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Billy King

Issue 167: March 2009

[Return to the related issue of Nonviolent News]

Billy King gives us his monthly thoughts–

Welcome one and all, if I can have your wrapped attention [I think you should be rapt on the knuckles for that – Ed] [Are you threatening me with violence? – Billy] [That’s a bit close to the knuckle – Ed], I shall begin–

Whammy Sammy
No sooner had Norn Iron Environment Minister Sammy Wilson received one of our Adolf Awards (The ‘Environ-Meant to Do Something Else’ Award) than he really was in the big picture with international publicity, for banning from TV screens in the North a British advertisement requesting people to cut energy usage to combat global warming.

Let’s be clear about all this. There is close on consensus that global warming is primarily man (sic) made. But, while most scientists agree on it, this is a hypothesis. There is nothing certain in life except death and taxes (and when you look at what bankers get up to, and tax avoidance by corporations and the rich, I’m not even sure about the latter). But the stakes are exceedingly high and if you’re living in Bangladesh the stakes will have to get higher still to prevent you being washed away – cruel joking aside, how can the West justify its fossil energy use as Bangladeshi farmers get pushed off their land by salination? Or to Pacific islanders who will be wiped off the map? Or to local people in coastal areas when the seas start to rise in earnest?

I would say that people are entitled to be sceptics about humanity being the cause of climate change (though I have seen strong refutation of the sun spot theory favoured by Sammy for current global warming). But the stakes are so high that sceptics should be as enthusiastic as anyone else about moving away from fossil fuel use.

However there are a couple of other reasons why even sceptics should support the move to green our society. Firstly, the cost of fuel. Fuel poverty is a real factor which eats into the living standards of less well off people and leaves many, worst of all elderly people, unable to afford the heat they need to stay warm. There must be proper insulation for all homes. Both British and Irish governments are starting to make moves on this.But why is the Irish government only talking about insulating 50,000 homes? Why not 500,000 or 1,500,000? Proper insulation should be a right in a damp and cool climate like ours.

But additionally there is the question of fuel security and peak oil. I know, Sammy disputes ‘peak oil’ (the argument that at least half of the world’s oil has been used) but, also on the grounds of caution, we have to believe fuel and energy security is not a funny matter. Whether he believes in it or not, Sammy should be supporting moves to ensure that the world does not end up dependent on oil and finding there is no oil in the tank and no oil in the wells either. In terms of sustainability this is a no brainer.

I support the right for people to be sceptical about humanity being the primary cause of global warming. I disagree profoundly with them. What I cannot and will not accept is their right, or that of others moving far too slowly for the good of the globe and humanity itself, not to move things as far and as fast in a green direction as possible. We know about global warming. But we’re not yet doing what is required to avoid its worst excesses. Or, in the case of sceptics, taking the precaution that they might be wrong because all other indications are that the world should go in that same direction, weaning off fossil fuel as fast as possible.

Nonviolence manual
I hope you’ll be able to get to grips with the WRI’s Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns which we mentioned in the last issue and feature in Neadings in Ronviolence in this one (and INNATE has copies to sell…) But I must take exception to one section of it; the idea that we can use humour to make a point. How can we possibly raise questions about contradictions in the structures of violence and injustice by using humour, irony, satire or even ridicule? This is deadly serious business. We cannot let ourselves be distracted, or risk giving a frivolous impression. Regular readers of this Colm will know that I avoid humour at all costs and don’t have a funny bone in my body. Humour is the last refuge of the humorous.

In particular I hope that you will not look up the (impossibly long) reference given for the piece on ‘Humour and Nonviolent Actions’; (phew….) Aren’t you just glad that I wrote that out because it took me five or more minutes to get the address right, and you can be satisfied that when you don’t want to look at the site you won’t have to type in this impossibly long address, taking you to a paper by Majken Sorensen. Just don’t do it. You have been warned. Seriously. Those who ignore my advice should prepare to be amused and educated.

