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Nonviolence News August supplement

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Billy King: Rites Again

Billy King

Number 201: July 2012

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts –

Hello, I hope you are enjoying the summertime, when the rain is just slightly warmer, and, wow, have we been having record-breaking rain. But clearly water authorities in the Republic were using flooding as an excuse to install water metering - the RTE website reported, 28th June, that “There is no access into or out of Clonakilty while parts of Douglas village are under a meter of water” (well, ‘meter’ is the US English spelling of ‘metre’). Or, as the BBC-NI TV Newsline weather forecast advised on screen on 1st July – “Stayin a little unsettled” – indeed, stay in is the right advice during heavy rain, but whether you’ll need to feel unsettled is not for me, or indeed for them, to say. My first item is actually on this broad theme so here we go –

Grey tone – Fifty shades of grey
I seem to be answering challenges I haven’t set myself. Having mentioned recently that in Ireland we should have many different words for grey, just as the Inuit may have many words for snow, I thought it would be interesting to try to explore what these are. Apologies if its sounds a bit like a thesaurus (a relation of the brontosaurus, it might even be called a prontosaurus). Here are some – well, over fifty [never tell us we’re not value for money! – Ed] qualifications for ‘grey’, posited in relation to the sky and weather (and not about grey panthers). And this has nuthin’ to do with Erika Mitchell/E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, honest, which is about different matters entirely, or so I am informed.

All encompassing, blue, cold, colourless, creamy, dank, dark, deep, disappointing, dismal, distant, distant mountain, dramatic, dry, dull, eminence grise, featureless, foggy, foreboding, freezing, gathering, grey-black, grimy, griselly, heavy, high, impenetrable, light, limestone, low, melancholic, misty, monolithic, monotone, monotonous, normal, oppressive, peaceful, rampaging, rolling, shivering, shrouded, silver, with a silver lining, soggy, stony, sunless, sweaty, thick, threatening, thundery, tunnel, uniform, variegated, wet, wispy.

So, most are negative, some neutral, a few positive. Go on, define your grey!

The US of A
Political commentary and analysis is often best found elsewhere than in political analysis columns. Here is a take on the USA’s psyche by Margaret Atwood, in a piece about Ray Bradbury following his death (Guardian Review, 9/6/12):

“...in his best work, Bradbury sinks a taproot right down into the deep, dark, Gothic core of America*.........At its heart is the notion of the doubleness of life: you are not who you are, but have a secret and probably evil twin; more importantly, the neighbours are not who you think they are. They might be witches, in the 17th century, or people who will falsely accuse you of being a witch; or traitors, in the 18th century, at the time of the revolution; or communists, in the 20th; or people who will stone you to death, in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”; or terrorists, in the 21st.....”

*Many people persist in speaking of the US of A as ‘America’, which is a bit like calling France or Germany ‘Europe’, and a somewhat imperialist thing to do, although it is almost always done unthinkingly. In fact, as I have analysed before, since Amerigo (a merry-go-round the Atlantic) Vespucci never got near the shores of what is now the USA, it has perhaps even less claim to call itself ‘America’ than Central and South America! The United States, the US, the USA, the States (the last since it is used and clear which ‘States’ are being referred to) all are acceptable; ‘America’ for a fraction of the people and land mass of the Americas, no.

The house on the hell*
*In Norn Iron accent
Interesting surveys in the Bele Tele on the devolved administration in Norn Iron and other matters (Belfast Telegraph week beginning 11/6/12) which showed the functioning of (‘The house on the hill’ at) Stormont in a rather negative light. People are not impressed. Yes, they want the devolved administration but feel its performance compares badly with the previous direct rule from the British government; “fewer than one in 10 think the assembly has performed better than direct rule and almost half rate its performance as poor or very poor.” This occasioned the Tele headline “As bad as the Greeks – Poll shows Stormont rating as low as ousted Athens government.”

Their poll showed only 7% of Northern Irish people want Irish unity now, and another 25% in 25 years (32% total), 55% saying ‘no’. Only 48% of Catholics wanted Irish unity now or in 20 years time. However the BT perspective that “for the vast majority of people here, the border issue...has now been settled” is simplistic. While ’nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ identities remain distinct, ‘things’ will be volatile, and should that change there could be other volatilities. If you took a survey at the height of the Celtic (Paper) Tiger era you might have got a different result. If things went down the tubes with Britain, and the Republic pulled up its socks, then things could change again, though it always was and will be simplistic to think that 50% + 1 Catholics = a united Ireland.

