This is an edited version of a paper given
by INNATE coordinator, Rob Fairmichael, at the first session
of the series Directions Through Conflict organised
by the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast,
in association with INNATE. The talk was followed by discussion.
[This article first appeared in the November
2005 edition of Nonviolent News]
First, let me get the 'a' word out of the way. I'm not an
academic but I am an activist. I'm more used to doing workshops
with full and ongoing audience participation throughout. So
interruptions are welcome. I will curb my workshop inclination
except at a couple of points. One of which is now - I want
to start off by making a fist of it with a very quick exercise
which needs you to pair off with someone else you don't know,
I don't want people to have to move much.
Now, one person is going to clench their fist
hard and it is the task of the other person to try to get
it open. If there are peaceniks and others who have done this
exercise or know the possible answer, perhaps they could be
the person with the clenched fist. And, please, no casualties,
just take care.
[Exercise runs for a couple of minutes] One
possible answer is ................ That is relevant to what
we're talking about here today.
I have been involved in the field of peace and nonviolence
since I was 16 which was 36 years ago, so mathematical geniuses
that you are you'll be able to work out my age, now was that
42 or 62? It was the very start of the Troubles and although
I am originally from the Republic I have lived most of my
life in the North. In that time I have been involved in a
whole variety of enterprises including Dawn magazine which
began in 1974 ('Getting up for Dawn leaves you exhausted by
tea time'!) and INNATE, an Irish Network for Nonviolent Action
Training and Education, which began in 1987, of which I am
the coordinator - unpaid and part time. Both of these involvements
have entailed contact with a wide variety of groups and people
both at home and abroad.
I came into the world of nonviolence in quite
a sudden way, although all of us who reach a changing point
in our lives can reflect on what it was that made us react
in the way we did at a crucial point. I am not intending to
expand on that here, except to say that my conversion was
as a result of watching a training film on hand to hand combat
when I was a member of a British Army cadet force in the school
I attended, just north of the border.
What I want to share with you today is some
of the learning which I feel I have picked up along the way
which does point to nonviolence being a possible dream. "I
have a dream".....I think someone already gave that speech,
interestingly someone who was also very much into nonviolence.
I hope to show through history, ideology and practical possibilities
that nonviolence really is a possible dream.
What is nonviolence? That's where our problems begin because
the term itself has difficulties, consisting as it does of
a negative, 'non'violence. I follow the usage in writing of
using 'nonviolence' without a hyphen as something which is
positively and explicitly so, and 'non-violence' with a hyphen
for that which is simply not violent. Obviously this distinction
which is possible in writing is impossible in spoken English
without adding the unwieldy 'without a hyphen' or 'with a
Incidentally, the term 'nun'violence, with 'n-u-n'
at the beginning, was used to talk about the involvement of
religious in the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Phillipines
Gandhi used the term 'satygraha', truth force,
as a concept and synonym for nonviolence and that's probably
as good as it gets, but in day to day use 'satygraha' is going
to communicate rather less with most people than 'nonviolence'
might. The term 'pacifism' is also acceptable but may have
negative or passive connotations - it may in some ways be
a synonym for 'ahimsa', the Gandhian and Sanskrit Hindu word
for not doing harm.
I am also aware in this context of a comment
made by Shirley Morrow when I was interviewing her in 1986
for the pamphlet which I researched and wrote on the Peace
People. Talking about local people in the Peace People group
she had been involved with, she said that people were not
ready for 'long Gandhian principles'. Indeed they are not,
they can be painful for anyone unless they are keen students
of the man himself. I will come later to something of what
my practical vision would be for Northern Ireland in the future.
When I talk about nonviolence I am meaning something
which is made up of the following ingredients in varying proportions:
thirst for justice, imagination, perseverance, risk-taking,
respect for others including opponents, and an unwillingness
to use violence. One possible usage for nonviolence in another
language has been 'relentless persistence'.
