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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 272: September 2019

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Here we are again, my least favourite time of year as autumn schedules assert themselves and busi-ness picks up again. My feelings can be expressed in one word, yeeeuchhh. Once the rhythm and routine are established, well, it’s not so bad but until that happens I don’t feel so happy.

I hope you had a good summer. As usual I got done about a quarter of what I would like to have achieved, but expectations of summer are usually unrealistic, in my experience anyway, because after you have allowed for ‘time out’ in holiday mode there is not going to be enough time to do a vast amount of other things. Yes, I did get some things done....but not necessarily what I expected to do.

The weather wasn’t great either. We have a variety of soft fruit in the garden and the best cropping of all is usually our ‘giant’, thornless blackberries which come in from the start of August. They weren’t the best cropper this year, maybe you could say they came a cropper. The ever so frequent rain meant a lot of the fruit rotted before it was ripe, or did not develop, and there was no ‘peak’ which we would use for making jam or to give away to friends.

But, enough moaning, summer is still a time to recharge the batteries and step out of the usual routines and I hope that happened for you, and it did for me. It is only human nature to wish it was longer and better.
Could it, should it... acceptable to have a comedy based around An Gorta Mór, the Great ‘Famine’ in 1847? It was only late last century, through the work of Afri and others, that this traumatic event or cataclysm began to be properly explored and memorialised. And there were a lot of things to be reclaimed and memorialised, all over the country, which previously had been too traumatic, too tragic, too painful to properly recall and mark.
When Conor Grimes (well known in the North for his annual comic take on current events) and Kevin McAleer got together to write and stage a play based in the Great Hunger, was that acceptable? Was it taboo? Or simply iconoclastic? The leaflet for the play, entitled ‘Spud!’, called it “A deep, dark comedy from the moral grey zone”.

I put on my An Gorta Mór badge from Afri with the picture of a potato flower (and the slogan “Starvation amidst plenty continues today“) and went along to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast to find out my take on it. Kevin McAleer is of course the Zen master of deadpan, who, although it is a small part, has probably reached a new audience through his depiction of the boring, boring, boring Uncle Colm in ‘Derry Girls’. In fact he is so deadpan that some watching ‘Nighthawks’ on RTE years ago complained because they thought his act was The Genuine Article and that he was a poor simple man who was being exploited for fun.

But back to the play, ‘Spud!’, and it being set in the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór. Two brother face oblivion – will they survive? I won’t tell you the answer to that – no spoiler alert! The play itself is a tragi-comedy, a mixture of gallows humour, slapstick, ‘terrible’ puns old and new, plenty of deliberate anachronisms, plus surrealism and some seriousness-cum-political analysis. It is some of the last, political analysis, that perhaps sits a bit uneasily with the personality of Felix, the erstwhile and bombastic actor brother, played by Conor Grimes, although the writers/performers presumably wanted to show they had The Correct Political Analysis – which you can certainly understand given the subject matter and their comic undertaking, lest they be accused of simple trivialisation.

You know the old one about anarchists only drinking herbal tea because ‘Proper tea is theft’. Well, I thought the best pun in ‘Spud!’ comes as Felix explains to his brother Robert that when they go to the Big House on arrival they will be served, by the landlord, tea with a drop of absinthe in it; “Oh good” says brother Robert (Kevin McAleer), “I always wanted to meet an absinthe tea landlord”… However they missed pointing out that absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.
The extent to which it works or doesn’t work is not due to the time it is set in. So it certainly is possible to have a comedy, albeit a tragi-comedy, set in Ireland around 1846-47. I do think it is a difficult act to pull together though and while there is some success in this it is not complete. I should add that the set, the inside of an impoverished cottage, is not a prátaí sight.

People’s sense of humour differs markedly. For some people something like a cartoon accompanying an article, or even jokes in an article, demeans the import of what is written whereas I would feel a cartoon or an appropriate joke is more likely to engage the reader with the article, and even a cartoon which might seem to undermine or poke fun at some aspect of what is being said might be justified editorially. We exist in a world of differing opinions. Even ‘we’ can be satirised, and while we should take ourselves seriously, we should not take ourselves ‘too seriously’. There are fine lines here and we may stand on different sides of those lines, and where neccessary agree to disagree.

However humour which puts down minorities or any group which is weak or marginalised is a dagger in their back. ‘Spud!’ does not demean the victims of An Gorta Mór, if anything I feel it does something to humanise them. So while it is not a pot boiler I certainly wouldn’t give the play a roasting, and the writers/performers don’t have any chips on their shoulders... but if you are thin skinned it may seem half baked to you.

