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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Issue 134: November 2005

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

Just a phrase we're going through
Just one phrase can make all the difference, as Fr Alex Reid discovered. Unfortunately if it makes all the difference it is usually a phrase with a destructive effect, though there are stirring and positive ones too. Decommissioning of negative phrases will take an extremely long time in Northern Ireland. Sticks and stones will break my bones and words will always, but always, hurt me (or be let on to hurt me even more than they do).

In a meeting which had been intended to allow the two independent monitors of IRA disarmament, Fr Alex Reid and Rev Harold Good, to show their bona fides, Alex Reid allowed himself to be provoked and said "The reality is that the nationalist community in Northern Ireland were treated almost like animals by the unionist community. They were not treated like human beings. It was like the Nazis' treatment of the Jews." It was a step and a statement too far. It allowed some loyalists to question the integrity and reality of the disarmament process. Though see my previous comment [NN 126] when Mary McAleese said something different but also mentioning Nazi Germany.

Anyway, Fr Reid's comments sent me looking for my copy of "Phrases make history here - a century of Irish political quotations" compiled by Conor O'Clery, although its 1986 publication date means there is nothing since then (O'Brien Press, ISBN 0-86278-108-6). O'Clery's comment that "Words have often come to be charged with as much significance as the events which inspired them" (page 7) has never been truer. His book is quite a treasury of the good, the bad, the indifferent and middling, the prescient, the woefully inaccurate, and the ugly. I'll pass on a few samples here with some comments, avoiding some but not all of the best known.

Charles Stewart Parnell spoke in 1886 of the provisions of the then Home Rule Bill as "a final settlement of [the Irish] question and...I believe that the Irish people have accepted it as such." Well, apart from the fact that it didn't pass the Westminster Parliament, his words didn't come to pass either. [When I was a student I named our common household purse 'Kitty O'Shea' - Ed] [Listen, it's me who bakes the puns around here - Billy]

It was a Fianna Failer, and not just any Fianna Failer but Sean Lemass, who used the term "a slightly constitutional party" for Fianna Fail (March 1928) - an interesting parallel with another party today. Carson advised not to be afraid of illegalities in September 1913 and wasn't worried about being treasonable (page 39) - what would current Unionists make of that? What is sauce for unionists may also be sauce for republicans. Pearse was happy to see everyone armed (November 1913); "I am glad that the Orangemen have armed, for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands" - which must be one of the most shortsighted and silly comments made by anyone on civil strife.

Then there was General Sir John Maxwell's comment on 2nd May 1916 that "I am going to punish the offenders, four of them are to be shot tomorrow morning. I am going to ensure that there will be no treason whispered, even whispered, in Ireland for a hundred years." What a bundle of laughs.

Included are Catholic sectarian remarks by de Valera in 1931 (page 90) - though he often rose above this, and Brooke and Craig's backing for only employing Protestant lads and lassies in the North (page 93, 95). Interestingly, Eddie McAteer weighs in with a comment on non-violent resistance to partition in 1950. The Paisleyite "Protestant Telegraph" printed what purported to be a Sinn Féin oath in 1967 (slightly reminiscent of the tone of that infamous anti-Jewish forgery, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion") and there is Paisley's comment from 1981 that "Isn't it remarkable that all the worst crimes of Republican violence have been committed immediately after Mass?" which, apart from being a lie, totally ignores the intra-Catholic community rivalry between the Catholic Church and military republicans in the Troubles (I covered some other lies from Ian Paisley in my Colm in issue No.120).

1974's coverage includes Rev Joe Parker's self-proclaimed sad comments on leaving Northern Ireland. He had lost a son in Bloody Friday and founded Witness for Peace but felt the churches had not backed the cause of peace. 1985 saw Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich's comment "I think ninety per cent of religious bigotry [in Northern Ireland] is to be found among Protestants, whereas the bigotry one finds among Catholics is mainly political". Whether you agree with his assessment or not it does raise the perspicacious issue of different kinds of bigotry and prejudice which is helpful in analysing the realities.

But it's fairly obvious that people haven't been studying their nonviolent communication, à la Marshall Rosenberg or anyone else. In theory it's easy to be well prepared and watch out what you're saying but in the heat of the moment (and/or enticement or goading) it's very difficult. And if you're trying to make your speech (as in talking, not speech as in speech-making) sound interesting and avoid people losing interest, then it's easy to let yourself get carried away with a thought or phrase which, in retrospect, was rather unwise. Yes, I speak from experience though fortunately never in the limelight that some others have had to endure. What is more chilling is that many of the worst comments above were made in cold blood and not in the heat of debate.

One for the archives
Of all the terrible non-medical afflictions known to humankind, one of the worst must be to an archivist. I will qualify that slightly. There is nothing wrong with being an archivist; retaining the past in tangible and understandable form that we may learn from it is a noble profession, up there in the pantheon of callings with greengrocery, haberdashery (now there's a word you don't often hear these days - you might say it doesn't have a dash about it anymore, a bit like a darned old pair of socks) and bricklaying. The past may be another country but at least it would be good to recollect that it is one you have visited, got to know quite well and, indeed, even spoke some of the language. The problem is not being an archivist when you are a salaried worker in the vineyard, so to speak, the problem is when you are an archivist in a voluntary capacity without the time to do it, and this includes it being an 'add on' to an existing job and you're not paid extra for it.