My talk here is more about the nature of nonviolence as a
possible and practical dream. But it does have a basis, in
religious and secular ideologies, and in history. The basis
of nonviolence can be in religious and/or secular thinking.
For me, as a Christian, I understand Jesus' message as one
of radical nonviolence - not just nonviolent but many other
things too - it was the European revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg
who characterised the early Christian church as being communist
in consumption if not in production. The early Christian church,
which was avowedly and broadly nonviolent in its first few
centuries, made a classic backsliding compromise for power
at the time of Constantine, and the Christian church has seldom
looked back in seeking to wield power and influence since.
The 'peace church' reading of Jesus and the scriptures has
been on the back foot ever since. I say this because I believe
that it is not just nonviolence that most Christian churches
have turned their backs on. In relation to Christianity, I
refer to the 'hidden gospel of nonviolence' - I believe it
is a key part of the Christian message but mainly hidden.
But there were still attempts to limit the extent
of war. Our own Adamnan, see the Quiz on "Nonviolence
- the Irish experience" [given to those attending - it's
on the INNATE website], question No.4, was one. The Just War
theory was another, and, without going into detail on that,
it is quite clear that something like the Iraq war was ruled
out from legitimacy for Christians by the Just War theory.
This is why those two Christian gentlemen, Mr Bush and Mr
Blair, studiously avoided referring to the Just War theory
with regard to Iraq. Rather, they had a 'Justified war' theory
- "any war which I decide is morally justified is just".
Which is just....rubbish.
But other religions than Christianity support
nonviolence too, most famously perhaps Buddhism but it can
be argued all. Because if we look at the 'golden rule' in
all religions - the 'love your neighbour as yourself' principle
- then surely this means if you kill someone else you 'kill'
In secular and humanist thinking, one possible
basis for nonviolence, as expounded by Hildegard Goss-Mayr,
is "complete respect for human life". Another possible
basis is simply the pragmatic, that nonviolence works.
You were given at the start a green sheet "Nonviolence
- the Irish experience Quiz" [on the INNATE website]
My purpose in composing that was and is not to do a posthumous
baptism into the nonviolent faith akin to the Mormon baptismal
practice regarding their ancestors. Rather, it is to say -
Irish history is not just made up of violence, there is much
more to it than that, some of which believers in nonviolence
would be more than happy about.
I am surprised at the extent to which people
still fall into the trap of viewing history and conflict in
Ireland as the history of violence. The exhibition at the
Ulster museum, "Conflict - the Irish at war", which
began a couple of years ago, is an example in point. Firstly,
the very title was problematic for me. Conflict can be positive
but in this usage - 'Conflict - the Irish at war', gives an
extremely negative connotation. The two do not equate. A history
of conflict in Ireland is not the history of the Irish being
at war. The content dealt with the Irish 'at war' but without
putting that 'war' into a larger context. Thus to me it gave
the impression of war as being a normal state of affairs.
In the whole exhibition there were only two or three examples
of where war was questioned or challenged.
Coming back to the 'Nonviolence - the Irish
experience Quiz', I can illustrate No. 8 on economic boycotts
with a "Woods halfpence" and a Repeal medallion
for a boycott of non-Irish goods which are on display here.
'Woods halfpence' were boycotted when, in an 18th century
example of Private Finance Initiative, Mr Wood produced half
pennies for Ireland to an inferior standard than ones produced
for Britain, pocketing the change, so to speak; they were
withdrawn after a successful boycott. Daniel O'Connell, meanwhile,
in regard to the Repeal movement and the development of constitutional
nationalism, was of significance well outside the island of
Ireland, an area dealt with in the paper on O'Connell in Dawn's
"Nonviolence in Irish history" pamphlet in 1978
- written, incidentally by Angela Mickley who was based at
the Institute of Irish Studies at the time - and we were rather
pleased with the response from Maurice O'Connell, who died
very recently; he was a great-great-grandson of Daniel O'Connell,
and edited Daniel O'Connell's correspondence in 8 volumes.
