January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to the related issue of Nonviolence News]
Between the devil and the deep grey sea
A divided society is a society whose ends do not meet. And a society whose ends do not meet is one that can easily, carelessly, fall apart. Northern Ireland has certainly not fallen apart but the last couple of months have shown just how far it has not come in some respects. A compromise, or what looked like a compromise to most people, in Belfast City Council on the flying of the UK flag was understood by some loyalists as an all-out attack on their being. The resulting riots have reverberated around not just Northern Ireland but the world; Ian Paisley said about Drumcree that it was not just a battle about Drumcree but about Ulster, in this case it became not a matter of a flag – which few noticed before – flying or flying less but a battle for Ulster all over again.
It should be obvious from this that there is at least a certain amount of loyalist discontent with their lot. But the riots were relatively restricted in their geography and stirred up and on by some in loyalist paramilitarism, even if most of the protests were organised informally and by those not previously involved in either politics or paramilitarism. It was, however, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party which took out the sledge of flag discontent and gave it the first push down the slope; their ill-advised leaflet (over 40,000 distributed) specifically targeting the Alliance Party stirred up animosity against a middle-of-the-road party which has shown consistency and courage over the years in opposing sectarianism – but as the old adage from Northern Ireland goes, “Those who stand in the middle of the road get run over.”
Of course there is deprivation in the Protestant areas where the protests and riots took place, and unionist politicians of the two main parties cannot be said to be doing a good job in assisting those dealing with the relevant issues. But all indices show that Catholic poverty is worse than Protestant poverty, so it cannot be said that the loyalist working class is discriminated against as opposed to saying the working class as a whole is getting a poor deal, and will get a poorer deal as UK Tory welfare cuts bite. Yes, poverty statistics can be hidden by a poor area being beside a rich one but this applies to Catholic areas as well.
Indeed, there is the argument by some, particularly on the republican and Catholic sides, that the way the police have handled loyalist protests with, until recently, very few arrests for blocking roads shows that the state still treats loyalist protests in a more benign way than republican protests. The PSNI would retort that it is a matter of public order and what is possible but there is a question there nevertheless which could negate the very argument which the protesters are making.
But discontent is discontent and should be dealt with in tackling underlying causes. It is interesting that the climactic settlement to the infamous Holy Cross dispute in north Belfast (2001-2 in Ardoyne) was primarily a financial and resource one. Resources and opportunities need to be developed for all working class young people in an educational system which, ironically, has at one end a high level of achievement but also a high level of underachievement compared to Britain – and you can guess which class suffers the underachievement which is particularly prevalent in the Protestant community. In fact educational underachievement is the one index where the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland is worse off than the Catholic working class.
On the wider question of discrimination against Protestants and loyalists there are many aspects to be explored. The flag which will still fly above Belfast City Hall on 18 days of the year – including the birthday of someone who married into the British royal family a couple of years ago – is the Union flag of the UK, and the compromise which Alliance backed was the preferred option from the Equality Commission. But when you lose something it can be painful and it is obvious that some loyalists took this as a straw breaking a camel’s back. It depends what your benchmark is. If you see Northern Ireland as a British and Protestant entity then you can understand the angst. If you see Northern Ireland as an almost “50:50” shared society where cooperation and compromise are the best options then restricting the flying of the British flag is not necessarily a big deal (and Belfast City Hall and grounds are coming down with symbols of Britishness and empire).
We have written before about the importance of self confidence in one’s identity, and the fact that most people in the world cannot have the kind of state that they would like – either because they are of a minority (or even majority) which is not involved in the power structures, because they live in a divided or shared society, or because the politics of the state are anathema to them. That is certainly not to say that the state should not accord everyone full civil and democratic rights and attempt to involve them fully but that the possibilities are restricted both by the nature of divided societies and by practical politics. But self confidence has to be worked at and built.
Another aspect of working class loyalism which impacts on the current situation is that there is no working class loyalist party which has made real inroads to votes and seats at Stormont. Sinn Féin was able to make the transition to dividing power (we would hardly call it power’sharing’) through building its vote from the time of the hunger strikes and taking the bulk of republicans with it while picking up other Catholic votes. The UDA and UVF’s political wings, on the other hand, have never made a great break through to Protestant votes and have had no party political involvement to try to bring people with them. It would be a major turnaround if a loyalist working class party could start to garner a more sizeable number of votes but this would be a difficult act to pull off given the failure of past attempts, unless disenchantment with the DUP reaches fever pitch, and the DUP has tried to go out of its way to show itself ‘strong’ on the Belfast flag issue.
Rioting is many things but among others a form of communication. That communication may in inchoate, unformed, and difficult to pin down. Rioting can also be done for the excitement, and it was clear from the film of rioters that many were very young indeed. But as with any form of communication, it depends whether the powers that be are listening. There is also the danger, having unleashed the genie from the bottle with their leafleting, that the DUP and UUP could retreat into a unionist ghetto, at least for a while. What effect this may all have on any DUP-Sinn Féin plans on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) – details of a draft having recently been leaked – remains to be seen.
We make the point again that the way to speak and campaign on political issues is a nonviolent one. There are a million and one ways to be strong, courageous, and stick up for a political ideal which do not involve violence – and which may also not necessarily involve party politics. These are also more likely to be successful; violence tends to publicise a cause at the same time as discrediting it. It is part of INNATE’s job to assist people in exploring the possibilities of nonviolence and nonviolent action and struggle. INNATE’s door is always open to this, whatever the cause (the only caveat might be if it would involve the negation of human rights).
