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Billy King shares his monthly thoughts –
Well, last time I was with you it looked like spring was about to break through in Ireland, and how wrong I was. It was a fierce cold March, though not as bad as 1937 [You remember it well, I suppose – Ed] [No, but I know what I’m talking about, unlike some – Billy]. In that year March was completely frozen up and the daffodils were only in full bloom more than half way through April. Just as well I start most of my garden seed germination indoors because there would be nothing happening outside. That said, when you get a cold spell [would that be from a witch who got locked out? Ed] whatever flowers are in bloom at that time last much longer – so we have got good value out of those daffodils/narcissi or spring flowers that were already out or about to come out when the cold weather struck, in my recollection they have never bloomed so long
I got some beautiful photos of natural ice sculptures on the shore of a lake in Donegal where the wind had driven waves or spray onto the rushes. Ice formed around the rushes and then got thicker, looking a bit like feathers or, in some cases, upside down icicles and other shapes. But that is one beautiful part of it, some people didn’t have much fun with roads blocked or electricity cut.
Yes and No
Yes, I went to see the film ‘No’ recently, a powerful exploration of the ‘No’ campaign to President Pinochet, fascist dictator of Chile, continuing in power from 1989. Pressured by international powers into having a plebiscite to endorse his continued rule (Margaret Thatcher was a mate and would have been happy), the state was not going to enter into something which it thought it would lose even if it was inconvenient. The film is set around an ad man who was uninvolved in the struggle against Pinochet even if he had close links with people who were. Should they even engage in a campaign which was stacked towards the state? The state, after all, had many tentacles and ways of making its displeasure known and, if the ‘No’ campaign failed, those involved risked what could be severe retribution in the days and months subsequent to a ‘Yes’ vote. The majority of people did not like Pinochet but they had to be persuaded that there was a better alternative in a situation where large scale violence and repression was an ever present reality. Fear was an omnipresent factor.
The ad man’s – counter-intuitive – advice is to present a happy picture of voting yes for the campaign rather than dwell on the human rights abuses and terrors of the past, although the latter would at times be featured. This is difficult for long time political activists to take when the injustices of the Pinochet regime were so glaring. The argument was basically that negativity would not overcome fear in the situation and get people out to vote ‘No’. Negativity might even emphasise the state’s power and therefore reinforce the feeling of the need for stability and continuation of Pinochet’s regime. The film ‘No’ is well set in the context of the ad man’s personal life and I’d recommend it for looking at an important time in a country which is important for our understanding of world politics.
This got me thinking about wider questions of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In fact I suggested to the Headitor that Nonviolent News should run INNATE’s ‘Yes/No’ exercise in the ‘Workshops’ section [Yes, I would like people to be in the know, see ‘Workshops’ in this issue – Ed]. This exercise is useful for exploring some of the features of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to anything, and there are many cultural nuances. In Ireland on visiting a house where you are not a regular and being asked is you want a drink of tea or coffee, or a ‘drink’ (alcoholic), the polite cultural norm is to say ‘no’, after which the host pressures the guest to say ‘yes’, and eventually they all sit down with mug or glass in hand. Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle takes it to farcical extremes with her “You will, you will, you will” or “Go on, go on, go on”. But there are other cultural norms; cue jokes about Irish people in other cultures and languages being asked to have a drink, or a second helping at dinner – saying ‘no’ and then being disappointed that they weren’t asked again, and never got that second helping.
But there are more serious aspects to yes and no. The bible had something to say about plain speaking and your yes being yes and your no, no. In the area of sex, the question of rape when a woman says ‘no’ and a man thinks ‘yes’ and rapes her, is one brutal illustration; some violent men may understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’ and proceed to rape nonetheless, but hearing ‘no’ and understanding ‘maybe’ is a cultural norm too far.
In the political arena, saying yes or no in referenda/referendums is a serious business. It would be remiss not to say that in many cases if the question is only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ then it is a bad question. “Do you want a biscuit?” gets a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. “Should there be abortion in Ireland and if so under what circumstances?” is a rather more serious question, particularly after the Savita Halappanavar case. Trying to decide yes or no to a complex moral, ethical and political question should have nuanced questions formulated, and use a methodology such as the Modified Borda Count (MBC, see http://www.deborda.org) to gauge people’s views. But on simple and basic questions, like do you want a drink, let your yes be yes and your no, no – after all local cultural niceties and procedures are taken care of.
I went to the Belfast launch of Tony Macaulay’s ‘Breadboy’ in Belfast and quickly read this successor volume (Blackstaff Press, ISBN 978 0 85640 810 3) to his first book ‘Paperboy’ about growing up on the Shankill in the late 1970s. This is another great and easy read with lots of laugh out loud moments as well as some cringe-inducing ones - but what teenage story would be complete without those.
In this book he has graduated from being a paper boy (was he “the only pacifist paperboy in West Belfast”?) to being a Saturday morning breadboy. Part of the context is being considered posh on the Shankill for going to a grammar school, and a pleb in school because he was from the Shankill. One motif running through the book is his rivalry – including or especially in relation to a girl – with a snobby guy from a well off family in school who have a gite in France, or, as the book puts it, a “git with a gite”. An altercation late in the book involving some Shankill friends and the git in question is a great story.
The book is atmospheric but lightly written. However there are a couple of more serious aspects to it all which I think are worth mentioning. The first is an aspect of the Troubles which INNATE would regularly mention in different contexts; that there is more to the Troubles – in many ways – than those who were involved in actual fighting on one side or another. Part of this is how people got on with their lives in often extraordinary circumstances. This book helps to fill a part of that gap.
But sometimes the Protestant working class in Norn Iron can be demonised and made to look responsible for things which were certainly not its creation. Again this book acts as an antidote to that view, not in an intentional way, but simply by writing about life and people.
If you haven’t read either book you could go straight for ‘Breadboy’ but to prolong the pleasure I would suggest reading ‘Paperboy’ first.
‘GFA’ might sound a bit like the acronym of some swear words but it is fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, isn’t that amazing, and what is even more amazing, as a CAJ event mentioned in the news section of this issue mentions, is the lack of progress on some human rights and related issues in Norn Iron in the time since.
Every agreement has the possibility of fossilisation present. New vested interests come into play. Old vested interests refuse to reform or give up power, or fight back for a return (sounds a bit like Fianna Fáil!). Powerholders stall on issues, hoping that civil society will tire and give up the fight. Powerholders make minor concessions to keep their major power. Measures designed to be temporary become permanent. The ‘new’ abnormality becomes the ‘new’ normality. The agents of change get old and die, and may or may not be replaced by new activists.
And this is only thinking about aspects of the political system. The sectarian divide and system remains well and truly in place in the North. Yes, something like integrated education is shown to have majority support but the number of parents who put their children where their mouths are is much smaller.
Northern Ireland needs major shake ups in various aspects of its reality (but then so too does the Republic). Civil society needs to be very well organised to push for the needed changes but in most cases there is no evidence that the doors concerned are even un(b)locked. Lots of work to be done, then. But the CAJ conference is right to focus on what was promised in the GFA; we cannot afford to allow these aspects of the agreement which was reached slip from our grasp
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Well, there you have it. March was also the month which revealed that Korean motor manufacturer Kia wouldn’t be marketing its prototype ‘Provo’ model in the UK, well, it’s one thing to have a personalised number plate but I don’t think even Sinn Féin members would feel save in driving one of these...meanwhile no one is going to market a ‘Duped’ car, and no one is going to want to be sold a ‘Pup’, though some people are happy getting an ‘Allianz’ insurance policy. See you soon......and I hope summer will be peeking around the corner then! 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).