He said how much he learnt from Angela Mickley's paper.
I'll just refer to a couple of items in this
quiz. The Céide Fields in North Mayo is an illustration
that life for our distant ancestors was not necessarily nasty
and brutish, whatever about short. Arguably one of the most
effective acts in the independence struggle by nationalists
in Ireland in the 1919-21 period was of nationalist controlled
councils switching allegiance from Westminster to the Dáil
in Dublin. This did not require one bullet or bomb.
I already referred to the Dawn magazine 1978
pamphlet 'Nonviolence in Irish History' which covered O'Connell,
the Quakers, Michael Davitt and the Land League, Boycott,
the experience of the 'westward moving' Irish in the USA,
the early 20th century including Plunkett and Sheehy Skeffington,
and peace groups in Ireland. While out of print it is freely
available on the INNATE website.
Anyway I wanted to give you a quick break from
the sound of my voice for a minute, and ask you to pair off
again and discuss just for five minutes or so: "Can you
talk about nonviolence in Ireland or in Irish history? Or
nonviolence in wherever it is you are from?". You can
share points later on when we get to plenary discussion.
[Back in plenary] How do we break into history? How do we
make a difference? George Bush and Tony Blair thought they
could do it in Iraq through a short, swift war. They were
wrong although the extent of their wrongness is still being
worked out. If I had woken up in the autumn of 1939 I might
have said that resisting Hitler required military force -
but Hitler was himself the product of the First World War
and Treaty of Versailles, and that had been a product of clashing
I believe we break into history through nonviolent
resistance to injustice. And to those who say, you cannot
resist authoritarian violence nonviolently, I say look at
the history of non-violent resistance in Nazi occupied Europe.
Hidden non-cooperation and the like was far more problematic
for the Nazi regime than sporadic, if heroic, violent resistance.
During the Warsaw Pact/Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia
in 1969, the Russians had to bring in non-Russian speaking
troops from the USSR's far east because the fraternisation
policy of the Czechs was so successful. The overthrow of communist
regimes in Eastern Europe a decade and a half ago happened
through popular, and largely non-violent, uprisings.
All I would ask is that violent and nonviolent
approaches are judged by the same standard. Violence is not
written off in popular thinking despite all the evidence of
when it doesn't work.
There is a standard workshop on tactics which I do with groups
campaigning on an issue, and it's partly to expand people's
imagination as to what is possible within nonviolence. [Again,
the workshop is on the INNATE website] A march and rally may
be a good thing to do - it may also be the worst thing to
do if your numbers are not going to impress people, and yet
it seems to be the only action in some people's vocabulary.
What I start off by doing in this workshop is not always the
most exciting, working through Gene Sharp's "The Politics
of Nonviolent Action" 198 varieties of nonviolent tactic.
That 198 could be 198,000 but it is the examples Sharp put
in his book in the 1970s. I'll say something more about that
in a minute. But having worked through all these examples
- from letter-writing through various forms of civil disobedience,
strikes, fasts etc., we then do a personal risk list. What
kind of thing can you easily do, could never do, or could
do if you have support and preparation? This brings the list
home to the individual. It is then that we brainstorm tactics
for the particular campaign at hand and process and develop
Inevitably someone asks "What's 'Lysistratic
Nonaction?", type No.57 on Gene Sharp's list. Based on
the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, it is when women refuse
to sleep with their men when they are involved in war and
But there is a little story I tell against myself
in relation to this list. One time in a workshop I was talking
about the fact that some methods of protest may not be culturally
appropriate, and I gave the example of No.22 on Sharp's list,
'Protest disrobings', where people take their clothes off
as protest; this might not be culturally appropriate in Ireland,
I said. I was immediately corrected and provided with a relatively
recent example on this island. There has been a male-only
nude bathing place at the Forty Foot, Sandycove, Dublin, and
women went swimming naked to both claim the space and protest.
