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Billy King

Issue 149: May2007

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

I shouldn’t do it. That is, write about things. If I was more superstitious than I am I might have said that I shouldn’t have tempted fate. No sooner had I written the last time about verbal abuse received on the cycycle than, there I was full of the joys of spring cycling along on a lovely day, when pow, I was hit by a water bomb thrown by kids (circa ten years old) as I passed a neighbouring park/playing fields. I was a bit stunned for some few seconds - since it was a bolt out of the blue sky - until I realised what had actually happened. The boys scarpered and had the advantage of a fence with a hole in it to play hide and seek. But I was certainly not going to let the occasion go unremarked so after a couple of chasings the advantage of the bicycle – speed compared to being on foot, even on grass – came to the fore. When I had them cornered but some distance away (10 metres or so) I stopped so as not to frighten them before advising them of the possibility of causing an accident. My honour was satisfied by catching up with them and talking to them and penitence was expressed by them, always advisable in their situation whether there was true contrition or not. While I expressed the view that messing among themselves was fine if I thought of it at the time I could have said more concretely they could have played a good game among themselves in part of the park if they did want to throw water bombs – at themselves of course rather than at unsuspecting passers by who could come to grief.

In praise of small meetings
A meeting the other week that I was involved in turned out smaller than expected and this reminded me of some of my feelings and perceptions about small meetings. I suppose it depends on what circles you move in, but in the NGO/peace/voluntary/community scene which I would move in then ‘small’ could mean anything from 2 to 10, and depending on the context even over 10 could be ‘small’ if it was intended as a larger public meeting. I’m thinking mainly of regular group meetings where two or three are gathered together and get on with the business regardless – sometimes it can be a particular task group which is only meant to be a few people anyway.

Of course it’s disappointing if you have less than you expect at a meeting but I usually look on the bright side: a) I have been at ‘meetings’ which were not meetings at all because I was the only person and I wondered at my wisdom and foolhardiness in coming at all, but if you’ve announced a meeting you have to be there in case someone does turn up. b) The fewer that are there, the more urgent the work is, in a kind of a way. This may seem perverse logic, however the fact that a cause is not popular but I consider it necessary makes me feel even more committed to the people that turn up. At times, visiting speakers for a course or talk have looked askance at the ‘small group’ I had helped assemble; my perspective, as above, is to be grateful anyone has turned up and commit myself 100% to the task in hand (in one instance it felt like a visiting speaker was blaming those who had turned up for it being so small, which was rather unfair). c) Small meetings can often achieve more than larger ones because people just get on with the tasks in hand, and there is more time, on average, for everyone to talk and participate fully.

‘Small’ in this context may be beautiful or it may just be necessary. Despite the possibility of being unwieldy, I do like ‘large’ meetings too where they get down to the task in hand in a productive way and the reality is that both ‘sizes’ are needed in social/political change and other movements (one of my more embarrassing moments in organising meetings was when far far too many people came to a speaker meeting I had responsibility for, and simply could not get in, but sín scéal eile). You can plan for the numbers you want, you may or may not be able to deliver these, but ultimately we need to work with anyone and everyone going our direction. And, do you know, more often than not I find that patience and perseverance are rewarded - with a bigger meeting, a bigger profile for the issues concerned, and what might be termed progress.

Not in praise of a massive gulf
Sometimes tiny little pieces of history pass by and there is no reflection afterwards on what happened. Take the capture/kidnapping/arrest of 15 British armed forces personnel by the Iranians in the Gulf in March. Cause célèbre in the British press and media, cue outrage, particularly in the tabloids. Eventually they were released and the main ‘reflection’ was on the fact that a couple of those held were permitted to sell their stories to the media – a typical non-story in the situation.

My initial reaction when I heard the news of their abduction was one of subdued regret that the incident had happened and the angst and trauma for all concerned and their families. Then over time other factors came into mind. What were the British doing in Iraq and ‘Iraqi waters’ anyway, let alone possibly Iranian ones? The boundaries between Iranian and Iraqi waters are also not as hard and fast as the British stated. Then in terms of precedents, I heard of the kidnapping of Iranian officials in Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan by the USA some time back in January 2007 – the US were trying to snatch two senior Iranian security officials legitimately there (see e.g. London ‘Independent’ of 3rd April 2007) so it was the US who got there first. And also think of other US and British actions in the area – Britain has a long history of colonial and neo-colonial activity stretching through the twentieth century into the twenty-first. Yes, there may have been psychological ill-treatment of the British captives, e.g. one time when they were blindfolded and thought they might be shot, which is inexcusable. Two wrongs do not make one right but considering what Britain has got up to in the region it was not as brutal as some of the British media made out.

In praise of No. 136
Here I am talking about Gene Sharp’s typology of nonviolent action (from “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”), reference to which is a bit like the nonviolent equivalent of telling jokes by numbers. No. 136 is ’Disguised disobedience’. And an excellent current film on the topic is the German “The lives of others” (‘Der Leben den Anderen’, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) which is set in East Germany some years before the fall of the Berlin Wall (in Belfast in the fairly early years of the Troubles, partition walls were sometimes known as ‘Merlyn Walls’ after Merlyn Rees, NI Secretary of State 1974-76).

