|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
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The process of the Human Rights Forum in Northern Ireland on a Bill of Rights is reaching its climax with the work being finished at the end of March. The report then goes to the NI Human Rights Commission, thence to the Secretary of State, and what say Stormont will have in all this we have to await. Criticisms in the Protestant and Unionist side of the house are manifold and some have been well aired. There have been defects with the project, such as the short consultation time both for the Forum working groups themselves, and their consultations with others. But if this is the process, warts and all, then let us see where it gets to. What does seem unfortunate is the old sectarian divide in relation to human rights, not just the ‘if they are for it, we’re agin it’ syndrome but also the idea that Northern Ireland having its own Bill or Rights undermines the union of Northern Ireland with Britain.
Surely it is necessary to acknowledge that politics in the UK has moved on with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Scotland has always had its own legal system anyway. There are ‘particular circumstances’ peculiar to Northern Ireland which justify developing a bill of rights for the North. But in the wider context it has to be stated that Protestants, Unionists or any democrats voting against a bill of rights for Northern Ireland is like a turkey voting for Christmas. The last census showed that there was still more of a gap between the numbers of the Protestant population and the numbers of the Catholic population than was thought, but it must be edging closer and closer to 50:50, and it is highly unlikely, given demographic trends, that it will not arrive at this point among the adult population. That will not mean a united Ireland but it will change the context considerably. There is no better, and no more urgent, time for the Protestant and Unionist community in Northern Ireland to get what it wants in a bill of rights than now. In fifteen years time the context and political reality may be quite different. There are also arguably too many expectations of what details should be in the bill, and the shopping list of different sectors could make for a massive tome which would be out of date before the ink is dry.
It is understandable that different sectors want to get a marker set, if only for future legislation. The difficult act is to be both simple and comprehensive enough to stand the test of time – say, thirty years – setting out rights in broad brush strokes but avoiding specifics which will date. There is still a lot of work to be done even if it will be behind closed doors and about to move beyond the public domain until the proposed bill is published.
The issue of whether ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland was a ‘war’ or not came up again recently in the context of a campaign by people on the unionist side to persuade the Eames-Bradley commission (Consultative Group on the Past) not to label ‘it’ as a war. MLAs also tussled on the question acrimoniously at Stormont. So what is a war and was the Troubles such an event? The question still touches a raw nerve. The first point is that while the word ‘war’ may frequently call up images of huge ‘set piece’ battles, with the armies confronting each other in massed formation on a battlefield, this has seldom been a very adequate concept of the totality of war. There have been other examples of ‘trench warfare’ like the First World War but that has not been the norm in human history. There are a whole variety of models of warfare and the concept of guerrilla (literally ‘little war’) warfare is a well established model, dating back to antiquity; insurgents attack where and when they can, melting back into the general populace and making the tracking of them down very difficult. An established feature of guerrilla war is also that insurgent attacks may bring harsh treatment or reprisals by the established or state forces, a factor which insurgents may hope will benefit them in the battle for hearts and minds.
Guerrilla type war (Afghanistan, Iraq) might now be considered the norm in warfare. And what is a definition of war? War is where organised bands or armies of armed people (usually but not exclusively men) fight each other with the weapons at their disposal, attempting to kill or capture the enemy and gain or keep control of territory and resources. You might be able to add “with a political cause” after ‘men’ above but the question could be then whether this covers ‘drug wars’ of the Columbian sort, or whether that is a separate category. By this definition of war, the Troubles in Northern Ireland was clearly a war. It was experienced by the military on all sides as a war. The political objective in not labelling it a war is clear; if it was not a war then the insurgents were definitely not warriors or soldiers or guerrilla fighters but criminals.
Thus the humanity and intentions – good, bad or indifferent - of those who took up arms against the state is demeaned. The question of whether paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland were right – either from a moral or strategic point of view – in taking up arms is an entirely different question. Our answer to this would be a clear ‘no’ on both counts. Of course those who took up arms – for or against the state, or against those who took up arms against the state – felt morally justified in so doing. We can blame them for taking up arms – but we could equally blame the peace movement, civil society, and certainly the organs of the state, for not showing there were non-violent alternatives (alternatives without violence).
In Christian terminology, let those without sin cast the first stone; in other words, if you start to attribute blame for the Troubles then it is a mighty long list which would spare few of us (and certainly not the middle classes and those who stood aside) from at least some culpability. It is possible to attribute ‘major causation’ for the Troubles to certain groups and people but we were all part of it, and it was part of us.
An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s finances continue to mystify and amaze the country. It is not impossible that he was so fixated on his political career that he was supremely ignorant of, and slapdash with, his own finances, or that he is wriggling to avoid the charge of financial malpractice and tax avoidance. Either way the picture is not a very happy one for a politician who has been a supreme fixer and dealer. But we will draw a veil over this matter because it is so well covered in the mainstream media, except to say that it feeds into the prejudice that all politicians are crooks.