While there was some support for British or Irish Republic parties contesting elections in NI (40% said no, 27% yes to both, 16% yes to British parties, 17% to Irish), the reality is very few would actually vote for them (people haven’t in the past and there is nothing to suppose they will in the future). Interestingly, 48% of Protestants and 85% of Catholics supported GAA sports being offered in state schools. There was strong support for state and Catholic schools to share facilities or teachers in view of falling numbers and funding cuts, though less support among Catholics (51% compared to 70% Protestants). Surveys have consistently shown high support for integrated education (not covered in this survey) but what people say on this and where they send their children to are two different things. Surveys may or may not be accurate predictions of behaviour.

The poll showed the majority of women as disenchanted with all the political parties; “Nearly six out of 10 women don’t intend to vote for any of the seven main political parties in the next general election”. Whether this will be borne out in reality remains to be seen, and whether it can be capitalised on through a creative way to appeal to women – or whether the political parties are imaginative enough to do so.

Only 25% would urge a relative to join the PSNI including just 32% of Protestants and 10% of Catholics, with a large majority in all cases declining to answer the question. The question was “If a close relative wanted to join the PSNI, would you encourage them?” Whether the lack of support is due to the danger associated with the job, or potential danger, or to other factors such as lack of political support on the part of those answering, is not determined. The survey considered other matters not summarised here.

But who would believe it: the same week as their survey above, the Belfast Telegraph had photo supplements on different decades in the 20th century (recycled from their original coverage). The most amazing one is perhaps of an RUC march past at the City Hall, Belfast, on 20th February 1943 marking – and wait for this – the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Red Army (i.e. of the USSR) – Red Army Day. Yes, I repeat, the Royal, Ulster, Constabulary celebrating the 25th anniversary of the communist army of the Stalinist dictatorship. War certainly makes strange bedfellows.

Two fillums on women, men and war
It is important to avoid the stereotypes of women in war – as either natural nurturing peacebuilders or as cheerleaders for the violence, though both can be true. The whole area of gender and violence is deeply important for how the world extricates itself out of the hole it has dug itself into regarding violence. The elephant in many rooms is often the male role in violence. But is it is true that women often play a distinctive and essential role in building peace and peace processes, and if so then what is it and where does it come from?

I wanted to look briefly at two very different films exploring the role of women in building peace and avoiding conflict. The first is Pray the Devil Back to Hell, by Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney, about the contribution organised women made to the peace process in Liberia. The second is Where do we go now?, a fictional account of life in a Lebanese village shared by Christians and Muslims during civil war in the country, directed by Nadine Labaki. The first is a documentary about the brave but also painstaking work done by women (again Christian and Muslim) to move Liberia to peace, and to force men to deal with each other seriously. The second is a tragic-comedy, with even a bit of the musical thrown in, of how women struggle and connive (in collusion with the priest and imam) to keep the lid on men’s potential to fight and kill each other.

Both films show imaginative and creative ways of using women’s traditional roles to be effective, and of ‘nonviolent action’. But there is a big difference. Pray the Devil Back to Hell is confronting men directly, making demands, strategising for peacemaking to be one step ahead. Maybe it accepts men’s political role to a considerable extent but then Ellen Johnston Sirleaf became Africa’s first woman president. Where do we go from here?, affecting as it is, shows women conniving to keep their men in check even though the women are doing it imaginatively and creatively – they are using diversion more than direct demands to the men to avoid warring. Lysistratic nonaction (Gene Sharp typology of nonviolent tactics number 57) doesn’t come into it but they certainly use men’s interest in sex to divert them, plenty of diversion in the Irish sense (craic and entertainment). Again, however, the women are working hard to stay one step ahead of the men and to anticipate what will happen next if they do nothing.

It is interesting, and exemplary, that the real life example of women was also successful at a macro level (after the peace agreement in Liberia, the women monitored the situation for a couple of years to see that things were adhered to). When the male politicians, comfortably ensconced in relative luxury for negotiations, had showed no signs of dealing with each other, the women placed their agenda – through themselves and their bodies – where the men could not avoid them and they were forced to negotiate seriously.

