‘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)
Nonviolence in Ireland – some thoughts
by Rob Fairmichael
Part of working for a peaceful future is establishing the possibilities that exist as realistic options, and building on knowledge from the past. Of course we can point to new possibilities in new circumstances but being able to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before is important in establishing continuity and sharing their experiences and understanding, whether they were particularly successful or not.
Stereotypes abound. Two that exist about Ireland, or have existed, are of the ‘fighting Irish’ (partly a stereotype coming from the USA) as a propensity of people, and then the image which comes from the violence that has taken place in Northern Ireland. We cannot deny the violence of the Troubles or previous eras. But what we can do is put these into context. The ‘fighting Irish’ image from the USA and perhaps a bit from Britain partly comes from a time when there was mass emigration by poverty stricken people fleeing Ireland in hope of a better life, and cultural restraints on violence were not effective. In other words, any excess violence over the norm was a temporary cultural phenomenon which would have disappeared as people settled down.
Of course violence and atrocities have been committed in the North by people from all belligerent sides of the conflict. And even those not engaged in the fighting bear responsibility where they could have intervened and worked for peace but did not do so. But the most important point to note is that the mass of people were not engaged, and did not support, the violence which was waged. There are disparities here however; those who supported the state forces in the North, particularly but not only on the Protestant/unionist side of the fence, were generally a much larger proportion of the population than than those who supported paramilitaries on either side. However nonviolence does not regard state sanctioning as justification for violence.
The mass of people in Northern Ireland during the Troubles got on with their lives as best they could in circumstances which varied from slight constraints on their lifestyle, in areas little affected by the Troubles, through to places where every aspect of life was impacted, difficult and dangerous. Many struggled bravely to make an impact for peace through individual actions and civil society organisations which tried to chart and work for a non-violent way forward, either locally or on a larger scale. Remembering what people did for peace is important because otherwise the narrative passes to those who support the actions of those using violence, by state or non-state people and bodies. This is part of what working on peace trails in the North is about; remembering, and celebrating what people did for peace.
But ‘nonviolence’ goes back a long, long way and may have been the norm with early humanity much more than violence. The quiz on nonviolence in Ireland on the INNATE website starts five thousand years ago with the Céide Fields in north Mayo. Life was cooperative and peaceful as well as egalitarian. Would that we could say the same five thousand years later! We can establish certain facts about these people but others will remain a mystery such as their language and culture. But clearly this was a peaceful, settled, agricultural community living in harmony with the land and with each other.
Other aspects of the nonviolence displayed in this quiz need qualification. The example of ‘chancing the arm’ was a successful nonviolent intervention in what was otherwise an often violent story. Some of the non-violent tactics utilised by different sides in the Troubles in the North were being used in partisan struggles, and that is fair enough, but nevertheless that fact needs recognised.
But there are plenty more examples of action for peace and progress which are not contained there. Those who have been engaged in direct action and monitoring at Shannon Airport concerning USA warmaking activities there are one shining example. At another level the Dunnes Stores Strike of 1984 in Dublin against apartheid goods being sold was an amazing act of courage and solidarity across half the world. But there are literally thousands of stories at local level about people who have taken risks to work for peace and progress.
In 1978 Dawn magazine issued a pamphlet on ‘Nonviolence in Irish history’.This covered a variety of topics and eras including Daniel O’Connell, Michael Davitt, the Quakers in Ireland, the origin of the word Boycott, the experience of the westward moving Irish in the USA, and activism in the early twentieth century including Horace Plunkett, George Russell and Francis Sheehy Skeffington, as well as some of the 20th century history of peace groups. We will likely return to a variety of these from time to time. But we should not put figures on an untouchable pedestal; Daniel O’Connell, for example, did a huge amount to establish Irish democratic practice, and had wider significance in Europe, but he supported neither the Irish language nor was he particularly progressive on social matters in general.
Ireland is a small European country, currently consisting of two jurisdictions, on the edge of Europe. It has been of significance at various times and various ways including the period from the sixth century when Irish monks shared not just Christianity but also their learning in many parts of Europe. In the twentieth century its anti-colonial struggle was influential elsewhere, not least India but it is intriguing that one of the most effective methods used in this was nonviolent; the transfer of allegiance by nationalist held areas from London to the Dáil in Dublin – this required no bullets nor bombs.
Unfortunately Ireland is being sucked into both the military-industrial complex through both Irish owned and multinational engagement with aspects of the arms trade and with official policies in the Republic which effectively make it an ally of NATO. The irony of a country which has suffered from communal violence in the recent past, and has a colonised history, contributing to violence elsewhere is lost on many people. The political elite see no reason for Ireland to have a positive neutrality – despite its popularity with ordinary people.
But a peaceful vision is something else entirely; an Ireland which actively struggles against violence and oppression, at home and abroad. That requires very different policies internally and externally. And a green vision which ignores inequality and injustice cannot work; a zero carbon society also needs to be an egalitarian society. We have our vision, we have our forebears, and we have work to do.