Party politicians come in all shapes and sizes and are probably not much different to anyone else except in the opportunities that come, with power, to get a bit on the side, financial we mean. That is certainly no excuse. But even Garret Fitzgerald had a major loan written off by the bank when an unwise investment got him into considerable debt and yet few question his personal integrity.
However, party politics continues to be its own worst enemy. How can people, particularly young people, be persuaded that party politics is a worthwhile cause and life, or even that it is worth voting, when what they see is corruption, negligence, and self interest? There is dedication there but that tends to be knocked into the shade by the likes of Bertie’s beneficial bonuses. And the idea that politicians can change things at the drop of a hat is rather simplistic; it depends on who they are and what the issue is; many politicians are as powerless or ourselves. But there is a life outside party politics, and politics outside party politics. The pressure group, the researcher, the campaigner, the community activist, the peace activist, all have a role to play in trying to produce justice and equality.
Of course the role of the political activist outside of party politics can be one of being ignored by the powers that be, speaking up and being slapped down, being prophetic and getting properly stuffed by the establishment. You just have to look at how campaigners for a proper education for autistic children and young people have been treated in the 26 counties. However, in the longer term, after setbacks, many such cases become incontestable, and are added to party politicians’ promises and policies because the public have become convinced of the rightness of the cause, and that may translate into votes. It comes back to knowing where you are on the road to success (see here); the darkest hour is that before the dawn, and success rarely comes easily.
The politician, with a small ‘p’, who is outside of party politics is every much as important a part of democracy, and building justice and equality, as those who hold the reins of power – and sometimes more so. In a relatively conservative society like Ireland, party politicians need to be cajoled, pushed, prodded and propelled towards change. Without extra-parliamentary pressure most will sit on their assertions and assets until pushed to do what they should have done years ago. A cultural change is also needed; avoiding tax increases has been de rigueur for all parties in trying to get votes, while it is only though increased taxation that proper health and social services can be provided for all. Until that cultural and political change happens, the Republic will be, first and foremost, a republic for the nouveau riche and the ancien élite. There is more than one way to go into politics. If politics is indeed about influencing the process of decision making then there are a million ways to engage in that. Nonviolence and nonviolent action is part of that picture, part of that jigsaw, and a way to engage in the issues with integrity.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
On the 25th February I attended the launch of NI Environment Link’s ‘way forward’ document ‘Policy Priorities for Northern Ireland’s Environment’ at Stormont. The document is aimed at the new Assembly. The speakers were as follows: Dr. Pat Jess, Chairperson of NIEL, Stephen Peover, Permanent Secretary of DOE NI, Ms Jane Davidson Welsh AM, Minister for Environment, Sustainability & Housing, Sir John Harman, Chairman Environment Agency, and Mr Philip Wright, Deputy Director Scottish Government Climate Change & Water Industry Directorate.
The premise, upon which the speakers base their view of the environmental future of Northern Ireland, and the other two Assembly areas, is that of sustainable development. Sustainable development means different things to different people. For the three Assemblies it means the growth of a strong economy whilst reducing global warming gasses. I contend that this is an illusion. In the dominant paradigm a strong economy means nothing other than a non-ending increase in consumption. This inevitably means more ‘waste’, the loss of biodiversity, the use of finite resources, increases in all types of pollution and the general trashing of the planet. In also means that the billions of poor, the greater number of humanity, will remain impoverished, condemned to a miserable existence beyond the imaginative grasp of most Westerners.
Extreme poverty also means early death. As the event closed it occurred to me that the speakers, and perhaps most of the audience, did not realise, or had deluded themselves, that the idea of sustainable development and economic growth too is nonsense. Of a sudden I felt myself to be in the middle of the folk tale in which the king is wearing no clothes, and pondered about mass delusion, the power of fashion, and the desire to belong to the herd. This sense of mass self-deception was confirmed by the closing words of the chair, which was that she was sorry that people would get wet on their way to the car park. I was taken back by this as I would have expected on such an occasion for her to say ‘on their way to the bus stop or bicycle park’.
It seems that we don’t expect policy makers, political advisers, politicians and environmental campaigners to live the change they want to see. From my observations, no one other than my self had travelled to Stormont by means other than car, even though there is a regular and comfortable bus service to Stormont from the City Hall. Later in the week I came to see that I am not alone in my view on sustainable development and economic growth. In The Guardian, 1st March 2008, James Lovelock is quoted as saying: “All these standard green things, like sustainable development … are just words that mean nothing.” Lovelock expects 80% of humanity to be wiped out by climate change by the end of the century. If we are to avoid this predicted loss, and the collapse of ecosystems, a poisoned and denuded Earth, then we need to end our make-believe, and behave as if we really cared and loved creation.