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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 209: May 2013

[Return to the related issue of Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

It’s a funny – strange - old world. Nobody deserves to be targeted for killing. But if you are killed innocently watching a marathon in Boston, USA, you are part of a ‘front page’ story for weeks. If you are killed by a drone in Afghanistan or Pakistan emanating from US military forces, even though you are as innocent as the people in Boston then you are a footnote on page 17 and forgotten the next day. Of course the story in Boston deserves coverage. But what of the people killed by the USA? I’m afraid among other things it’s an illustration of where power – military and media power – lies. And it’s also an illustration of violence and the nature of violence` too; deaths in Pakistan, nah, not interested, too ‘common’, too non-Western. But ‘terrorist’ death in the USA among all the other gun killings, well that is considered news.

Meanwhile it is hard to imagine that anyone could have been so cynical and greedy as the British businessman recently imprisoned for selling fake bomb detectors. Based on a novelty non-functioning golf ball finder, these were sold at a vast profit for use in Iraq and elsewhere, and he made many millions of pounds while people got maimed and killed. Irrespective of whether these would have been supporting a war effort if they had worked, it is clear that his bottom line was profit and if people were killed as a result of his non-functioning device, well that was worth it to him.

Good Vibes
Last month I was writing about Tony Macaulay’s ‘Breadboy’, this month I am also going back to 1970s Belfast through the medium of ‘Good Vibrations’, the film about record store owner and punk promoter Terri Hooley (played by Richard Dormer), possible alternative title for the film could be ‘A bit of a Hooley’. The film does live up to its name; with the energy and music of those punk times, it should be difficult not to be a lively take on it all (although while ‘Alternative Ulster’ was there, I didn’t hear Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘Barbed wire love’ in the mix).

Good Vibrations record store was the middle slice of an ‘alternative’ venue on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street; Sassafras, Belfast’s first wholefood store, was on the ground (historical note – Belfast did have at least one veggie restaurant as early as the end of the 19th century with the blossoming of vegetarianism at that time); Good Vibrations was in the middle; and the Print Workshop, which did community and political printing, was up top (it printed many and varied publications, ‘Dawn’ magazine, a predecessor to INNATE’s Nonviolent News, among them).

The film portrays some of Terri Hooley’s shortcomings as well as his real affection for the punk music scene, a cross-community young people’s movement, ‘movement’ in the sense of a dynamic happening; when a minibus is stopped by a British army patrol when there is a punk music gig or tour elsewhere, the soldiers are amazed to discover Catholics and Protestants together but Terri Hooley is quoted as saying “I never thought to ask” (their religion). It was the biggest cross-community youth scene of its era.

I don’t know the extent to which truth is pulled in different directions in the film. You can see most of the scenes portrayed happening. However I wonder if the scene actually happened where Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries are called to the same venue (a bar) by Terri Hooley when he is setting up Good Vibrations, to give them some LPs (otherwise long-playing records) and tell them he won’t be intimidated or pay protection money. It would have been brave but high risk contacting each side individually. It was extremely high risk to bring the two sides together to tell them the same thing. If it did take place I suppose it showed his ‘neutrality’ to both sides – though that didn’t stop some on one side subsequently beating him up.

The scene in a lonely, desolate bar when he meets his first wife is true to what Belfast became in the Troubles. City bars closed early and indeed Belfast became a ghost town in the dark, even more so when there was trouble about.

Back in the ‘sixties Belfast had had a lively night life. That has now, thankfully, long returned. There is also a bit of a message in the punk scene; people got together across the divide, not because they were consciously trying but because it never occurred to them not to do so, and the call of punk outweighed the call of divided community loyalties.

A film well worth going to if it comes your way.

Maggie Maggie Maggie
There has been so much ink and digital footage spilt on the recent death and funeral of one Margaret Hilda Thatcher that I hesitate [for 10 seconds? – Ed] to add even more words to the mix, so I will be fairly brief in having my spake. More complex than she is sometimes given credit for, she was at best a mé féin feminist, a woman who did not promote women, a power-holder who saw down, possibly inadvisably, the unionist parties in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and the person who could have stopped republicans dying on hunger strike though again what happened there is also more complex than assumed by some. But as for David Cameron’s idea she made Britain ‘great again’....well that has to be some sort of sic joke, and as if that was something to be proud about (certainly not if you take how Cameron might define ‘greatness’).