The real life example was also more upfront rather than underhand (amusing and creative as Where do we go from here? is). Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a very powerful film. While Where do we go from here? can be enjoyed by anyone of any gender, the fact that it portrays most of the men as one short step from violence and killing is potentially dangerous; it might be ‘true’ and ring true in the story, but it risks portraying all men as that; the only male adults not portrayed in this way are the priest and the imam who have a ‘professional’ interest in being peacemakers. There is thus a risk of compounding stereotypes. However, with the humour and strength of the women, it is impossible to dislike the film and it is well worth seeing and very enjoyable.

You can find more information out about both films online.

Flying flags and ‘celebrating’ identities
Queen Elizabeth has been in Ireland again, this time in Norn Iron, having been in the Re:Public earlier in the year. The visit to the North was for 60 years as monarch and included the symbolic-but-not-anything-like-as-historic-as-commentators-made-out handshake with Martin McGuinness – as well as her first visit to a Catholic church in Northern Ireland, in Enniskillen (across the road from the Church of Ireland cathedral where she had just attended a service).

It would be nice if everyone could express their identity in the way that they want without others taking offence. But that’s not how it works in a divided society like Norn Iron where there is plenty of Norn irony at work, and all things tend to be seen as a zero sum game. With all the royal/ist razzamatazz and brouhaha, some republicans were feeling a mit biffed and left out and did some earthwriting (Gene Sharp typology of nonviolent tactics Number 12) on Black Mountain (to the west of Belfast) with the slogan “Ériu is our queen” and a tricolour. Some loyalists took umbrage at this and an altercation developed on the mountainside with one republican subsequently treated in hospital for head injuries, and the message destroyed, before republicans again put up another tricolour.

It is easy to be a simple consumer of the media in Northern Ireland and not realise the very different takes on events like these in ‘the two communities’. While online voices can be strident at times, the mainstream electronic and broadcast media is measured and obliged to be ‘neutral’ or perhaps wishy-washy. If you want to get two different takes on a story like this you may need to resort to The Irish News and News Letter respectively (27th June 2012).

The News Letter’s headline was “Anger at anti-Monarchy message on mountain”. The News Letter reported that a caller to the News Letter “said the move had heightened tensions between the two communities in west and north Belfast” and that police said they were investigating reports of “a spontaneous disturbance” while “One person was taken to hospital but his injuries are not thought to be life-threatening.” North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds was quoted as saying that a small group of republicans “have deliberately attempted to provoke a reaction through erecting a large sign on Black mountain.” And Jim Allister called for the police to remove the items as “clearly conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.” The police were quoted as saying “There were no offences disclosed with the erection of these items” but they were monitoring the situation.

Meanwhile in The Irish News, which had a larger piece about the incidents, the headline stated “100-strong loyalist mob try to destroy 120ft-wide tricolour” and the smaller headline “Attackers ‘with axes, hammers and bats’ injure man”. It also had ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the destroyed earthwriting. The common points with the News Letter involved the same police statement and that Nigel Dodds described the message as “offensive”. Beyond that the interpretation was rather different. It explained that “Eriu was the matron goddess of Ireland in Celtic mythology” though they didn’t point out that the modern words “Éire” and “Ireland” come from the same name. Sinn Féin councillor Steven Corr is quoted about the attack on the man subsequently hospitalised, and four others; “Mr Corr said the “planned and premeditated attack” had “done nothing but heighten tensions in an already volatile city.” A community activist said the man was sleeping in a tent when he was beaten with hatchets, hammers and baseball bats and was drenched in blood in a frenzied attack.

The Irish News went on to say that community artist Gerard Kelly worked on the project with residents and children from Springhill and, speaking before the attack, said that it was “just an expression of who we are” and “I respect everybody’s right to believe in what they believe and I hope they respect my right to believe what I believe and what my community believe.”

Who struck the first ‘blow’ in this war of the flags? Republicans? Loyalists? The Queen? Ériu? And who is ‘right’? Sticks and stones will break bones but will flags really hurt you? When will the conflict in Norn Iron ‘flag’? There are plenty of answers (and even more questions) but the ones you give in Northern Ireland are likely to come from which foot you kick with, and how hard you kick. When and how we can learn to kick for touch, or look at things with a wider perspective, is another question.

- - - - - -

Well, there we go, let’s hope for a quiet Marching Season in Norn Iron but you know you never can tell. And I wish you happy holidays, and hopefully not brolly holliers in the rain. As usual at this time of year I quote Christy Moore from the immortal words of his song Lisdoonvarna with its most pithy definition of holidays – “When summer comes around each year / They come here and we go there”. I hope you get there. See you in September, meanwhile keep your head high in the rain, 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