The main protagonist in the film is a Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe), loyal to the regime but with some personal and revolutionary morality left (unlike his boss and erstwhile friend who sees no contradiction in serving the personal and warped wishes of the Minister as assiduously as other duties for the state). Our main protagonist is assigned to head an investigation into a popular playwright who happens to be a love rival (if it can be called that) of the Minister responsible for culture. Cue dirty tricks or at least an attempt to use anything out of the ordinary against the playwright. Our main protagonist is somewhat captivated by the life and liveliness of the playwright, and a total contrast to his own joyless, loveless and lonely existence; he starts to defend the playwright by inventing reports on what he is up to, rather than what he is really doing. He eventually intervenes even further though the plot has a few twists in its tail.

I am deliberately not going into too many details of the film but it shows how a bureaucratic functionary of an oppressive system can be liberated at a personal and heartfelt level by a new vision, and be prepared to suffer for it. The undermining of many an oppressive regime has taken place through disguised disobedience; out and out disobedience is next to impossible, or, where possible it is going to mean swift and certain punishment – imprisonment, ill treatment or even death. Cleverly disguised disobedience can make a system much less efficient and thereby less invulnerable, and evidently so; by itself it will not bring an end to such a regime but it can help that end arrive much faster. So, as a nonviolent activist I raise my glass, a toast, slainte agus beatha, to all those who use No.136 in opposition to oppression and injustice – long may you get away with it.

And in praise of 1916?
The following is a piece I thought I would never write. Even in my school days when I was asked (this was in Norn Iron) about my lack of pride in the World Wars whether I felt pride in the 1916 Dublin Rising, I said no. Decades on I still feel the same. So what was spurred me on to write about some positive aspects of the 1916 Rising? Whose writing has caused me this transmogrification not to mention self mortification? He has featured previously in this Colm, a journalist and Colmist, Kevin Myers. Now rioting (sic) primarily in the Irish Independent, I caught a piece by him in the Belfast Telegraph (30th March 2007, presumably syndicated from the Irish Indo which is part of the same O’Reilly stable as the Belly Tele).

What had Myers got to say? The piece was headed “LIES writ large”. He goes on to talk about the ‘diseased cult’ of 1916, quoting ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ against the men and women of Easter 1916 but not against those governments who sent out millions upon millions to die in the trenches of the First World War!! If the 1916 Rising was a ‘diseased cult’ then surely the latter was a million times so.

The 1916 Rising was not a ‘democratic’ event. It was a military event engendered by British policies in Ireland, nationalist-republican and loyalist counter polities, and also by a World War where millions were condemned to their death by ‘democratic’ governments, including the British, and at a time when acceptance of such blood sacrifice was a common view and certainly the view of the state. I don’t support the Easter Rising, I don’t support military action, I don’t support concepts of blood sacrifice or martyrdom. But I can understand why certain military-minded republicans took part and I can identify strongly with some parts of the Easter Proclamation – such as treating the children of the nation equally, surely a treasonable view in this era of the Celtic eat-your-granny-and-grandchildren-for-breakfast Tiger.

The Proclamation (“of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic”) was militarist, yes, but to state “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland” or “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally…” are not demented ramblings but sound and principled political sense. Myers describes the Proclamation as “simply a charter for murder” and condescendingly lambastes what he calls ‘exceptionalism’ - “the belief that the law doesn’t apply to you if you feel strongly about something, or you are generally a nice person”, and lumps together – and writes off - all he disagrees with (including Shell to Sea protesters!) under this label. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, the best known pacifist of his time in those there parts, sought to defend the integrity of the reason for the Rising by organising people to prevent looting, which would have brought discredit; he paid for this with his life. Myers may not know this but a key concept in nonviolence is taking responsibility for your actions – legal or illegal.

The men and women of the 1916 Rising were principled. They may have inflicted suffering and killed civilians and police but many also suffered. And the early Free State, despite its conservative and often oppressive beginnings, had at least the vestiges of a revolutionary morality which was later absent a generation or two down the line in the time of Cathal (a k a Charlie) Haughey. The 1916 Rising may have led indirectly and partly to partition, the Civil War in the Free State, and thereby political conservatism and economic stagnation, along with many other factors in the equation that was Ireland at the time, but to blame the men and women of 1916 for this is about as valid as blaming the founding fathers of the USA for the Iraq war (though, come to think of it, in the case of the latter, internal colonialism subsequently became external colonialism).

Of course the history of Ireland ‘could have been’ different. But the past has been written, not in stone but in washable ink or pencil. An African proverb goes that until lions have their historians, tales (tails?) of hunting will always glorify the hunter. The point of the past is to try to learn from it so that we can deal with the future, so that we can write the future story in a different, more creative and positive way. Myers seems intent on anachronistically and virulently lambasting those who, while making a choice I would not agree with, had courage of their convictions. Even Gandhi said it is better to resist violently than not to resist at all; I quote this not in agreeing with the 1916 Rising but in defence of the fact that they had a worldview they believed passionately in. Mistaken, yes, militarist, yes. Unprincipled, no.

- - - - -

Anyway, there we go, and with an April which leapt straight to summer (dry with temperatures two or three degrees above average), what can happen to the old adage that “April showers bring forth May flowers”? Perhaps “April drought brings forth May water restrictions” is a motto for the global warming era, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. And so, May I end off for now until I June you (Cherryvalley or Dublin 4 accent) again next month, 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