January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
As stated before in this space, the whole Consultative Group on the Past (CGP) report is available online at www.cgpni.org The issue of dealing with the past is complicated in a variety of ways. We are not attempting here to provide a comprehensive response to the report but to pick out some important aspects of it, and other issues, from a nonviolent perspective (e.g. we do not really deal with issues concerning truth recovery in this piece). To do this, let us restate, very briefly, what we consider key nonviolent principles to be so that these are in mind as we look at the CGP report; these principles should include non-harming, thinking of opponents (respect), addressing conflict directly, and imagination in how we deal with contentious issues, and when acting as a third party how we help people to move on. The working principles enunciated in the report, for CGP’s operation, are broadly in accord with nonviolent principles.
“What’s past is past” is a saying which can be helpful in some aspects of life, and especially when stated by a wronged party who is ready to move on. But in a conflictual society, in the case of Northern Ireland after an armed conflict, the past is not only something which has already taken place but something which profoundly affects both present and future. And the fault lines from the conflict of the past tend to continue through to attempting to deal with that past, and to build a new future.
Forgetting the past or letting it lie, like a sleeping dog, is not an option. Such ill-treated sleeping dogs have the habit of waking up and biting people, and this has happened before even within the life of Northern Ireland as a statelet. The Consultative Group on the Past, chaired by Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, is an important attempt to map a way forward for both specific sections of society affected by the Troubles and the whole of society itself, but it is only one such attempt. We have to await what will be agreed to by the British government, presumably having received sufficient endorsement within Northern Ireland for the measures it announces.
Remembering and storytelling are something which feature prominently, and rightly, in the Eames-Bradley report. A submission by INNATE to Healing Through Remembering’s ‘Living Memorial Museum’ project was for a drama pack which would enable any group, anywhere, to explore the decisions people were faced with at different times in the Troubles. Young people cannot be expected to know a lot about the Troubles but there is a danger for them, and society as a whole, thinking that the past is behind them – it is, but very close behind, and if there is no ongoing learning and dealing with the faults and fault-lines in society, the same old mistakes could easily happen again. Northern Ireland has come through the Troubles and moved beyond them; it has not moved beyond the divisions which allowed the Troubles to happen in the first place. The group does highlight educational work with young people.
The Consultative Group on the Past proposes a Legacy Commission, to last for five years. Whether in five years time (after the Legacy Commission begins work, presuming it is set up) society will be more willing to draw a line under the past remains to be seen. We have seen in other truth and reconciliation processes that time lines can concentrate the mind. But they cannot legislate away pain and loss. The idea of a Reconciliation Forum which would include the Commission for Victims and Survivors, and also the Community Relations Council, is important in looking for a collaborative way forward, respecting the work others are already doing or building up.
The stress on the Legacy Commission taking the lead in ensuring that sectarianism continues to be addressed could be important, particularly when some of the largest political parties are quite happy to forget all about it (and, indeed, their role in fomenting it during the Troubles). Dealing with the divisions is vital – and assisting people to be able to cope with divisions and conflict (see below) is an essential part of this. The focus of the report in mentioning the contribution of Christian churches in addressing sectarianism is also important; religion is, after all, the primary badge of cultural and political difference.
The proposal for all families of those killed to receive a £12,000 recognition payment for victims has clearly been too difficult a pill for many people in the North to swallow, and has already been dismissed by the British Secretary of State. From the point of view of acceptance of this proposal on a cross-community basis in Northern Ireland, it is clear many in the Protestant community, and possibly others, did not accept it. It has also continued the ‘innocent’ victims debate which raged intermittently throughout the Troubles, even between and within some ‘peace groups’ (the question of who is a ‘real’ victim). If the proposed payment was seen as a payment for ‘terrorism’, as some have done, then it can be seen as objectionable but it was actually a proposed payment to families who have lost loved ones, a small piece of the recognition of their suffering. From the latter point of view, how and why someone lost their life is irrelevant, the fact is that they died and were lost to their family. From a nonviolent point of view this proposal is fine but it failed to get general acceptance and it has already become a non-starter.