Reciting the Prayer of St Francis on arrival at 10 Downing Street, she went to war over the distant British colony the Falklands/Malvinas when it was invaded by Argentina under its dictatorship; other options than war were open to her. Perhaps most momentously she was the person who was responsible for shaking up the British economy in favour of ‘free enterprise’ and the rich, something which led in due course, among other things, to the British banking crisis of recent years. Thatcherism also made its mark in Ireland with Thatcherites like the PDs (Progressive Democrats).

Right-wingers tend to proclaim her rescuing of the British economy but that is dubious given her destruction of coal-mining (if it had been done on green grounds with alternative employment provided then perhaps she would have deserved some praise) and, as mentioned above, her setting the scene for massive bank debt. Are British people happier, more fulfilled as a result of what she did? I think the answer to that is probably no.

But let’s look for a moment at the causes she supported. She was mates with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and visited him (she was eight years out of office then) while he was held for a period in Britain in 1998 – she campaigned for his release. Pinochet was the lynchpin of the 1973 fascist takeover in Chile and the overthrow of the democratic regime of Salvador Allende; atrocities, torture and exile became the hallmark of the regime, along with neoliberal economic policies. Under Thatcher, Britain also secretly supported Cambodian tyrant and mass murderer Pol Pot when he was ousted by Vietnam, after he was involved in the killing of well over a million of his own people; see e.g. here. There has to be major questions about someone’s commitment to any kind of humanity who could have supported both Pinochet and Pol Pot, and there was at the time lots of information in the public domain about what they had been engaged in, so no excuse is possible there, particularly someone who has the information resources of being a British prime minister.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics
No, this is not about statistics but about the lies being told, backed up by false ‘statistics’ by the current British government, further endorsed up by the right-wing press and media (i.e. most of it) about poverty and social welfare benefits. I have recently commented on the ideological differences between British and Irish conservatives (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil are slightly more populist conservatives); Fine Gael, backed generally by the Irish Labour Party, make cuts because they are told to do so by international financial constitutions, while the British Tories make the cuts because they really do believe that making rich people richer will help the poor – now there is a piece of twisted logic if ever you saw it. The net effect of cuts is the same but the British Tories have the edge in aggression against the poor and vindictiveness, while professing concern and a desire for people to get jobs (and exactly where would they do that?).

The publication I’m quoting from is one from some British churches (Baptists, Methodists, Church of Scotland and United Reformed) entitled “The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty”, to download it click here. While it’s put together by Christian churches its main import is covered in the title, about how a false narrative, repeated often enough, about a vulnerable group is allowed to become ‘fact’.

The myths it covers are “’They’ are lazy and don’t want to work”, “’They’ are addicted to drink and rugs”, “’They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly”, “’They’ are on the fiddle”, “’They’ have an easy life”, and “’They’ caused the deficit”. One by one it takes these myths and shows them as false – and gives examples of prominent people accepting or adding to the myth concerned.

Regarding laziness, one aspect is there are more people in poverty in the UK in families working than in workless households; so much for the beloved Tory contrast of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’. Only 0.1% of decade-long benefit claimants are unemployed, the rest are carers, lone parents of young children or on incapacity benefits. As for the idea that ‘Unemployed people choose to stay on benefits’ the average length of time on Job Seeker’s Allowance is 13 weeks.

Tony Blair is quoted (1997) adding to the “three generations have never had a job” myth; in fact figures show less than 0.1% of the 20 million working age households in UK are there two generations who have never had a permanent job. So the idea of three generations workless is a myth. On being on the fiddle and fraud, the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, said in the House of Commons (October 2010) that there was an estimate of £5 billion lost in benefit fraud each year; in fact the correct figure was £1.6 billion, the rest included errors made by government as well as claimants. The estimated fraud rate for taxation is around four to seven times higher than welfare so, as the report suggests “If you are looking for fraud, a tax return is a much better place to look than a benefit statement.”

