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Billy King shares his monthly thoughts –
Hello, Christmas, end of year and New Year 2012 are almost upon us. It’s a race to the finish. I hope you win your particular race so you can relax when the break comes. I usually issue my greetings this time of the year at the end of my Colm but I’ll break the habit of a teatime and start by wishing you a Very Happy Christmas and a Preposterous New Year. That’s that done.
Splurging the peace dividend
As regular readers will have noticed, I’m rather fond of quoting from the New Internationalist www.newint.org which provides important information on struggles for justice and peace in the world which just don’t make it into the regular media, or if they do then it tends to be only in dribs and drabs. As well as very particular themes, the New Internationalist would come back to some regularly because of their importance. One of these is the arms trade. The December 2011 issue (No. 448) is on this topic.
But whatever the topic, it invariably provides some sadistics (sic) to bring instant enlightenment to the issue. Looking at their graph of world military expenditure (SIPRI being the source), at constant prices, we see a significant decline from just before the end of the Cold war (the chart begins in 1988) with expenditure bottoming out in the last years of the twentieth century. With the War ‘of’ Terror (a k a ‘war on terror’) it started to creep up again so that by 2008 expenditure had overtaken the expenditure of twenty years previously. Of the $1,630 billion (in 2010) spent on the military, the USA comes out top with £698 billion, China second with $119 billion and Britain third with $59.6 billion, just ahead of France. So UK residents spend about $1,000 per person on the military!
Also based on SIPRI figures, it is estimated the arms trade is responsible for 40% of all corruption in global transactions. But, ironically, as most familiar with the arms trade will know, military spending – often trumpeted as creating job – is very poor at this task; e.g. in the USA, $1 billion in spending would create 29,100 jobs in educational services, 19,600 in healthcare, 17,100 in clean energy, and just 11,600 through military spending – even a straight income tax cut of the same amount would create more jobs through increased consumption (14,800)!
Speaking of peace dividends, it will be interesting to look back at the various ‘peace’ monies spent in Northern Ireland arising from the ending of the Troubles and dispassionately analyse what they achieved. I think the answer might be a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly (e.g. £900,000 of EU ‘Peace and Reconciliation’ money went to missile manufacturers Thales through Invest NI, see NN 122, though that seems exceptionally stupid).
There have been some desperate times in Ireland. Being around at the time of the wars of the 16th or 17th centuries, the famines of the eighteenth century or the Great Famine of 1846, the feeling could have been catastrophic, like the end of the world, indeed for many it was the end of the world. The hopelessness and emigration pattern established by the Great Famine made a lasting mark and cast a shadow even to today; in 1846 Ireland’s population was 8 million compared to 16 million in Britain, if population growth had kept pace with Britain the population of Ireland would now be something like 30 million as opposed to a bit under 6 million.
I was at a lecture during the last month by David Brown of the Palaeoecology Department in Queen’s University Belfast on tree ring dating and the historic forests of Ireland. As well as detailing how the tree ring sequence was put together (for Irish bog oak it goes back 7,000 years!) he dealt with a lot of other significant facts. One is that the size of an oak tree has nothing much to do with its age but rather its situation and how well nourished it is. Another is that there are no really ‘ancient’ living trees around Ireland – indeed he went so far as to make the statement, which he admitted was controversial, that there is no ‘natural’ ancient woodland left in Ireland.
I have no evidence one way of another about that last statement but coming from someone familiar with living oaks as well as bog oak the length and breadth of the country, it has to be respected. By the start of the 18th century only 1% of Ireland was under trees. While he didn’t go into the historical and strategic questions associated with deforestation, it would seem that the settlers in the Plantation of Ulster, for example, cut down all the trees but replanted none. The reason I surmise was a military and strategic one as well as wanting to farm. Forest gave refuge to rebels so it was the last thing the invaders wanted. Ireland continued until well into the twentieth century as the least forested country in Europe – and much of what does exist today is monocultural pine.
The Lagan Valley, for example, went from being all trees to very rapidly being treeless after the Plantation of the early part of the 17th century. For the then native people, not only were most kicked out or made subservient but the landscape was totally altered, becoming unrecognisable you could say. No wonder that the peasantry used bog wood where they could access it (ancient wood preserved in bog and wet ground due to the lack of oxygen) because there was no other wood available to them. From the 18th century on, for those with some money the wood that was used in building was pine imported from Scandinavia. Trees only grew and were planted in the estates of the wealthy but the ordinary people had no access to these. The scorched earth policy of the 17th century made a lasting impression on the countryside which still persists to some extent today.
Arising from the Troubles
Northern Ireland remains a troubled little place but The Troubles are receding into the background – you would have to be a young adult now to be born before the ceasefires of 1994, and you’d have to be way, way into your twenties to remember anything of the time before that. But how remembering happens is very important, for society as a whole as well as for those who played particular roles in the whole developing scenario.
Tommy Sands is arguably the greatest singer-songwriter to chronicle the Troubles and to chart an alternative through song. His current album “Arising from the Troubles” (with Moya and Fionáin) is a fascinating journey through the Troubles and out the far side, done with his usual inclusiveness while not refusing to nail some of his own colours (not the usual ones!) to the mast. It is a great mixture of the new and the old and Moya Sands’ dulcet tones are heard to great effect in a song like ‘A Stone’s Throw’ which emphasises the advantage of knowing ‘the other side’ through being educated together. ‘The Mixed Marriage’ is an ‘old one’ which contains the immortal words about a mixed Catholic/Protestant couple agreeing to get married “When Ian Paisley drinks a whiskey with young Bernadette McAliskey”. Tommy then goes on to sing a song he wrote in the days of the Civil Rights campaign and performed in Newry in 1971 after three local young men had been shot by the British army, and after that come songs about Bloody Sunday and ‘Have you seen Joe Cahill’ which looks at him through different tinted spectacles as either hero or villain.
‘The Road to Aughnacloy’ is an affecting song, written by John Connery, about four RUC men travelling into an ambush in which three of them were killed – very human because of the ordinariness of what it tells, apart from the shooting and dying that is. Tommy played his own role in Norn Iron’s recent history and included is the tune he played at Stormont in 1998 while waiting for the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ to emerge. There follows a song entitled “You sold us down the river” about loyalist disillusionment as Britain refused to support them and they felt abandoned. After that there are several more songs about aspects of the Troubles including being imprisoned, and one about John Hume.
Towards the end of the album we have ‘The Music of Healing’, ‘Carry On’ (instructions given to politicians at Stormont in 1998 to do a deal) and the final song is the well known ‘The Lagan Side’. Another affecting song is the second last, ‘Silent No Longer’, sung by Moya and inspired by young people meeting across the divide:
“I’ll be silent no longer I’ll be heard I’ll be seen
Since the boys of Ballymurphy met the girls of Ballybeen.”
That’s the kind of song gets in your head and won’t go away. But it won’t go away in a pleasant way and it’s a vision for the future to carry us on.
You can find Tommy Sands’ website at www.TommySands.com if you want to find out more or order an album or two.
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Well, that’s me until we meet again well into 2012. I already wished you well for the season that’s in it so I’ll just end by wishing you warmth and happiness – how about that? Though unfortunately with cuts biting North and South there may be a bit less warmth about for many people than heretofore. Billy.
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).