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Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
The growing season
As I said the last time, summer seemed to end and autumn begin at the end of July in Ireland this year. We didn't get called 'Hibernia' for nothing. Just as well I did most of my outdoor painting back in May, congratulating myself at how far I was on with summer tasks – pride goes before the Fall – it was September when I got a couple of free days when it was dry enough to finish off the rest. But, here's a few reflections on The Growing Season. [Is this now a gardening Colm? – Ed] [Ye shall reap what ye sow – Billy]
Not being able to get my usual courgette seeds, I tried three different varieties for size and have concluded which to grow in future. The yellow variety – looking quite like a banana when sliced – was pretty but simply not cut out for Irish weather, it needed Italian heat and didn't get it so curled up and died before the others. Another, short variety tended to grow with a hollow which then had a tendency to rot. Rot was a factor with my giant, thornless blackberries as well – some fruit simply didn't develop, 'withering on the vine', while others rotted, not able to keep going in the frequent rain.
I had bought Russian kale from Irish Seed Savers last year though sown late. Sown and transplanted in good time this year it has done very well and I'm looking forward to lots of colcannon made with it. But new eventualities always hit. Noticing insect marks on washing in the spring, I discovered black fly on the heavier wood of our blackcurrants and redcurrants; being almost the same colour as the bark (their bite was bad for the bark) I hadn't noticed them, and with a mild winter it looks like they were thriving – and killing my bushes. The redcurrants survived looking well but only produced a handful of currants this year. Some of the blackcurrant bushes died back but, flowering slightly later, did produce a modicum of blackcurrants, better than I expected given the carnage.
Other crops performed reasonably. My outdoor tomatoes were, as almost always, the triumph of hope over experience but we will be having a small amount of fried green tomatoes, just adding a little bit of pepper and soya sauce when cooked or cooking, great. I wasn't sure how a clematis I planted more than a year ago was doing and then it had a growth spurt at the end of 'the summer' and an excellent second flowering; it's obviously happy and so am I.
Growing things is a tremendous way to connect with nature and, in community gardening or sharing seeds and resources, with other people. Putting up with failures is part of the game – knowing that we can cooperate with but not beat nature - and enjoying (eating, or looking at in the case of flowers) successes is very rewarding. Some people genuinely feel they don't have green fingers but I feel, like so many things, it is a case of perseverance and patience, and learning what works for you and the soil you cultivate (and that's a great word, 'cultivate').
There are many ironies about bombs and the arms trade, one Norn Irony was that while the Troubles raged, missiles for sale to anyone were being made by Thales in Castlereagh in East Belfast (they still are). Call yourself a country, repressive and bloodthirsty or not, pay the money, and you can get as big a bombing system as you want. But the latest attempted bombing in London drew a great letter to The Guardian from long-time British peace activist, the veteran inveterate Albert Beale:
"I watched police vehicles rushing to Parsons Green underground station this morning to try to protect us from people intent on pursuing their interests with bombs.
And I remembered that only days ago, at the massive arms bazaar in London's Docklands [DSEI – Ed], that same police force had arrested around a hundred of those of us intent on nonviolently resisting the lucrative business of supplying people intent on pursuing their interests with bombs.
Funny old world."
I watched the series of three documentary programmes on BBC1 Northern Ireland entitled 'Peacemakers' –respectively on the Women's Coalition, the Peace People, and three Protestant clerics involved in peace activities. Here are my thoughts. The programmes are, for a very limited period, on the BBC iplayer (BBC Northern Ireland).
The first programme on the Women's Coalition was an hour long and it needed at least that time, even though the Women's Coalition was in existence for less than a decade. It played an important role in the Good Friday Agreement and the groundwork for that. The programme title used their great slogan 'Wave goodbye to dinosaurs' and provided some context. The political parties were extremely sceptical, not to say scathing, about a women's party, and the film showed some male politicians being very chauvinist, patronising and downright ignorant.
It was, however, as the always perceptive Bernadette McAliskey pointed out in the programme, a women's peace party rather than a party for women's rights. As she went on to say, women were the most experienced peacemakers in the room at the talks, not because they were involved in 'politics' (though the women were mainly veterans of different campaigns) but because of the role that they play in society and not any genetic peacemaking quality.
The Women's Coalition had come together in 1996 at very short notice (6 weeks) to get into the political talks which were to engage the top ten political parties in Northern Ireland; it came in 9th and that entitled it to two representatives at the very male table. Once the Good Friday Agreement was gained, the Women's Coalition did get two seats in the Assembly but subsequently lost all its seats and disbanded. That was a pity, that it wasn't able to carve out an ongoing role for itself, but the comment from Bernadette McAliskey above comes into play.
