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Billy King: Rites Again

Billy King

Number 189: May 2011

[Back to the related issue of Nonviolence News]

Well hello, and if you haven't been making hay while the sun shone, figuratively speaking, that's tough, because we may just have had summer (April was the warmest on record in much of the country - maybe 3 degrees above average- with only half the average rainfall). Have had a great few walks in the hills of Donegal (I feel a song not coming on) and been enjoying the fine weather at home too. Whether July and August will live up, or should that be down, to recent years and be a Rainy Season with no Blocking Highs over us to keep the rain fronts from moving in off the Atlantic, well, time will soon tell. But it might be the fourth year in a row of summery injustice.

Are you prepared to accept your guilt?
Well, if you're a resident of the Republic of Ire-land, the report by Peter Nyberg on the Irish banking crisis which came out in April, blamed everyone; "large parts of Irish society were willing to let the good times roll on until the very last minute" with "mania in the Irish property market." Yes, there were culprits and faults within the financial sector, the Department of Finance, the Financial Regulator and the Central Bank (the last two could have acted but didn't), but he took a broad brush approach to apportioning blame, including investors. It was everyone's fault and therefore, you might say, no one's in particular.

I don't accept that. I do accept that almost everyone was taken in by the bubble, that they were encompassed by it, and therefore many people were on board. But this is not the same as apportioning blame. I did not know there was going to be a burst bubble and recession but I did know that property prices, in Dublin in particular, were totally unsustainable. But could you, and should you, blame a young person or couple for trying to get on the 'property ladder' in a society with a high emphasis on property ownership while they felt they still had a chance and before they were priced out of the market altogether? These are some of the people who may now be a couple of hundred thousand Euro in negative equity on the apartment they purchased - and where do they go from here? It's a long, long road out of that hole. It may be a long time before they can even contemplate moving, they literally have a millstone around their neck holding them where they are.

If people who already had a property and invested in one or more properties, well, that is tough and it would not have happened if others had done what they should have done. I have some sympathy for them and it may have left their entire financial situation banjaxed. But for young people to be trapped in massive negative equity is a considerable injustice. And who would I blame for that injustice? Primarily the government, which happened to be foremost Fianna Fail, and Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach. The government did receive some warnings from the Department of Finance but they kept upping spending. They continued subsidies for the rich to build more. But to my mind most injuriously of all they projected the impression that property price hikes were 'increasing wealth' when it was only increasing debt and financial pressure, particularly on young people.

Fianna Fail continually poured fuel on the flames of the property bubble. As populist conservatives they sought to keep people happy while looking after their developer friends. In the end it did no one any good, not even the developers who, unless they were very lucky or very canny in getting out while the going was good, have also gone down with the ship. The government is elected to take decisions which should be based on careful analysis and good advice. They threw out any good advice they received. They failed to take any actions which would have restrained property prices. They failed to take any action, directly or indirectly, which would have reined in the banks, even if that task was primarily delegated to the Central bank and the Financial Regulator. "Bertie's Bowl" was to be a big sports stadium; it was never built but, instead, many are left with the lasting result of Bertie's policies which is a "begging bowl".

Pomp and regal circumstance
Call me an old republican (with a small 'r'!) [You're an old republican with a small 'r' - Ed] if you like but I wonder about the point of all the comp and percumstance associated with the wedding of man and woman on a neighbouring island, first names William and Catherine a k a Kate (he doesn't really use a second name and she won't need one in future either). I do wish them well, especially in a family with so many marriage breakdowns and I hope they live Happily Ever After.

What I especially object to is the use of the adjective 'historic' to describe their wedding. History? What was 'historic' about this grand show which was all about style and nothing about substance? The English monarchy has been becoming increasingly irrelevant to the people of the UK except as a somewhat distorted symbol, I'm not quite sure of what but if I was to put a finger on it then I would say as a symbol of the English class system. Cue all those references to the bride being a 'commoner' as if it was some great symbol and event that a future king could marry a commoner when it is just co-option into the ruling class. As usual there was a big military tie in with him wearing 'Irish' Guards military uniform....it seems British male royals are expected to 'prove' themselves through military 'duty' - could they not do something useful instead?

To avoid any loo-se jokes, some wedding designs were changed to put her 'C' before or above his 'W'. I'm afraid the standard of jokes about the wedding is very poor though someone commented that at least they had learnt that the Queen doesn't sing along to God Save the Queen; 'Send Me victorious' or even 'Send We victorious' might be a bit much.