Northern Ireland can still be torn between the devil and the deep grey sea. The ‘devil’ is the past and the divisions of the past, the prides and one-sided identities of the past. The deep grey sea is the uncertainty and fear of moving into unknown territory, or leaving the past behind and seeking a new land and an entirely new beginning. Turning the deep grey sea into an inviting blue one is a task which all those who seek a positive future for Northern Ireland must engage in.
The report from the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers , issued in January, on waste in the global food supply is an appalling indictment of western society and the world economic system. You cannot blame a poor country because food is lost or becomes bad between the field and the market though you can help it to improve agricultural practice, infrastructure, transport and storage. You can however blame the rich world – us – who choose not to buy anything except cosmetically perfect food and indulge ourselves with meat (35 calories of input for one calorie of beef) compared to plant foods which may only require calorific input a tenth to a fifth of that.
The report estimates that 30 – 50% of all food produced is never consumed by humans. With world population possibly set to peak at 9.5 billion people, 3 billion extra people and mouths to be fed, by 2075, there is a major problem or set of problems. Suitable land for agriculture is getting scarcer. 70% of human water use is for the agricultural sector and there are major problems with water globally. More efficient agricultural practices could avert some water shortage disasters, and innovative, local water storage and organic practices (which help retain water) could help massively. And we have not even started to consider the dependence of agriculture in many countries on oil (both for machinery and fertiliser), an issue worked on in detail by Feasta, and the issue of food security for Ireland; what happens when the oil runs out?
Global warming also has major implications for food production but, talking fairly broadly, this report pulls the rug from under those who argue that genetically modified produce is essential to feed the world in future. It isn’t and GM has many dangers for the natural world apart from increased cost and resource use by GM. The report comes to the necessary conclusions for different kinds of countries. For the rich world it recommends “Governments in developed nations devise and implement policy that changes consumer expectations. These should discourage retailers from wasteful practices that lead to the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics, and losses in the home due to excessive purchasing by consumers.”
Food has recently been in the headlines because of horsemeat in beef burgers. It is crystal clear that food should be properly labelled and culturally most omnivores in Ireland have a problem with eating horse meat. While these are problems deserving to be dealt with (and the source of much humour), they pale into insignificance with the wider questions of the availability and cost of food for poor people, at home and around the world, and the necessity to work on global food security and sustainability, not just with a burgeoning global population but also with agricultural dependency on oil. Capitalist profiteering in food as a commodity is also both shameful and damaging, pushing up prices for some of the poorest people in the world.
These wider questions regarding food and food security should receive much more attention than horsemeat in beef burgers but are unlikely to do so. We are talking about both avoiding starvation for millions and ensuring an adequate diet at a price people can afford for billions. In the rich West we have our own blinkers.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
We tend to think of ourselves as the alpha species, somewhat akin to the iconic frontiers people of the American West; a species that can forge its own destiny without reference to or dependency on others. There are grounds for this view.
We have brought much of what we have conceived in our imagination to life. By means of high-speed trains and airplanes we can travel great distances in short periods of time, smart phones enable us to see and talk to each other across oceans and continents almost as if we were feet apart. Through organ transplants we can prevent what were once inevitable deaths. We have eradicated the scourge of smallpox and are close to doing the same with polio. We can eat the choicest foods, produced in every climate, at any time, by way of our local supermarket. This is a feat beyond what the richest monarch could ever have enjoyed. We can carry out micro-surgery and study planets and stars billions of miles away. Military personnel can kill people in deserts and on mountainsides in far away countries without exposing themselves to danger. Some governments, including the United Kingdom, can commit the ultimate terrorist act and eliminate hundreds of millions of people at the press of a button.
With the exception of the poor and the persecuted, people in the early part of the 21st century have the powers described in classical mythologies. We are the personification of ancient Gods. However, we have a fatal flaw, we believe our illusions.
Perhaps our most harmful illusion is the belief that our technosphere is an entity set apart from the biosphere, that our culture is its own self-sustaining cosmos. We are so imbued with this idea that we elect governments that subsidise the destruction of the very means of our existence, believing, as politicians often say that “it is the right thing to do.” Rainforests, the site of the most varied biodiversity on the planet, described as the Earth’s lungs, are clear-felled with the help of government subsidies in order for companies to grow palm oil. Soil, which purifies and regulates our water supply, provides us with over 90% of the food we eat, along with timber, fibre and bio-fuels, is washed into rivers by poor farming methods at a rate faster than it can be replenished. Great expanses of sea have been turned into dead zones through agreements that ignore research findings on sustainable fishing. Although the link between burning fossil fuels and climate chaos is now as widely accepted as the link between inhaling cigarette smoke and lung cancer, companies are given permission by governments, and money by banks, to build ever more coal-fired power stations as well as extract oil and gas from the ground regardless of local conditions.
The evidence of how we manage our relationship with nonhuman nature suggests we have not found our niche in the web of life and are thus destined for a short life-span. Given the rapidity with which we are cannibalizing the Earth is it realistic to think that our species, which has existed for a mere 200,000 years, will see the sun rise 10 million years from now, which is the average life-span of a species? What are the chances of us surviving as long as the elephant, 60 million years, the crocodile, 80 million years, or the turtle which in the course of its 150 million years saw the dinosaurs evolve and become extinct?
I suspect most people would feel offended by the idea that many nonhuman life-forms are likely to outlive humankind and continue to evolve over the one billion years our Garden of Eden is expected to sustain life. By way of our illusions we are evicting ourselves from paradise, truly the fallen species having committed Lucifer’s sin, hubris - preoccupation with self. Taking the wellbeing of other species and the health of ecosystems into account when we make decisions, and undertaking environmental restoration work, is one way we can find redemption.