There is also an example of a sect called the White Quakers
parading naked through the streets of Dublin in the 19th century
- given Irish weather if they weren't white beforehand they
certainly were afterwards. What I take from this is that we
should never write off an idea as culturally inappropriate
until we have considered it closely. Indeed it is possible
that the more shockingly inappropriate an action may be, the
bigger will be its impact - what has to be assessed is whether
this impact will be positive or negative.
I referred to the fact that tactics need to
take into account numbers. An example of where one person
can make an amazing difference is provided by the resistance
to lignite mining proposed for the west side of Lough Neagh,
the Ardboe area, in the 1980s (there is more currently the
risk of said affliction in the Ballymoney area). The company
involved had succeeded in dividing local people by offering
farmers payments for prospecting on their land; some people
accepted this causing bitterness and division. Local opposition
was ignored and dialogue was refused though there was a local
community group working against mining. When a drilling convoy
was coming in to the area, one man mounted a picket and blocked
a mobile crane; the driver was a union man and refused to
try to proceed. The whole convoy ground to a halt. Dialogue
began and the company's attempts came to nothing and were
timed out. One man standing in front of a large lorry may
have been a key action in saving a community from a terrible
Those who explicitly espouse nonviolence are, ahem, somewhat
limited in number and the bulk of those involved in broader
peace and reconciliation activities in Northern Ireland throughout
the Troubles would not have identified with nonviolence in
any way. For me the basic approach of nonviolence to military
and paramilitary violence was not condemnation but organisation
and inclusion, and pointing to alternatives. And the experience
of some of those who did adopt nonviolence, such as partly
the Peace People, who were the largest peace expression of
the Troubles, was a mixed blessing (I studied this in detail
in 'The Peace People experience' pamphlet, 1987, available
in paper copies and on the INNATE website).
However some of those involved in the peace
and reconciliation scene were very conservative and basically
wanted paramilitaries to get lost - where they did not specify.
Condemnation often seemed more to do with the speaker's desire
to portray themselves as whiter than white than any move to
deal with issues. But progress, when it has been made, has
come through inclusion. I find it interesting that it took
the British government and military fifteen to twenty years
of the Troubles to realise that the 'shoot to kill' of paramilitaries
The Peace People happened in 1976 when the Troubles
had already peaked. While they claimed the downturn of violence
was due to their work and existence, I think a fairer judgement
would be that they were both a product of people's desire
for an end to the conflict and in turn re-emphasised that
Various groups during the Troubles took stands
of varying kinds against violence, including Peace Train who
specifically focussed on attacks on the Dublin-Belfast railway
line. Such attacks by the IRA were totally illogical - uniting
a country by preventing people from the two major cities in
either part getting together has to be an all-time great of
illogical thinking - but 'bringing home the seriousness of
the war situation' to people could justify any action, anywhere.
Peace Train tried to challenge the illogicality involved in
Did the peace and reconciliation movement achieve
anything in all this? Yes, but quantifying it would be exceedingly
difficult. As we know, the main movement away from violence
came from those involved in, or supporting, the violent groups
who were able to reflect and see that violence was not achieving
their aims. This happened most markedly in Sinn Féin
and the IRA but in loyalist paramilitaries too. For example,
the IRA's long march from the Hunger Strikes at the start
of the 1980s through to decommissioning in 2005 is an amazing
But I would say something about the relative
'constitutionalisation' of Sinn Féin and the 'republican
movement' (in quotation marks). I would say that in their
journey to party political activity only, compared to violent
activity, they have lost and left behind some of the 'non-violent'
tactics which were part of their campaigning. They were adept
at protesting, e.g. 'white line' protests in the roadway,
to publicise issues. All that seems to have gone by the board
apart from the occasional rally to mark continuity with the
violent past. Which brings me on to what a practical, nonviolent
vision would be for today and tomorrow.
I do have a dream - and while realising this dream would require
an enormous effort I do not see anything in my list following
as impractical or impossible.