Just when we thought.....
...we were getting it sorted in our own minds a bit, along comes new information to confound our ideas. I'm thinking about what a sustainable ecological power mix might look like. Ah yes, thinks I, biomass will be a small but important part of this; burning stuff that grows, that is part of the carbon 'current account' rather than carbon which is locked in turf or coal for millennia. Anyway, an article in the Guardian Environment Blog raises severe questions about biomass from a number of points of view including the level of carbon release and the availability of suitable fuel. See here

In the UK, the article reports, only 8 - 10 million tonnes of biomass is produced but plans are afoot for power plants that will need 50 - 70 million tonnes, so 'tonnes' will have to be imported. And with biomass plants planned elsewhere there may be considerable competition for suitable fuel which also has price implications. And there is a significant risk to world forests through being turned into pellets for fuel. Finally, the report states "Some research suggests that burning wood immediately releases more greenhouse gases than fossil fuel-related emissions, and takes many decades - even centuries in some scenarios - for the carbon emissions to be "offset" by new biomass growth."

I know Ireland has more space per head of population to grow biomass than Britain but all this is not good news, in fact it might be the straw, or even the elephant grass, that broke the camel's back. But I have always felt that energy conservation (primarily insulation) is the most important way to go; stop the energy being needed in the first place. But we need some political will rather than political won't.

Prodding gently
We all make sweeping generalisations, adopt simplistic categories 'for the sake of argument' and clarity or understanding, use labels which are fast and loose. This is no more so than in Northern Ireland where we adopt the general terms 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' to mean all sorts of things - and usually they do and we are right. It's also possible to have great fun with these stereotypes, there is a well-known two page cartoon by John Kindness (Belfast People's Comix, late 1970s) which I believe I had a hand in re-introducing to political and community relations discourse which has great fun poking fun at the stereotypes; doorsteps worn down with cleaning, doorsteps piled up with muck, it finishes with two frames where we are asked to identify which family is which with all the sectarian markers down to the butter and sauce they buy, and which foot the football boot is on.

Labels in this way can be a sort of shorthand which needs translated into a better understood language. If we stick with just the shorthand we can get ourselves into bother because we fail to capture the reality of the divisions within each community - say between the Catholic Church and Sinn FÈin during the Troubles, or between the two main political parties on either side or, even, those who support the Alliance Party (as well as some other small parties) and are thus likely to be part of the (relatively) non-sectarian/non-tribal (and small) political scene.

As things have changed in the Republic too, with new immigration over the last couple of decades, the common, old idea of what it is to be 'Irish' has taken a battering. In truth there was never one such take; yes, the Republic was overwhelmingly Catholic and white but scratch under the surface and you had all sorts of variations hidden beneath a monocultural facade. There were the Prods, there were the republicans, the Castle Catholics, the Fine Gaelers, there were the Gaeilgeoirs, the differences between urban and rural, those who had lived abroad or even came from abroad, those who were gay or lesbian (admittedly and necessarily keeping well below the radar), young people adopting international fashions and mannerisms, and that was just for starters. Any illusion of homogeneity is certainly now out the window and the appearance of homogeneity in the past was as much a manufactured illusion, partly pushed by the Catholic Church and those who supported its stands, as a reality.

I've recently been dipping into a book published in 1996 [You get there fast - Ed] [I pride myself on bringing you news of publications long after others have forgotten about them - Billy]. It's "Further Afield - Journeys from a Protestant past" edited by Marilyn Hyndman and published by Beyond the Pale Publications, ISBN 1 900960 01 X. It's a really amazing insight into the lives of Prods in the North who don't conform to the stereotypes, covering a range of areas including diversity, civil rights, counter culture, feminism, labour and socialism, republicanism (yes, Prods there too) and others. Some amazing journeys.

If ever you feel in need to understand the political 'dissenting' tradition in the North within the 'Protestant community' (and are they a 'community'?) this is the one I would recommend. And, even better, it's in people's own words.

- - - - -

That's me again until next month when midsummer's day will almost be upon us, here we are celebrating the arrival of summer and I'm talking about the slippery slope to autumn. Enjoy the moment, can't you [I was going to say that - Ed]. Till we meet again, as the man said when he bumped his head on the cash register, 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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