government in relation to the war in Iraq has been both cowardly and catastrophic – the use of Shannon airport, the only facility in Ireland the USA wanted, assisting the tearing apart of that country which had already suffered so much under Saddam Hussein. And the Irish army is being sucked increasingly into an EU and NATO (e.g. ‘Partnership for Peace’) straitjacket which may augur ill for the future.

The militarist mindset is one which sees realities in certain ways, ways that can be coerced and moulded by force. A nonviolent mindset comes at things from a different direction, looking to liberate people through nonviolent struggle. Militarism and nonviolence both have had their victories and defeats in the 20th century. Unfortunately the 21st century started off badly with the war in Iraq. But in an increasingly interdependent world, and one which will have to cooperate to overcome the perils of global warming and resource shortages (particularly water) in the years to come, I firmly believe that nonviolence is the way forward. Hopefully its time is coming. George Bush and Tony Blair may still be stuck in a time warp but military and paramilitary violence is becoming more and more discredited. And, I believe, alternatives are slowly becoming more visible.

Consumer affairs corner
I know, I know, what is this Colm coming to? But you see, I go fearlessly to explore corners of reality that you would never dare to [correction, ‘bother to’ – Ed]. In this case, potting compost, toilet paper, and pressure cookers, separately I mean.

Let’s start with the potting compost. Being a keen gardener (‘keen’ from the Irish ‘caoineadh’, to mourn when things don’t grow, I jest) I try to use good quality potting compost. Potting compost made from peat, or ‘turf mould’ to give its name that I grew up with, cannot receive the EU’s ECO label and the peat industry, for fuel and horticulture, is the main threat to Irish bogs. But trying a peat free compost there a couple of years ago it was rubbish – seeds germinated and then just sat there, and growth was very poor. Presumably there were two problems; the peat-free compost was milled quite coarsely, and what plant food was added was either poorly done or not taken up by the seedlings. However last year I noticed (and I was using Westland Peat Free Compost) that while it still remained relatively coarse, growth for seedling was as good as for peat potting compost, and, in the case of one ‘Busy Lizzie’ type plant, even better. And there shouldn’t be a problem as a number of European countries rely on non-peat sources for potting compost with no problems. So, while some of it may still be somewhat coarse for sowing seeds it is certainly perfect for pricking out seedlings or taking cuttings. And for outdoor use there is absolutely no need to use peat based potting compost at all, or excuse to do so, in this part of the world. Hallelujah.

Toilet paper, despite the ads, is not a topic that everyone is always keen to discuss but I had noticed that Inversoft, which I believe had been the only Irish maker of recycled toilet paper, ceased putting ‘recycled’ on its labelling some time ago. A phone call revealed that they now use a couple of percent of non-recycled material for reasons of texture – I’m surprised they don’t say “Made from at least 97% recycled paper” because I was nearly going to look for another source of recycled toilet paper. 97% isn’t as good as 100% but it sounds good to me. Lidl does a very cheap recycled toilet paper, and there are probably others available here originating from the mainland of Europe, but the ‘toilet paper miles’ involved in getting it here means that Inversoft may be a greener option. Inversoft is a trade name of a US owned company operating in Ireland.

Pressure cookers, no pressure we thought when we tried to look for one, well, a stainless steel one, recently (we avoid aluminium because of the risk of Alzheimer’s or other effects from the possibility of ingesting aluminium). We discovered they are currently out of fashion and the selection was poor. I found that really amazing. Here we are at a juncture when energy saving is not just an option but a necessity – and there is no greater energy saver in the kitchen than a pressure cooker, apart from an insulated ‘straw box’ or its modern equivalent (to keep things cooking slowly when brought to boiling without any additional energy input).

Pressure cookers may also better preserve food qualities, including vitamins, and are also timesavers to a great degree; cooking chick peas, for example, can take hours in an ordinary pot, but with soaked beans like this I give them 17 minutes at pressure and allow them to come down to room pressure by themselves (smaller soaked beans like aduki may take a few minutes less). Even when you add the time to take to get to pressure we are talking less than 25 minutes to be cooked, and most vegetables take in the range 5 – 8 minutes at pressure. Bring back the pressure cooker! My prediction for the next ten years is that they will be de rigeur. You do of course need to be careful particularly with some pulses such as dried peas – soaked split peas only take five minutes to cook at pressure but I find that nothing absorbs heat as much as peas so the heat needs to be carefully controlled (not too high) when at pressure so the weight does not lift off and spread a high speed jet of steam in the air – you could get a nasty burn. For safety’s sake then I usually put the pressure cooker on the back ring of the cooker, more out of harm’s way. Come to think of it, not only are pressure cookers out of fashion but the metaphor of a school or educational institution which pushes students hard being a ‘pressure cooker’ is also out of fashion. It’ll be interesting to see whether that figure of speech returns with pressure cooker use. Anyway, that’s your prophecy for this month.

Furniture removal
Ha ha, fooled ya, this isn’t about furniture removal at all but Van the Man. Ireland’s grandest exponent of Rhubarb & Blues. I saw him at the Odyssey in Belfast there recently, a third of a century since I last saw him live, at the Olympia in Dublin – I remember it as 1973 but maybe it was 1974 because he had a new album out in ’74 (remarkably, he has averaged an album a year since those early days). I was certainly rather nonplussed with his 1970s performance, he was at his curmudgeonly best and played a short set and no encore. This time the foyer had signs indicating the hour and a half he’d be on stage, and he was, exactly to the minute, including a kind of an encore. As usual the hat was glued to his head, except for a slight lifting when he mopped his brow, but with overhead lighting it meant that actually seeing his face was very difficult, he was almost always in shadow – you could see his band’s faces perfectly, but him, no. So I felt ‘hat’ was a bit of a disappointment, if you go to see a performer you like to see their face, even if it was a good performance; just a bit of low level lighting on his performance space would have done the trick but maybe that’s the way he likes it, aha.

It’s amazing the difference one letter can make, in this case an ‘i’. If this man from East Belfast was still known as Ivan Morrison what would his image be? Not ‘Van the Man’ anyway, nor indeed Ivan the Terrible. Not renowned for socially and politically conscious statements he has nevertheless put together some remarkable tunes and lyrics over the years. ‘Gloria’ featured in both concerts, a third of a century apart, but, despite the above comment he has been an acute and astute observer of humanity at times, dating back to his breakthrough ‘Astral weeks’ album including what I consider a remarkable paean to adolescent identity, ‘Madam George’.

That’s yer lot for now, see ye in a month, Billy [No encore then, Billy, did they not applaud enough? – Ed]

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