[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]
Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
Starting off, I’ll just say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the Irish government has yet to prove its green words are more than greenwash, though leaked plans indicate some serious action may be in the offing. Meanwhile, as the news section of this issue demonstates it is ‘business as usual’ when it comes to fossil fools (sic). As to politics in the jurisdiction of the UK, I won’t even start......
Headline of the month: Entering into the spirit of things
Well, my headline of the month has to go to The Belfast Telegraph for their “US 'ghostbuster' who helped Catholic Belfast family rid home of chain-smoking hardline unionist spectre dies”.
Ghosts may not be ‘hard’ news, if anything the inconsequential opposite but this little story was certainly intriguing, wherever you stand or sit in terms of belief about the paranormal. A northern story about paranormalities and not paramilitaries...
Me? Well I would sit on the fence (if I was selling illegal goods to a middleman). I am happy not to have to take a position on the paranormal although I believe that even if there is such a thing there is also a load of rubbish spouted about it. In this case – and I am not attacking them or their perceptions - a member of the family owning the house had said “why he believed the strange smells and scary noises in the Victorian property in north Belfast were caused by Richard Dawson Bates. "Bates was a chain-smoker," he said. "And we've all smelt tobacco smoke in this house, but none of us smoke." The report continued “After partition in 1921, Bates became minister of home affairs and controlled the RUC and B Specials. He made no secret of his hatred and suspicion of Catholics. According to author Chris Ryder he was "an uncompromising bigot" who distrusted all Catholics and said they needed to be "neutralised in every conceivable way". “
Being the political animal that I am, I take note that in Northern Ireland even the ghostly world has a sectarian tinge, or has the spectre of sectarianism. So if you are in Norn Iron and see a ghost, i.e. you are the spectator of a spectre, be sure to find out whether they are Catholic or Protestant. Or, if you think that asking them directly might offend them, gently enquire about their name or try to establish it and, again by gentle enquiry, where they went to school, and certainly do not on any account talk about politics or the border until you know what foot they kick with, or would kick with if they had feet, or else you might have a ghoul with a growl. You should enter into the spirit of the encounter if you want a ghost of a chance of a successful resolution. PS There is no extra charge for me advising you here on a sensitive matter such as this. PPS What do you call the ghost of a chicken? Answer: A poultrygeist. [Don’t give up the day job Billy - and how do I know your column hasn’t been produced by a ghost-writer? – Ed]
Reflections on a famine trail
There are rituals which we participate in because we are expected to and/or feel we should, and there are rituals which challenge and sustain. For me the Afri Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh in Co Mayo is one of the latter. Going now for over three decades (it takes place in May) it walks around 11 miles/18 km which is just half of the truly terrible procession which hundreds of starving people undertook to try to get help in 1849. Having spent the night in Louisburgh, outside, they walked or staggered to Delphi Lodge where the Poor Law Commissioners were meeting; they were not to be disturbed from their lunch and subsequently refused help to the starving. The throng of people made their way back to Louisburgh, many dying on the way.
Doolough is a wild and beautiful spot and the terrible story of 1849, allied with the deolate beauty of the place, might engender passivity and hopelessness. But Afri always has a theme which links what happened in this location with what is happening in the world today, and walk leaders are always people who can inspire dynamic activism and hope. As we heard this year, hope comes from working together.
The Poor Law Commissioners were the baddies of the piece in 1849, refusing help to people who were at death’s door. My guess is that – apart from if their own comfortable existence distancing them from the starving – they felt helpless to act. I suspect they thought they could do nothing for several hundred people, that they too felt powerless, albeit they themselves were not directly affected. However I would suggest this was a failure of imagination on their part. Unwilling to act outside of established policies, and feeling that helping such a large group was totally impossible, they refused any help at all.
But as told by a powerful piece on Afri’s CD about the Famine Walk (Peadar O’Riada’s ‘On a Single Day’ performed by Christy Moore, track 4 on “The Doolough Famine Walk – Music from a dark lake”), there was plenty of food - and, in Sineád O’Connor’s words, “There was no famine” which is why An Gorta Mór/The Great Hunger is a more appropriate term.
I don’t want to enter too far into theology or dissection of Christianity, but one of the takes on Jesus ‘feeding the 5,000’ in the Christian Gospels is not that Jesus conjured up bread and fishes but that the action of the boy in sharing what he had shamed others into doing likewise – there was enough food but it wasn’t shared out. The Poor Law Commisioners could have done something but it required a radical step away from their comfort zone and established practices. Instead, they failed to act and the presumption is that the vast majority of those involved in that painful walk died there or subsequently.
There are always things we can do. It is a matter of realising this and going with the consequences, even if they are uncomfortable for us. And that is going to be a real challenge; we all have barriers beyond which we are unwilling to go in terms of cost to ourselves, or steps outside our comfort zone.
A current or existing ‘technological solution’ to avoiding a hard border after Brexit has been dismissed, even by Northern Ireland Office ministers. But with Brexit coming our way soon, by the look of things, it is an ongoing debate. Peter Donaghy had a useful look at the issue in a piece on the Norn Iron political website Slugger O’Toole
The writer is a measured analyst but his conclusion is “None of the technological solutions being discussed are technologically unfeasible. The issue is a moral and ethical one. To implement all of the ideas that are being discussed would, in addition to the red tape and bureaucracy imposed on business, be tantamount to the creation of a surveillance state. The time for polite euphemism is over. When British politicians refer to “alternative arrangements for the Irish border”, they are calling for invasive technology that is incompatible with living in a free society. When they talk about “political will”, they are referring to the willingness of the people crossing the border to submit to this treatment, and the will to compel compliance if they resist.”
Unfortunately this is an issue which is not going to go away. Brexiteers say the UK is not going to create a hard border when they know or should know full well that a) the EU has requirements for its borders and b) the UK would likely introduce strict border controls as well, should it deem it necessary, which is very likely.
Excellently droll comedian Kevin McAleer (more recently famous for his portrayal of boring, boring, boring Uncle Colm in ‘Derry Girls’) has declared the Irish border as ‘the best little border in the world” and that “it unites the whole country”. In fact it will be intriguing to see whether Brexit and the border turn out to be a factor in the unification of the two parts of Ireland or not, and if it happens whether that will be accomplished simply by demographic change in the North.
Well, that’s me for another month, the summer is coming in. Anyway I’ll see you in July – in the words of the old Orange chant “January, February, March – No! April, May, June – No! July – Aye!”. See you soon, 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).