There are all sorts of other myths busted in this publication. Because most people don’t flaunt disability, but are very private about it, neighbours can get the impression someone is fraudulently claiming; but of a quarter of a million calls to a benefit fraud hotline, only a fifth are deemed to be worthy of investigation, and in these less than a tenth has fraud established; “In 2009/10, 74 out of 75 people who thought their neighbour was committing benefit fraud were wrong.”

Large families on welfare are rare and they get to lose money, relatively speaking, with more children (and with benefit caps having been introduced will lose even more) so the idea that people are having large families to milk the system are quite wrong. The overall cost of welfare has not spiralled in recent years in the UK, it has been relatively constant, increasing slightly in line with other government areas of expenditure until 2007. The report takes apart Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that debt and the British deficit were caused by (Labour) chasing a child poverty target. A sense of proportion is given by the report when it states that in the UK “The bank bailout required sufficient government money to pay for Job Seeker’s Allowance for over 150 years”!

Over the last few decades, payments to unemployed people have shrunk compared to average wages in the UK. To imagine that you can have a comfortable life on the dole is a myth. To victimise and scapegoat people in poverty takes a particular kind of capitalist viciousness, as well as a general lack of understanding. Whether Maggie Thatcher said “There is no such thing as society” or not, the conclusion is that for the people who propound and propagate such attacks on the poor and unemployed, there really is no such thing as society, and certainly not a caring society.

Returning to the different approaches taken in Britain (well, by English Tories) and in Ireland, the British approach is to makes the lives of people suffering unemployment, poverty or living with disability a misery (they don’t call it that but that is the effect) so they will go out and get a job. This ignores a number of factors. Firstly, there are no jobs for people to get, or the people concerned are already working all the hours they can at a minimum wage. And secondly, compared to millionaires who have been getting tax relief and may salt it away in their favourite tax haven or invest in arms shares, poor people immediately put any money they have back into the economy – they spend it because they need to – and usually the local or fairly local economy. Thus investing in poor people is good for the economy.

In Northern Ireland the approach taken is to accept the parity deal with the UK concerning welfare (social welfare payments paid at parity with Britain doesn’t affect Stormont’s budget) but fiddle around with the administrative details, at little or no cost, to make it a bit more humane. In Northern Ireland the housing element of welfare will be paid directly to landlords so people don’t end up in arrears while in Britain, in the supposed name of choice and responsibility, housing benefit will go to the claimant; the net result will be arrears and more problems because if you are faced with buying food and a pair of shoes for your child, or paying your rent, which would you do? It would take a huge amount of discipline and fortitude to pay the landlord.

In the Republic the approach is to make cuts until the books ‘balance’ (it is everything else that becomes unbalanced). Thus a broad range of support in health and social services are cut to meet the supposed bottom line, a bottom line set when the former government backed the banks with everything it had, a move endorsed by the current Fine Gael-Labour coalition and enforced by the troika (European Union, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund)

What is the correct approach? I would argue strongly, indeed argue that in all countries and situations, the approach should be based on need. The question to be answered is, what do people - who are unemployed, living in poverty, or living with disability – need to have a dignified life? The bottom line is defined in interaction with the people affected. The following question is then – How can society provide this? This last question may require sacrifices of others, either through increased taxes for the well off, or of time spent through volunteering (which itself can be rewarding), but it is done with the goal of providing a dignified life for all.

If this analytical approach is taken but society finds it cannot temporarily provide what is needed – and I do not accept that this should apply in a relatively rich western society with enormous resources to hand – then society should strive to provide what is needed at the first available opportunity. And in this case those who are not having their needs met may not be better off but at least would have the prospect of it happening in the near future, and the acknowledgement from society that their needs are not being met. The current result in both Britain and Ireland is that those suffering from the cuts are made feel that their lives and dignity do not matter, that they are expendable. Whatever the ideology and the reasons behind it all, this is totally unacceptable.

