‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
Marking the recent death of Ciaran McKeown, and accompanying the obituary in this issue, we take a look at the Declaration of the Peace People and “The Price of Peace” (1976), the first in a series of three pamphlets which he wrote early on in the story of the Peace People. This article or review is written by Rob Fairmichael.
“Declaration of the Peace People (1976)
We have a simple message for the world from this movement for peace.
We want to live and love and build a just and peaceful society.
We want for our children, as we want for ourselves, our lives at home, at work and at play, to be lives of joy and peace.
We recognise that to build such a life demands of all of us, dedication, hard work and courage.
We recognise that there are many problems in our society which are a source of conflict and violence.
We recognise that every bullet fired and every exploding bomb makes that work more difficult.
We reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence.
We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbours, near and far, day in and day out, to building that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning.”
This is a wonderfully simple declaration which was written, metaphorically speaking, on the back of a fag packet (actually a blue jotter belonging to Mairead Corrigan (Maguire), see pages 145-6 in Ciaran McKeown’s 1984/5 book “The Passion of Peace”). It is positive, commits to dedication and hard work, speaks of a deep desire for peace, and is not time limited. The rejection of violence is set within the context of dedication and work for peace.
You might say it is not specific enough but there are advantages and disadvantages to being more specific; you could compare it, for example, with INNATE’s “A Nonviolent Manifesto” In saying this, the intention is not to say one is better, worse or more inspiring than the other, and they were different documents serving very different needs. The Declaration of the Peace People was written just as a mass movement was taking off, even if it was only a mass movement for a period of months – though it remained a large group by Northern Ireland standards for a couple of decades. It therefore needed to be broad.
“The Price of Peace” was one of a series of three pamphlets on peace which Ciaran McKeown published, and this first one was written very early on in the Peace People story (it is 36 pages A5). It is a broad and at times philosophical look at what peace entails set primarily in the context of Northern Ireland at that time. It combines what might be considered received wisdom within the peace and nonviolence sector along with Ciaran McKeown’s own perceptions of what peace entailed in the local/Northern Irish arena. Readers can judge whether he covered what he needed to cover while those who were around at the time, or are informed on it, can judge whether he followed his own advice. This article will summarise some of its contents and comment where felt appropriate.
It starts off by saying “There is a curious delusion among militarists, (and paramilitarists!), who will themselves wage war at almost any price in terms of human life and physical destruction, that those who are pacifist will seek “peace at any price”... Exactly the opposite is the truth. Both logically and emotionally, it takes far more courage to be prepared to die, but never to kill, than it takes to be prepared to kill and take your chance on dying.....” The phraseology is broadly in accord with a general peace movement approach but he swiftly uses the term ‘pacifist’ – which might be seen by some as something to shy away from at the start of a pamphlet intended to introduce ‘peace’ to a new audience. He was trying to be upfront.
On the same page he goes on to say that “wars have always come to an end: and the present war in Northern Ireland will surely come to an end and there will be “peace”. Whether that peace is a civilised, creative peace, or a ragged state of exhausted anticipation of the next outbreak, it cannot be denied that a high price has already been paid for it....” At this stage 1,600 people were dead in the Troubles in Northern Ireland; the ‘final’ toll was to be more than double that.
He concludes that all the ‘political solutions’ available in the North are violent, seemingly because none could get more than the reluctant support of a majority “while incurring the violent wrath of significant numbers in both tribes”. The question which he wants to ask is “How can a stable democracy develop in Northern Ireland?” This, he continues, puts an emphasis on what is democracy, and this needs to be answered if there is to be peace in Northern Ireland. But it is still an unanswered question today. Ciaran McKeown throws in the difficulty for democracy in defining who the people (‘demos’) are; but then emphasises that the individual is the atom of society. What is the democratic unit is still a key issue, not least regarding Northern Ireland and Brexit.
Violence, and the damage, comes “when we move away from enduring respect for the individual”. He then speaks about the ‘new dream’ emerging from the terrible incident which happened on 10th August 1976 to the Maguire family. It is up to each of us, he says, as to whether that dream is realised, and he identifies the development of trust as key to this. When written, the hope engendered by the Peace People upsurge was fresh and dynamic.