Meanwhile, if you want to get to grips with the Bandhook online, and with what else War Resisters International is up to (says he with a WRI smile), you can pay them a visceral visit at http://www.wri-irg.org

Pro ‘Bono’ publico
‘Pro bono publico’ is one of those Latin phrases which are still, to some extent, used in relatively common parlance; ‘for the public good’. Wikipedia reports that “The term [pro bono publico] is generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment as a public service. It is common in the legal profession and is increasingly seen in marketing, technology, and strategy consulting firms. Pro bono service, unlike traditional volunteerism, uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.” It also states that it is often shortened to ‘pro bono’. However ‘pro Bono’ has a different meaning if we think of U2 (and pronunciation if Bono is “bon – o” as opposed to “bow – no” or “b? n?” for unpaid public service).

However, given some recent publicity about U2’s tax affairs, this little piece here mainly about the latter Bono. Incidentally it would seem Bono’s name came from a different source – possibly via a hearing aid shop in Dublin named Bonavox.

The Debt and Development Coalition Ireland did a little action towards the end of February adapting some of U2’s lyrics to refer to the fact that U2 moved their tax base to the Netherlands. In the ‘Irish Times’ of 27th February 2009 The Edge (David Evans) said “….we pay taxes all over the world and we are totally tax compliant” (no one has accused them of tax evasion as opposed to tax avoidance) and Bono (Paul Hewson) said “We pay millions and millions of dollars in tax. The thing that stung us was the accusation of hypocrisy for my work as an activist.” Exactly. Hypocrisy is not a quality to be proud of though it should be stated that all of us are hypocrites in one way or another – especially, I might say, in relation to global warming (saying and supporting one thing and doing another). What matters is how seriously we are trying to move from being hypocrites to being consistent in words and actions.

Obviously there is a big difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion; one is legal and one is illegal. Tax avoidance is where rich individuals and corporations engage highly paid lawyers and accountants to manage their tax affairs in such a way that they pay significantly less tax overall. This is done in a variety of ways – in the case of U2, moving some of their financial affairs to the Netherlands. Tax evasion, on the other hand, is deliberately and illegally paying less or no tax by understating profits etc. and no one is accusing U2 of this. What the difference between these is morally, well, I leave you to judge.

Bono had no real moral defence when interviewed in the ‘Irish Times’ beyond that Ireland was a net beneficiary of tax avoidance schemes (he didn’t use that terminology, he was more euphemistic). That is true, and nothing to the Republic’s national or international (moral) credit, even if it has helped the Irish economy. Referring to a country being a net beneficiary of tax avoidance schemes in explaining your own corporate tax avoidance is rather a weak argument when it comes to ethics and morality. He went on to say “I can’t speak up without betraying my relationship with the band – so you take the shit…….we’ve decided to draw a ring around our audience and ourselves. Outside that there’s no point trying to explain ourselves.” The final part is a bit bizarre but was he hinting (“I can’t speak out without betraying…”) that he didn’t necessarily go with U2’s tax avoidance but the band decided to do it anyway?

Morality and appealing to morality is fine – and may have some effect - but most of us act within our own interests in such matters, so it is the overall parameters that are most important. In the end there is the need for strong laws, making complex international ownership arrangements which facilitate tax avoidance illegal, and ensuring tax is paid in the country where the profit arises (I wrote about international tax evasion previously in NN 163 concerning Christian Aid’s report on the impact of tax avoidance on the poor world). The rich and corporations will always seek to avoid tax through exploiting loopholes. Overcoming the practice of multinationals distorting prices to make profits appear in the country of least tax is a difficult one. But in an era when countries are struggling to make ends meet, and continue anything like the same level of services to citizens, there is a need for the international community to take concerted and effective action. This will mean, in the long run, that the Republic will not be a bolt hole for British tax avoidance, for example, because taxation rates will be more harmonised. That may be a bitter pill for Ireland but it needs swallowed at some point.

- - - - -

Well, it’s great to feel spring in the air and in the ground, with spring flowers doing their thing. I hope it’s enough to put a spring in your step, perhaps even a song in your heart and on your lips, so, until the next time, I remain, your disobedient servant, 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).

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