The past is this country
I picked up a beautifully produced 1960 paperback guide to Ireland for three quid in Oxfam (in decent condition too); Ireland, by Camille Bourniquel, translated by John Fisher, Vista Books. Originally written in French, this was an English translation with some fascinating black and white photos, including a great photo of a young Traveller woman on the cover – probably long since dead given Traveller life expectancy.

It’s a wonderful mix of rosemanticism (= romanticism with rose coloured spectacles), perceptiveness and factual recording, along with some inaccuracies or misimpressions, produced at a time when the 26 countries of Ireland was about to modernise, just a couple of years after T K Whitaker’s first Programme for Economic Expansion. So it was written on the cusp of modern Ireland.

L P Hartley may have had it, at the start of his famous novel the “The Go-Between” that “The past is a foreign country” but it’s not, it’s just a misunderstood province or aspect of our own country. To read a vibrant picture of Ireland more than half a century ago, written by an outsider, is to gain an impression not just of what Ireland was but how it seemed. And it is to gain an impression of the backdrop, and how it seems, to ‘modern’ Ireland. The past hasn’t gone away you know – in the words on a poster which INNATE will be producing very soon, the past is not water under the bridge, it is water filling a reservoir. That, surely, should be clear in Ireland.

There are some wonderful typos or errors which would seem to indicate that the book was not (p)roofed by someone from Ireland. In its whirlwind tour of Irish history, the Statutes of Kilkenny which “forbade loyal subjects to speak Gaelic, to marry the natives” etc is given as taking place in 1936! The mention was, however, placed in the right time frame in the narrative, the actual date is 1366, trying to avoid the threat to Anglo-Norman interests of settlers going native. Other confusions come through brevity or translation; it might be thought, page 73, that the last Governor-General of the Irish Free State (Domhnall Ua Buachalla) became the first President (Douglas Hyde) whereas simply the latter role replaced the former. It uses the word ‘Tories’ for ‘Unionists’ in one section (they would have been allied at this stage but this usage is misleading).

But it is perceptive too while taking a broadly nationalistic approach. However Belfast as a place gets a pretty negative write up, perhaps unduly so; “Belfast seldom fails to depress the incoming tourist” ! The rest of the North gets a better record as a place though it covers sectarianism and gerrymandering. However it advises in relation to the 26 counties’ desire for the 6 counties that “Terrorist action has long been out of date. The aim and object of the immediate future should be to check the cold war with Belfast and to multiply contacts and exchanges.”

In Dublin the book looks at slum housing, and covers unpleasant facts about the Republic’s emigration (“emigration remains a grave problem of basic importance”, page 116). It gives Dublin’s then relatively new Busáras (designed by Michael Scott, completed 1953) a thumbs up - I would too. It deals with the power of the Catholic Church, intolerance and censorship; “Is not this all-powerful Church with all the levers in its hands and its seat at the summit of all hierarchies too much in evidence, too sure of its power?” (page 136). It advocates that “denial of freedom of expression of thought and of the free circulation of ideas and viewpoints should not turn the whole country into a fine fruit frozen in a block of ice” (page 137), and lists some of the censored authors. It finds visual artists isolated from their continental cousins, and covers poetry and theatre, James Joyce and mentions Beckett.

It’s one of those books which are a joy to read, with great photos, but got me thinking about the past, the present, how things appeared then, how insiders and outsiders see any situation, and myths which we want to believe. All that from one little guide book. Charity and second-hand shops which specialise in books, as opposed to ones which have a few pot boilers stashed in the corner, have always got delights if you keep looking.

- - - - -

I said last month that the weather in March wasn’t as bad as in 1937, and that’s possibly true but the spring season is very late. I also mentioned the fact that flowers that were out when the March cold spell came lasted a long time; in fact I reckon our miniature narcissi (daffodils) were flowering for 7 weeks! That is unprecedented. It’s an ill wind that kept them flowering. So here’s to a beautifully warm summer to make up for it, and if you believe that, well, you also believe (as I tend to do) in the triumph of hope over experience. Till (the ground – literal or metaphorical - until) we meet again, 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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