It also showed the compromises they had to make coming up to the 1998 Agreement. They had got in a mention of victims, but were asked did they want the inclusion of the Civic Forum (now or currently lost in the shuffle) or voting reform? They were told they couldn't have both. They went for the Civic Forum. The latter was not flavour of the month with political parties, who tend to be sceptical of anything outside their own ranks, but could play a very positive role, see e.g. the Citizens' Assembly stimulation of debate in the Republic. The programme ended with a reference to UN Standing Committee Resolution 1325 on women's involvement in peacemaking and peace processes – something which I would say is highly ironic given that the British government decided this applies everywhere in the world except within the UK boundaries, in Northern Ireland (this policy omission was not mentioned).
The second programme was on the Peace People and took part of the story as far as the Nobel Peace Prize award, a year into the Peace People existence (started 1976, the Nobel Prize was 1977). The first programme had been an hour but this and the third programme were only half an hour and in this time it was an almost impossible task. It also didn't take forward any subsequent Peace People activities or history and it still exists, 41 years later.
It did show the origins of the movement which became the Peace People, and the issue of where it went from being a rallying organisation – with big numbers attending the different rallies – and some issues or problems on the way forward. But other early issues were not covered or referred to, e.g. the extent to which leadership statements were taken as Peace People policy and this caused problems at grassroots level. The programme was also probably over-emphatic on Betty Williams taking the Nobel Peace Prize money as a cause of the decline of the movement or organisation it had become; it was a factor but only one of many.
Ciaran McKeown was right to say lives were saved because of Peace People work but in terms of the overall picture there is the question and assessment of whether the decline in the level of violence which happened at the same time as the Peace People was due to them or part of a wider desire for peace which helped create the Peace People - or a mixture of these two things. The Dawn Train pamphlet on the Peace People (1987) is on the INNATE website.
The third programme was on the Northern Ireland related peacemaking activities of three Protestant clergy; Ken Newell, Gary Mason and Harold Good, the first being Presbyterian and the other two Methodist. John Brewer of Queen's provided some of the contextual detail but in general the programme was only touching on one side of the fence, and a very small part of the fence too.
The issue of the churches and the conflict is a complex one. Yes, sectarianism is based on the religio-political divide, and bad theology, as Gary Mason pointed out, contributed to sectarianism. But there were numerous areas where church people, clerics or lay, tried to deal with issues arising from the Troubles and point a sign to, dare I say it in the context, what might be considered a more Christian way of doing things. John Brewer portrayed the contribution of these clerics as being that of brave mavericks, and that they were, but there is probably a more nuanced picture possible of the role of the churches as individual and collective institutions, it might be an 'outlier' but just look at something like the role of the Churches' Peace Education Programme in peace education in general.
For me the time factor was the main limit on what was possible in the second and third programmes. Obviously there is much more to the Women's Coalition than appeared in the first programme but I felt it at least was able to have a bit of a go at something of a rounded picture. The second and third programmes were much more in the way of snapshots, welcome ones perhaps but severely compromised by the time factor. The first two programmes largely concerned the contribution of women, the third one was primarily about men; exploring the gender aspect in relation to the Peace People would have been a very interesting focus. I would conclude that to gauge the work of, and happenings within, the Peace People, or the contribution of the churches to either sectarianism or peace (positive or negative) in Northern Ireland, on the respective programmes in this short series would be mistaken.
Toddler shoots playmates
I wrote the paragraph in quotation marks below before the Las Vegas mass killing of 1st October which was just one, admittedly the largest, in an ongoing plethora of multiple shootings in the Second Amendment United States of America. There is a mass shooting in the US, defined as the injuring of four or more people shot in one incident, almost every day (well, nine out of ten).
The issue is not just one of the easy availability of guns and gun paraphernalia. It is also about a culture which glorifies the gun and culture of the gun. Of course the two are closely linked, but even if you introduced much more stringent checks on the purchase of guns, gun violence is likely to continue at a high level in the USA because of the way that 'standing up' violently is portrayed as a positive virtue. This is certainly a macho thing – boys and their toys to show their 'manhood' - but many women have also bought into it.
Unfortunately and tragically. those who live by, and glorify, the semiautomatic rifle shall quite possibly die by the semiautomatic rifle (or, as in the case of the Las Vegas 'shooter', one that is modified to work like an automatic rifle) – along with others who are not into gun culture, and there are many such people in the USA too. Unfortunately also the political system is rigged in favour of well funded and organised, powerful, vested interests like the gun lobby and ignores the less well funded victims and gun law reform groups.
"You think you have reached the limit with the extravagances and outworking of gun laws in the USA. And then a new headline gets your attention: "Toddler shoots playmates at Michigan daycare facility" The article records that nearly 1,300 children die of gunshot wounds in the USA each year. What a tragic statistic and example of the absolute ludicrousness of the USA's gun laws. The only bearing of arms that should be taking place is rolling up your sleeves to play with these children, not tolerating lax gun laws and practices which facilitate such carnage."
Well, there we go again for another month, the leaves are falling in earnest now, and in October winter gradually starts to bite, if only a little bit – though my toes are cold as I write this! However I hope you are in good form and able to use these dark nights creatively and relaxingly, so, until we meet again, I remain your disobedient servant, 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).