Never get interested in the past and preserving for the future what might be significant from the present. It doesn't matter what you're archiving, even bits and peaces like me. Do you see that great big bundle of miscellaneous papers, magazines, correspondence, notes and so on hiding in the corner? You know, the one you haven't touched since last year and is just about to fall over despite being stacked against the wall? Well, the normal person would just say "There's nothing there I need, into the recycle bin with it ", and, bingo, it's gone in under five minutes from thought to bin and they can get on with the rest of their life. The poor downtrodden archivist says "There's five hours work sorting that, a whole day really, then I've got to find somewhere to file what I'm keeping - and I don't have the space - and then bring what's sorted to go to the library*" (*'library' = specialist archive such as the Political Collection at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast).

And sorting through all those miscellaneous papers requires making one judgement after another; significant, not significant, not significant, one for me to keep, don't know so what will I do with it, not significant, not significant, may be significant......and so on. It requires thinking. Being able to tell your Erse from your elbow, that sort of thing. And as you are all very aware, thinking hurts, particularly when you've already had a hard days work doing your other tasks in life.

In the end, what you're getting rid of for recycling or to the library is fine, it's going to be gone. Finding space for what you're keeping is the long-term problem if you don't want to a) be burrowing about your home or organisation's office like a rabbit between stacks of papers, however they might be stored, or b) continually extend the premises, an expensive option which is not necessarily the best when 90% of the premises becomes devoted to the past and only 10% to the present and future. Electronic storage is not an answer either unless you've got oodles of time and cash; updating and saving your files in triplicate in a new format every decade sounds like a perpetual nightmare, a bit like looking after nuclear waste without being quite so toxic. And if you retain paper stacks then maybe you're allergic to dust or paper mites which have probably established home sweet home there.

I have a distant relation whose biography came out there some few years ago. It was a fascinating portrayal of life in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th, and included not just observations on my home town but also on my antecedents of that time (my great-grandfather swore a lot) [bloody hell - Ed] [something like that - Billy]. It was primarily based on the letters which she had written to family members and the biography was published around seventy years after she died. If one of us dropped dead today and someone tried to write our biography in sixty or seventy years, what would they find? I don't know about you but I ask this hypothetically as no one is going to be writing my biography but you get the picture. There would probably be little or nothing to go on, even within our family circle. The chances of there being a comprehensive record of someone's e-mails, equivalent to the old bundle of letters in a trunk in the attic, is so slim as to be almost non-existent. So there will be problems for the biographers of the future who will undoubtedly blame the archivists of yesteryear (today).

In the end, the moral of the story is, do not get involved in preserving the past for the future because it can ruin your present. On no account become an archivist (it even sounds bad, a bit like a recidivist or a hedonist, though come to think of it, the latter is meant to be pretty enjoyable). You have been warned. Now where is that meeting taking place for Archivists Anonymous? Just where did I file that bit of paper with the details.....

Rant is usually thought of in Norn Iron as what you pay to your landlord but it is also what you do when you 'rant and rave', as in getting lost in your anger. ME? Never happens to me. Well, only occasionally. Well, the last time was the other day. As I remarked recently, modern technology is a wonderful thong and I must admit I've got rather used to, and dependent on, the internet, having been dragged kicking (and only internally screaming) into the internetage (it wasn't that I was afraid of it per se, only afraid of the work it would bring). Anyway, our broadband sat down the other day. A phone call the next morning informed me that the system was working perfectly so far as the providers' end of it concerned, this deduced by checking our account (presumably) and describing the state of the lights on the modem. Oh oh. Was it cabling gone, the router heading off on its very own route, or what, I didn't know, so a couple of hours was spent on different configurations of cables, computers and so on to try to figure what was up. I even went to a techie shop in town to get cabling that doesn't exist. No joy.

So, in the afternoon I made a second call to NTL, our broadband provider. Yes, they told me this time, there is a problem; you're 'region suspended' (sounds dangerous doesn't it) and they would transfer me to someone else to get it sorted. Of course this was having queued for ten minutes. But I had to queue again because I was immediately lost in the transfer. Then I eventually got another person who confirmed we had been disconnected and would transfer me to the Disconnections department; this was highly appropriate because I was immediately Disconnected on the phone. Queue again. Next time the mysteries of the universe began to unravel and why we had been disconnected (all, I hasten to add, 100% NTL's fault and the end result - don't ask - of their incompetence a year and a half ago). And I didn't want the Disconnections department anyway because they only Disconnected and didn't Reconnect. Half an hour later we were in business again.

Modern conveniences are great, it's when they sit down that they're rather inconvenient, particularly when you have a firm which is so spectacularly bad at customer service as our internet provider. All the call centre people I spoke to on the phone were doing their best but, all bar the last person, either they weren't trained or given the information to get it sorted straight away, or their systems were just up the creek and badly linked. One headache and about an hour and a half on the phone later (plus another couple of hours doing what didn't need doing), I was sorted.

Now that that rant's over I can sign out until next time. As I may have told you before, I don't need a shrink, I have a monthly Colm to get it all out. See you soon, geulp, that'll nearly be Christmas, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

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