‘Politics’. The very word conjures up
many different kinds of images. In Northern Ireland party
'politics' is seen as not only being dirty (as in 'getting
your hands dirty') which it would be elsewhere but also dangerous
because of the risks which have been associated with it if
you stick your head up over the parapet, something which will
change slowly. But politics is not just about party politics
- this is a key part of it - but about seeking to influence
how decisions are made and policies implemented by the government
and by other bodies and organisations. 'Politics' happens
on a day-to-day basis in all our communities, local and otherwise.
'Nonviolence' may have differing meanings for
people. In one way it can be defined, negatively, as an unwillingness
to harm other people; put positively, it involves complete
respect for other people - pretty difficult in a world where
deriding your opponent has been turned into an art form! So
does nonviolence become a nice, polite, irrelevance? This
short piece tries to argue that nonviolence is not only relevant
to politics but also successful.
Northern Ireland is used not only to the politics
of sectarianism and the sectarianism of politics, but also
a situation in which normal political issues such as unemployment,
poverty, policy issues and health are neglected because of
the sectarian and violent situation, even when a local administration
is in place. While co-operation does happen to a surprising
degree across a number of barriers, there is a large lack
of trust of people on 'the other side'. And everything is
seen in win/lose terms; if Protestants gain, Catholics have
to lose, if Catholics gain, Protestants have to lose. It may
be difficult to see and follow through the possibility of
'win/win' solutions, where everyone gains something; but,
to put it in its most simplistic terms in relation to Northern
Ireland, what if unionists have increased and real security
(not the military kind) and nationalists increased recognition
of their identity in a 'win/win' solution?
In the Republic, various scandals regarding
politicians have increased the already existing scepticism
about what politicians are there for. There is a need for
integrity, for clarity of purpose, and for a vision beyond
simply milking the Celtic Tiger, when so many social needs
When I approach things nonviolently I seek to learn about
and understand the other person. I try to step into that person's
shoes. I try to respect and appreciate her or him. In Quaker
and religious terms I am seeking to recognise 'that of God'
which is present in everyone; in non-religious terms, simply
to respect the other's humanity. If I try to do this, I begin
to discover what makes the other person tick; what their priorities
and essentials are. I am then more likely to approach the
person in a sympathetic way which enables him or her to react
positively. It is very easy to make demands in a way which
seems to involve total surrender; with a nonviolent approach
this should not happen and understanding and imagination can
come to the rescue.
But its does not mean that we have to give up
on our own political ideas and aspirations. Rather it means
that we appreciate the other person has valid political ideas;
we recognise we need to get to know them, to build up a relationship
with them. Once we start to do this we can look at ways in
which we can develop 'win/win' solutions rather than 'win/lose'
solutions. Because it is effective it can be adopted for 'pragmatic'
reasons ('it works') as well as 'moral' reasons ('it's the
right thing to do').
But complexities and difficult issues remain.
'Boycotting' is a classic nonviolent tactic which can be used
to great effect (the business sector was an important factor
in leading to changes in apartheid South Africa, in response
to boycotts and economic pressure). But, to take the Northern
Ireland context, is it legitimate to boycott a shop because
you disagree with the political orientation of the shop owner?
Internationally, sanctions against Iraq have been seen to
bolster Saddam Hussein and injure ordinary people. Such questions
need to be considered in the wider context of what is likely
to lead to progress in a situation.
What if the other person or group refuses to budge over an
injustice we suffer and feel? What then? Nonviolence has a
range of options. We can ask for the help of a third party,
respected by both sides in the dispute (see later on third
party interventions). We can use our imagination to explore
creative ways of bringing the other side's attention to the
issue and our concerns. This can be symbolic, such as a demonstration
or piece of street theatre, or it can be nonviolent intervention
- which can take many different forms (including economic
action or physical intervention). It was, for example, nonviolent
direct action which brought about negotiations with the company
prospecting for lignite on the western side of Lough Neagh,
some years ago.
'Nonviolent direct action' is where we use our
bodies in some way as a nonviolent weapon in a political cause
or do an action which is deliberately illegal (e.g. destroying
GM/genetically modified crops). It is often used by mothers
or parents in blocking roads to protest against traffic accidents
involving children. It was used to some effect during Bishopscourt
Peace Camp in Co Down between 1983-86 in protest against the
radar base which was then located there. It has been used
with effect in Britain against road developments and in Germany
against nuclear waste shipments. A key point of such nonviolence
is that protesters accept the consequences of their actions;
while they may vigourously contest any resultant court cases
they will openly admit the actions they were involved in.
Sometimes power is equated with brute force. There is a good
little exercise done in pairs; one person is told to clench
their fist and the other person is told to get it open. It
is extremely difficult to force open someone's fist! You may
risk injuring them if you take it too far. But what if you
offer a hand of friendship, a handshake - the other person
is likely to respond by opening their hand to shake yours.
Brute force or aggression usually antagonise the very people
you seek to influence so that the end result can be worse
than the first.
Nonviolence has a lot of strength; it aims to
be strong but sensitive, determined but not damning the other
side. Those using nonviolent action don't claim to be 'pure'
in the sense of having solely altruistic motives! Those who
believe in nonviolence should be fully aware of their own
drawbacks and deficiencies - it's certainly not a matter of
being perfect. But in dealing with an injustice which we feel,
we have a moral strength in dealing with the issue in a way
which is least threatening to the other side, and least likely
to divide and alienate our own supporters. We are not made
to feel guilty about dealing back dirty deed for dirty deed.
Our openness and respect for the other should make communication
Our attention to planning, and taking into account possible
responses from the other side, are important. We use our imagination.
We can have a range of aims. An opponent can come to agree
with us (be converted); they can agree to deal with the particular
issue in question because that is easier for them (accommodate
us); they can also be forced to deal with an issue because
of public opinion or for economic or other reasons (pressure
or even coercion of this kind is a possibility within nonviolence).
Nonviolence is an approach essential to the
future of this island, North or South. The range of possibilities
and approaches within nonviolence are enormous. Politics is
sometimes defined as the art of the possible; in Northern
Ireland this has become the art of the impossible (because
each side expects of the opponent what is impossible). Nonviolence
is a way to break through the impossibilities by building
relationships of growing respect and interdependency. It's
a long road still out of the quagmire in Northern Ireland,
and nonviolence is an important and essential part of that
Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
- Is nonviolence relevant to change and political
struggle? If 'yes', then in what ways?
- How difficult is change on different situations?
Think of, or list, different situations (e.g. poverty and
unemployment at home, sectarianism in Northern Ireland,
racism and the need for multiculturalism, world poverty
and justice etc.). How can change take place on these issues?
- Do you enjoy being involved in 'politics'
and political change?
- What kind of nonviolent tactics do you think
are appropriate or inappropriate in our situation and for
the causes you believe in?
on to the next chapter]