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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 230: June 2015

[Returned to related issued on Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts –

Well, last month I was commenting on the good weather in April, I can now comment on the lousy weather in May, not very warm at all with a cold wind, wet and dull. But that's weather in Ireland for you. I look after some plant tubs in work and planted out some summer bedding plants in early May, a few of which have been killed by the cold wind – the others are just hanging in there but haven't had the warmth to grow much if at all, and a red maple bush has been badly scorched. At home plants are more protected and anything I have put out has survived but they have not been growing or going anywhere fast.

During the last month, the results of the same sex marriage referendum in the Republic came the same day as the Eurovision Song Contest. Wasn't it interesting that Dana was calling for a 'no' vote while Dana International would surely have gone for a 'Yes', but the inclusive agenda certainly won out. You could talk about Fine Gael and Labour as a 'Rainbow coalition' but in fact all the main parties supported same sex marriage and the people have spoken in support. A good day for Ireland and a very rapid transit from when homosexual activity was decriminalised in 1993, just 22 years ago.

Milltown Cemetery
If Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin is known as 'the dead centre of Ireland', Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, a stone's throw from the City Cemetery across the road, is Belfast's Catholic burial place, and could be called a reilig of ould dacancy. I attended a talk by Belfast's cemetery expert and historian (former Lord Mayor of Belfast and a senior member of Sinn Féin) Tom Hartley on board the SS Nomadic, dry docked close to the 'Titanic' visitors' centre in Belfast; the Nomadic acted as a tender for passengers in Cherbourg going on the Titanic's one and only passenger voyage – and is the only remaining White Star Line steamship. The talk was organised by Community Change.

Tom Hartley has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the grave matters he spoke of, and has written about in his books on Milltown and the City Cemetery. He told me he is now working on Belfast's Balmoral Cemetery which was a Presbyterian burial ground. So lots more stories to emerge there yet. As you may know, cementing your knowledge of a town or city's past and history by cemetery visiting is a fascinating activity whether it be in Paris - where you can stumble on the graves of a well known composer and the inventor of the can-can close by each other – or a place like Belfast. Tom Hartley does justice to the complexities of local history in Belfast.

I am only going to tell one story about Milltown before ending with a joke. For me the most impressive statement by anyone in either of the two big Belfast cemeteries is the one made by (Catholic) Bishop (of Down and Connor) John Tohill who died in 1914. He chose to be buried on the edge of the 'poor ground' which is an area of unmarked graves where over 75,000 of poor and destitute people in total have been buried closely together when no one could afford to buy a grave for them. The reason? Possibly because in blessing his grave the poor ground would also be blessed. But for whatever reason, it was a startling choice at the time, made in life, to make a statement in death, of solidarity with the poor. (See page 267 in Tom Hartley's "Milltown Cemetery", Blackstaff Press)

And the joke (an old one). A community activist goes to heaven and is welcomed by St Peter at the pearly gates. The community worker is advised to go on in, make themselves at home and sort themselves out. So they go to do just that. But as they are leaving there is great razzamatazz, bands, bunting and all the rest of it for someone else coming in the pearly gates, who turns out to be a bishop. Surprised that the bishop should get such a welcome when they, as a community worker, got told to sort themselves out, they go up to St Peter to ask why all the fanfare for a bishop, thinking that heaven would be a big more egalitarian than that. And St Peter replies: "This is why – your sort we get every day but we haven't had a bishop for fifty years."!

Brexit and Brautocracy
'Brexit' is a horrible but efficient word, coined I presume some few years back, to indicate the possibility – or thinking about the actuality – of a UK/British exit from the EU. With David Cameron at the helm in the British government once again, this time with a slim but workable Conservative party majority, expect 'Brexit' to be cropping up more and more over the next year or two in the lead up to a UK referendum on the subject. Unfortunately studies have shown that Ireland – Republic as well as the North - would suffer very considerably economically from UK withdrawal from the EU, but there may be uncertainty ahead for a couple of years while this one is resolved (or not.....). 'We' are not necessarily a fan of various aspects of the EU (neo-liberal economic policies and privatisation, developing military policy and tie ins with NATO, etc) but a British withdrawal would be from the opposite end of the political spectrum – because of a nationalist and deeply conservative thrust.

In the spirit of coining horrible words, I have come up with another following the British election which saw the Tories snaffling over 50% of the seats in the Westminster Parliament with under 37% of the vote (or actually with the votes of less than a quarter of the people who would have been eligible to vote). This is not democracy – it is Brautocracy. 'Autocracy' is defined in one definition as "a form of government in which a country is ruled by a person or group with total power", but it also has the implication of being undemocratic and ignoring popular opinion. The idea that any party can get a parliamentary majority and continue its deeply divisive policies with just over a third of the votes of those who went to the ballot box is certainly not democracy in my book (and in my book democracy does not just depend, either, on elections every x years).