I would like to see every school child on this
island learn about conflict in a basic way at school. This
would primarily be through peer mediation and the skills associated
with that so that, in a very practical way, children and young
people learnt positive ways to deal with conflict. This is
a major task and one which the late Jerry Tyrrell of Derry
grappled with. I would like everyone to leave school feeling
that they were equipped to deal with whatever conflicts might
come their way, and knowing that other nonviolent approaches
I would like to see movements for change adopting
a more imaginative methodology, including not just the usual
lobbying of governments but also movement building through
use of a broad range of nonviolent tactics. These need not
be oppositional in the sense of condemnatory and accepting
of powerlessness. Rather they could signal up the positive
aspects of the changes which they are striving for.
And in relation to the sectarian situation in
Northern Ireland I would like to see a variety of things.
Most importantly would be open dialogue across the board.
Everyone seems afraid of everyone else and their views; the
aim is usually to discomfort and discredit your opponent (e.g.
recent responses to Fr Alex Reid) rather than understand them
and what they feel. Being confident enough in your own views
to feel able to dialogue is essential; but so then is a willingness
to listen and take on board points which the other side raises
which are valid. We have a significant journey to arrive at
this point but without it we are condemned to division and
divisiveness for a very long time. I would argue that an explicitly
nonviolent approach can help facilitate this, not just what
I can learn from my opponent but also being able to be strong
enough to dialogue. The refusal to dialogue should be considered
a weakness rather than a strength.
The organisation Community Dialogue does a good
job in facilitating community dialogue on issues of division,
including a new publication recently on sectarianism. What
does the 'other side' think and why do they think it? I would
like to see a whole community festival approach to dialogue,
that they come to our community festivals and we go to theirs,
and we get to know what makes each other tick. I am not sufficiently
naïve to imagine that this can happen overnight, any
more than the peace walls, both physical and mental, which
both separate and provide security can be pulled down overnight.
Financial and other incentives in this area could help to
melt or shake a wall or two. It seems sad that the money for
cross-community activities has not been increased when it
became more possible to do things on a cross-community basis
following ceasefires and agreements.
I think we also need to rethink how politicians
are elected and decisions made at referenda. The Westminster
electoral system is the most divisive in the universe. Proportional
Representation as used in the North for other elections, and
generally in the Republic, is better, but it is not the best.
For systems like de Borda which do reward cooperation, we
need look no further than The de Borda Institute and Peter
Emerson here in Belfast. It is usually said that people get
the politicians they deserve but it might be truer to say
that many political systems give people the politicians they
do not deserve. Having a system which rewards divisiveness
and then bemoaning said divisiveness is a bit like.......a
rude phrase comes to mind.........what I'll say is that it
is totally counter-productive. And what I have said about
electing politicians applies equally to referenda - whether
it's a border poll in the North or a referendum on abortion
in the Republic; being forced to decide on a 'yes/no' basis
is ludicrous and divisive and treats the electorate as immature.
We also need to encourage consensus decision
making at small group level so that all can feel included.
The consensus material on the INNATE website is some of the
most visited material there.
I would also like to see the Christian churches
rediscovering their prophetic role, not as agents for their
own members but as followers of a prophet who taught a different
way to love, rejected violence in his defence and was about
breaking down barriers. A more profound discussion is needed
on the nature of power and powerlessness.
All of this is possible if on a current count
improbable. Humankind has big questions to answer in the near
future; global warming, poverty in a globalised world, weapons
of mass destruction and their proliferation - for which I
blame those currently holding such weapons as much or more
than I blame those wishing to acquire them, ethnic conflict
in many societies, to name but a few. What on earth, to use
an appropriate phrase, is the UK doing planning to replace
its Trident 'nuclear deterrent' at a cost of squillions of
Nonviolence is both methodology and goal. For
me it is the art of the possible. I hope I have been able
to share some of those possibilities with you.
[ We hope to publish one or two other papers
from the series; the topics were given in the last issue,
NN 133. ]