As to “where do we go from here?” he emphasises discussion with your neighbours, and then, if you accept the Declaration of the Peace People, looking around you to see what you can do – as with reconciliation within you own family. Then looking at the next level up, at street and village level, “is there anything that is unfriendly or a source of conflict?” He mentions the “wee cup of tea” as a means of reaching out; my visual mind recalls the Martyn Turner cartoon of that time about “discussing our differences over a wee cup of tea” as a woman pours hot tea directly into her neighbour’s lap..... But seriously this informal approach makes sense in most contexts.
He then moves on from small social groups to the possibility of having a peace group or groups. “Again, these groups should concenrate on simple things of common interest rather than touch on the divisive issues of conventional politics and tribal; attitudes to paramilitary organisations.” He states he is not trying to censor but that the initial process is to establish trust; “...if we get to the stage where friendships which were hitherto considered well-nigh impossible, become well-nigh unbreakable, then those friends will be looking around them to see where the sources of conflict continue to threaten their neignbours.” It is sensible advice. He talks about unemployment as a source of violence, and the need for self-help.
He speaks of the “great deal of hard, courageous work...already...done by many of our community associations” – and in 1976 he had personally been involved for a couple of years with his local community development association in Ballynafeigh, Belfast. He emphasises self-respect within communities so there can be a respectful relationship with other communities. This is still a key part of developing peace in Northern Ireland.
On the question of identity he basically puts his money on the development of a ‘Northern Irish’ identity which he says will be “quite distinct from England, Scotland, Wales and Southern Ireland – but not separate from any of them.” He feels that the development of this new Northern Irish identity would mean both loyalists and republicans feeling more at home and “while the Loyalist may not wish, in the words of Wolfe Tone “to substitute the common name of Irishman”, he will increasingly substitute the common name of Northern Irishman. Thus there is no humiliating defeat, nor any bloody victory for either side and the prospect opens up of mutual respect in the common Northern Irish identity.”
This ‘common identity within Northern Ireland’ certainly became a part of Peace People policy. Indeed, on a wider and more recent front it looked like it was developing in the decade from 2007 when Stormont seemed to be functioning even if it was unable to deal with particular issues. But that has gone out the window to a considerable extent currently for a variety of reasons including the non-functioning of Stormont, the divisions caused by Brexit, and demographic change which means that Catholics are on the cusp of becoming a majority in the North.
There is nothing wrong with identifying as ‘Northern Irish’ just as there is nothing wrong with identifying as ‘British’, ‘Irish’ of any other national or regional entity. The problem begins when ‘my’ identity is considered by me as superior to other identities and a reason to effectively exclude others. If ‘everyone’ in Northern Ireland had a common ‘national’ identity that would certainly solve part of the problem but the reality is that this is impossible, at least in the short or medium term.
While having a ‘Northern Irish’ identity in Northern Ireland might seem progressive in ‘sharing’ it does not necessarily deal with how to respect those who remain with a British or Irish identity. And if people have a hierarchy of identities – Northern Irish first before British, Irish or European, or a hierarchy of these, it again depends on respect for people who have a different definition of their identity. I therefore do not personally feel the development of a ‘Northern Irish’ identity by itself is a real or complete solution, and, if not fully worked through, can mask febrile ‘British’ or ‘Irish’ feelings and muddy the waters of what is needed.
I would argue that our highest level identification should be simply ‘human’; we all share this characteristic and if we fail to recognise another’s humanity then we are going to have major difficulties. This also covers everyone including relative newcomers to this – or any other – place. However perhaps this is similar to Ciaran McKeown saying (quoted earlier in this article) that we are in trouble “when we move away from enduring respect for the individual”.
Towards the end of the pamphlet the question is addressed about support for, and informing to, the “security forces”. He advocates that the Peace Person “in arriving at his or her conscientious decision will be guided by that vision of a new community united in friendship”. Obviously this is easier in a more demilitarised society today with a police force who have undertaken significant reforms and without the level of violence seen in 1976.
After considering questions of gender, and overcoming gender stereotypical behaviour, he comes to his conclusions, written at a time of hope for the Peace People movement and thus for Northern Ireland at what had been a time of despair. The Peace People were not the nine-day wonder that some expected them to be (a point covered or claimed in Ciaran McKeown’s book “The Passion of Peace”) but neither did it achieve the breakthrough to a new society which some hoped. But perhaps I can conclude that reaching for the stars is always important and although the Peace People were not the only people to attempt to reach that far they have had a particular vision or visions about getting there.
The Peace People website is at http://www.peacepeople.com
INNATE’s coverage of the Peace People includes a photo album at and a copy of “The Peace People Experience” pamphlet (1987), by Rob Fairmichael.