Of course the UK 'first past the post' electoral system is the most regressive and unrepresentative possible, though it can cut different ways – in Scotland the SNP got 56 seats, all the seats apart from three (one each for Tories, Labour and Lib Dems) on an overall percentage of 50.2% in the country (Scotland) with just over 70% of people voting. The Tories managed in 2011 to defeat even the modest proposal for the Alternative Vote in the UK, this referendum was all the Lib Dems got on the issue and they were defeated (AV – single member constituencies but candidates are eliminated until the winner has 50% of the votes). Part of the argument for the first past the post system is 'strong government' – well the UK has 'Brautocracy' now, but then that is nothing new. Democratic it ain't, and the poor (more of whom are working than not) will suffer from the Tory purported policies for 'strivers' rather than 'skivers'. And poor oul Norn Iron (and especially the poor in Norn Iron) will probably suffer the most.

Bolshy peace women of the First World War
OK, the term 'bolshy' is (very slightly) anachronistic and inaccurate as the term 'bolshy' (or 'bolshie', from 'Bolshevik') only came into parlance with the Russian Revolution, and was used as a right-wing derogatory term for anyone causing political ripples...and indeed the word 'feminist' is a later term. The actual title of the talk I attended at Belfast City hall in May was "Irish Pacifist Women of WW1". See photos of the speakers here.

The three speakers were Myrtle Hill, Margaret Ward and Bronagh Hinds. They put things into the context of the women's suffrage movement of the times, and spoke well about the complexity of different approaches and how the cause of suffrage suffered (in Ireland) from competing nationalisms. There were very different approaches to the war and the needs of the time. In Dublin the response included women's patrols to protect other women from soldiers, and there was a 'Women Watching the Courts Committee' picking up on sexual abuse and domestic violence, while other women became involved in basically war support work. – a trend resisted by others. None of the half dozen Irish women who tried to get to the Hague International Women's Congress in 1915 managed to get past the British shipping blockage. (For detail on the 1915 conference, background and foundation of WILPF – Women's International League for Peace and Freedom - founded out of it, see the feature in this year's 'Housmans Peace Diary'.)

The 1915 Hague conference was a hugely visionary and forward-thinking event, emphasising democracy, arbitration and conciliation for international disputes, no territorial transfers without the consent of the men and women there, and, of course, full political rights for women. It also came up with an action plan regarding the existing world war which it brought to belligerent leaders as best it could (but the male leaders, if listening, were certainly not heeding). A protest meeting took place in Dublin about Britain preventing participation in the Hague conference. Padraig Pearse said that "The present incident will do good if it ranges more of the women definitely with the national forces". The women were having none of that; Meg Connery replied that this was "A masculine inversion – the incident ought to have the effect of ranging the national forces on the side of women."

Myrtle Hill spoke about Margaret McCoubrey (who died in the mid-1950s) and was Scottish but living in Belfast; she was a socialist, became a Labour councillor, involved with the coop movement, and sheltered conscientious objectors in her house on Candahar Street, Ormeau Road, Belfast, during the First World War, as well as various other activities. A fascinating woman, Myrtle Hill said she 'was always involved with things she felt would make a difference'. I am sure there are many more tales to be told from this era of women's activism.

Bronagh Hinds brought the story up to date with an account of the WILPF conference in the Hague in April this year, on the hundredth anniversary of the 1915 conference. What was particularly interesting in her account was how some of the same moral dilemmas appeared this year as a century before; the context might be different but how intervention should or should not be made in various crises and very violent situations. It was pointed out that only 3% of peace agreements have women signatories – a plus for Norn Iron but not one which the British government has backed up by applying UNSCR (UN Standing Committee Resolution) 1325 (on the involvement of women in peacemaking and post-conflict societies) to the biggest conflict within its jurisdiction. – the UK action plan on 1325 does not mention Northern Ireland!

There is also a report on the Hague conference by Catherine O'Rourke of the Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster, in the May 2015 issue of Just News from CAJ.

Unfortunately there is no WILPF in Ireland these days, and there hasn't been for quite some time but who knows...

- - - - -

Well, summer is theoretically here so I hope the weather lives up to the season that is in it. Summer breaks and holidays begin to beckon and in Northern Ireland the dreaded – or indeed beloved – marching season, defined by Colum Sands in his eponymous song as 'Somewhere inside of where summer should be". So I will see you next in early July, aye.

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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