What is omitted? Agreement on the past is extremely difficult. If, however, society in Northern Ireland can be persuaded to build together for the future then that is an important bond, and ‘living memorials’ could do something constructive in working for the future and building links in the present. Talk in the CGP report on keeping the idea of a shared memorial in mind is useful but we have already many ‘war memorials’ – it would be good to have some ‘building the peace’ memorials as well, and, while this is not as fully explored as it might be, the report does suggest ‘serious consideration should be given to any memorial being a living memorial.” (p.34)
But the report is weak on equipping the citizens of tomorrow to deal with the conflicts of tomorrow, beyond advocating general educational work for young people on the Troubles. Military generals are often accused of preparing to fight the last war; in only advocating the study of the last Troubles, this report makes exactly the same mistake from a non-violent approach. Of course the Consultative Group on the Past might say that its remit was dealing with the past, and the negative legacy of the past, rather than planning concretely for the future with specifics, beyond pointing the direction in general terms. But it recognises the essential task of dealing with sectarianism and makes numerous concrete proposals. And its tasks include to “make recommendations, as appropriate, on any steps that might be taken to support Northern Ireland society in building a shared future that is not overshadowed by the events of the past”. (p.22)
Clearly the fault lines within Northern Ireland are so entrenched that they will remain for a long time to come. Given this fact, whose responsibility is it to equip people – young, middle aged and old – to deal with the conflicts which will arise? This is aside from the conflicts which come in the normal course of living in society in all its aspects. Whose responsibility is it to take this forward? Surely this is the most basic building block for the future. And at the moment no one is taking this on board. We cannot afford to let this slip between stools. The suggested declaration (p.55), to “challenge the people of Northern Ireland, including political parties and whatever remnant or manifestation of paramilitary groups remain, to sign a declaration to the effect that they will never again kill or injure others on political grounds” is fine but would be totally meaningless if society once more began to dive into the abyss and hovered on the edge of sectarian and political violence. Such a declaration would be rapidly forgotten and deliberately ignored in such a situation, which would in any case likely be decades if not a generation or two after it had been signed, and easily brushed aside.
We must build conflict dealing mechanisms for the future through both education and practice in schools in the curriculum, through peer mediation from primary school age onwards, through youth clubs and youth organisations, through civic society organisations, and ensuring everyone has a knowledge of the stages which conflict can go through, and different ways of dealing with, and transforming, conflict. This has to be part of building the future but as yet it does not appear on the horizon. How can we possibly try to build a peaceful society and not help to equip the citizens of tomorrow with the tools for dealing with conflict? It seems a basic lack of imagination not to be tackling this as a matter of considerable importance. Many people have learnt many things from the Troubles but transmitting that knowledge, while essential, does not necessarily include the additional knowledge needed to avoid future Troubles, and this area does not seem to be on the map as yet.
Furthermore, from the perspective of groups striving for particular objectives in the future, and addressing perceived injustices, a knowledge of the possibilities within nonviolent action is essential. If different parties or groupings in the Troubles felt they had no choice but to resort to violence thirty or forty years ago, how is that going to be different in the future? The answer is that it will almost certainly not be unless people are educated in, and made aware of, the possibilities of nonviolence and nonviolent struggle and political action (as opposed to purely party political action). From a nonviolent point of view, that seems a gaping hole in the report and current thinking.
The best way to equip the people of Northern Ireland and the whole island against violence in future is to equip them with the tools of nonviolence, mediation and knowledge of conflict. This aspect is not explicitly named in the CGP report and currently only included in relation to education on the last conflict. What is needed is work which is both more general and more specific so that people know they can struggle more effectively using nonviolence than violence, and how to go about it. This is a key link in the chain of building a future where violence will be avoided because people know in a very deep way that they have better ways of dealing with the issues that affect them.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column:
Preventing the temperature of the Earth rising above 2C, the point at which most scientists say will lead to a collapse of the biosphere as we know it, is not so much dependent on technology but of changing our attitudes towards it.
If it is not already too late, what saving the biosphere, including our species, will involve is nothing less than a cultural revolution, or one might say, a mass psychological healing. Within the human community are individuals who are narcissistic, which is to say their entire focus in life is centred on seeking to fulfil perceived self-interest without regard to the needs and feelings of others. The result is an unfulfilled life and suffering for all who have the misfortune to have any dealings with them.
The evidence of our relationship with the biosphere, even before we became reliant on fossil fuels, suggests that Homo sapiens is the narcissistic species of the Earth community. The mass extinction of species, the felling and burning of forests, the death of the seas, acid rain and climate change testify to the narcissistic nature of our species.
As the narcissistic person is indifferent to the hurt caused by their extreme self-concern, Homo sapiens, driven by their obsession with material purchase are largely indifferent to the destructive consequences of their behaviour on the Earth community.
As narcissism is counter to the best interests of the afflicted individual so in the long term is it counter to the best interests of Homo sapiens for the reason that our economic system is wholly dependent on the health and bounty of the Earth. This is something society is awakening to, albeit without a clear understanding that the collapse of the Earth’s life-support systems is a direct result of our own narcissistic behaviour. This is evident in the proposed solutions to addressing climate change.
Most of the measures governments have taken over the past year to address our eco-economic crisis are aimed at increasing consumption, while they behave as if rhetoric about reducing the amount of climate changing gasses pumped into the atmosphere is the same as taking action on the problem. Thus billions of dollars, Euros, pounds and yen are spent on supporting the banks and car manufacturers, the very institutions that play a major role in the destruction of the biosphere. This is acting according to the environmentally destructive, anti-human development mindset, which holds that the economy is separate from ecology.
Attempting to heal our terminally ill Earth demands nothing less that the praxis of loving the Earth as our selves and putting its needs at the heart of economic policy. One country that has embraced this approach is Ecuador. Polly Higgins in ‘Resurgence’, March / April 2009, informs us that Article 1 of the ‘Rights for Nature’ chapter of its new constitution reads: “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution. Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognition of rights for Nature before the public bodies.”
Having suffered from the destruction of their country’s eco-system by transnational companies the people of Ecuador have learnt that a healthy society can only be based on the acknowledgement that Nature has rights that need legal protection on par with people. In our narcissistic society this idea may sound revolutionary, beyond our embrace, but so was the idea of evolution in Charles Darwin’s day. The idea that Nature has rights is one that could effectively be brought to the attention of our governing bodies by groups such as Towns in Transition, as well as acted on by everyone.
by Mary Montaut, Burma Action Ireland [for information on BAI, see news section this issue]
In spite of the immense tragedies of the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 and Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, with the attendant loss of life, means of subsistence and hope for the people of Burma, the international community has quickly allowed Burma to slip away from the limelight. The Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, has not yet made his mind whether to visit Burma, in spite of the lack of progress by UN representatives in trying to improve the humanitarian and political situation there. Even more disappointing is the reluctance of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) to express disapproval or even much concern about the continuing ‘State Terrorism’ which the ruling military junta of Burma inflicts upon its own citizens. At a recent ASEAN meeting, no country would support a motion condemning the Burmese military junta, the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council).
The pogroms inflicted by the Burmese military on civilians have also taken the form of persecution of religious minorities. A new kind of ‘Boat People’ has emerged, driven out of their homes in Arakan State – the Rohingya people, who are predominantly Muslim. Christians in Chin State are also being persecuted. A plague of rats there is driving many people towards starvation. The Burmese Army is also continuing assaults on other ethnic minorities, particularly the Karen and Shan peoples. The operations by the Burmese Army in these areas have been described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ by many observers. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has called for prayers for the people of Burma.
The situation even for people in Central Burma continues to give rise to major concern. The recent UNICEF report, ‘The State of the World’s Children, 2009’ estimates that 10% of Burmese children under 5 do not survive; and the sister organisations, FAO and WFP (World Food Programme) estimate that at present 5 million Burmese are in severe need of food. People in the Irrawaddy Delta area who have survived the onslaught of Cyclone Nargis are now facing starvation, thanks to their own government’s policies. The Burmese junta is selling large quantities of rice to neighbouring countries, while its own people cry out for food. The Tripartite Core Group set up in the wake of Nargis to oversee aid delivery for the victims of the Cyclone are reporting that two thirds of the people are unable to access any medical supplies, that most live in inadequate and overcrowded accommodation and that all suffer from ‘food insecurity’. In some afflicted areas, no international aid at all has been received.
Civil liberties of every type are denied to the Burmese people. Their political representatives, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, continue to be imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The release of twenty political prisoners in late February indicates the scale of the abuse; generally they will have been physically abused during imprisonment, ‘pour encourager les autres’ – the usual tactic of the regime against opponents. Draconian censorship inside Burma ensures that people are denied access to the facts about the situation. Here in Ireland, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has just been awarded an Honorary Degree from the University of Ulster, a gesture of solidarity with herself and her people. But in Rangoon, under house arrest for so many years, she is still valiantly trying to communicate with the people: a banner in her garden reads: ‘Act decisively in the interest of the state and the people.’
To ‘act decisively’ seems to be the last thing the international community is willing to do, but the delay is of serious consequence for Burma. During the time when Cyclone Nargis was raging, the Burmese military junta held a constitutional referendum. The physical impossibility for many people of voting under these conditions made no difference: the junta declared its new ‘Constitution’ a winner with an overwhelming majority of over 90%. This new ‘Constitution’ will come into force next year (2010) and will enshrine the military in power, with quarter of the parliamentary seats reserved for them as well as key positions in the government. At that stage, the junta will claim to have been ‘democratically elected’ and the struggle for freedom in Burma will be at the nadir.