A weak constitution
I’m not sure the extent to which using the term ‘constitution’ for describing people’s general health is slightly archaic. Someone with ‘a weak constitution’ was someone who was prone to illness and not that strong in general. ‘Going for a constitutional’ was going for a walk, i.e. something which was good for the ‘constitution’.

But this piece is about a different kind of constitution. A long, long time ago, when I was a secondary school student in Norn Iron, I studied a joint A level in economics and politics, or ‘Economics and British Constitution’ as it actually was. In the politics end of the subject there was lots about the checks and balances of the British system and of course the fact that the British system had an unwritten constitution. This was generally projected as a superior Good Thing to other countries with their written constitutions; the British system was Unique (with a capital ‘U’) and flexible to meet the needs of the time. I didn’t necessarily buy the superiority of the UK system then and I certainly don’t now.

How things have changed as currently the UK goes through what can only be described as a constitutional crisis with the Prime Minister suspending Parliament when it is unnecessary, and for longer than necessary even if you believed his reasoning, to get his policy of Brexit across the line. By jove, that is not cricket, and internationally the UK is currently considered ‘Unique’ in a very deroga-Tory way.

Of course most places go through political and constitutional crises from time to time. Northern Ireland, which is still part of the UK jurisdiction, has had its share through the Troubles; the end of the old Stormont parliament in 1972, the overthrow of power-sharing government in 1974, frequent attempts to get some assembly up and running, then success at Good Friday 1998, followed by stop-start-stop government in the period since, with a current war of attrition over picking up the pieces. Belgium went a year without a government not so long ago.

The Republic too has had constitutional and political crises. The arms debacle or crisis of 1969-70 comes to mind, and the fixation with the issues of divorce and abortion and the extent to which they should be banned in the constitution, or not. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigned suddenly as President in 1976 when a minister criticised a legitimate decision of his as a “thundering disgrace” (or possibly using worse language) and there was no apology or action taken.

The 1937 constitution was, and to a considerable extent is, a product of its time it has evolved as Irish society has evolved through decisions made in referendums (further evolution still necessary though). Referendums haven’t yet evolved to provide multiple choice options (although this has been envisaged through the Citizen’s Assembly), as opposed to ‘yes/no’ answers, but they have provided a mechanism for Irish society to deal with issues that need dealt with, major or mundane. Furthermore, there is usually considerable debate and engagement on the issues involved, and a summary of the issues made at an official level which is a ‘neutral’ summation of the different positions is circulated to voters.

Now, coming to the UK, the 2016 referendum on the UK’s continuation in the EU was ‘advisory’ but the narrow result became sacrosanct in the eyes of the supporters of Brexit. In the unwritten constitution of the UK, Parliament is considered supreme but we currently have the spectre of the Prime Minister sidestepping Parliament to get through something which is projected as the ‘will of the people’. Except a hard Brexit is certainly not the ‘will of the people’, and a hard Brexit was certainly not on the cards when the referendum took place; there is the greater question of whether any kind of Brexit is today ‘the will of the people’ as defined by a simple majority.

The UK was not used to decision making by referendum and the debate on Eu membership was pathetically poor; the fact it would turn out to be considered binding was also not explored. Powers and paths in politics and the unwritten constitution in the UK are sometimes poorly defined though speaking in a misleading-to-deceitful manner is common among some politicians in many countries. It allows Boris Johnson to portray suspension of Parliament at the most crucial time in British politics since, well, maybe the Second World War, as simply a bit of necessary political housekeeping.

The compromises which are necessary in most European countries which have more representative parliaments – the UK ‘first past the post’ electoral system being atrocious in this regard – have not been considered in relation to Brexit. This is partly a result of this primitive electoral system for Parliament which favours a two-party system, a kind of ‘winner takes all’ approach. The funny-stupid reason David Cameron gave for rejecting a more representative alternative to ‘first past the post’ (in the Con-Lib Dem coalition only the ‘50%’ ‘alternative vote’ was offered, and rejected) is that it produced ‘stable government’. And you could go ho, ho, ho, to that reasoning until the cows come home since the period since has seen some of the most unstable government the UK has seen for aeons. I wouldn’t pretend that more multiparty systems don’t have hiccups but the argument that ‘first past the post’ avoids them is spurious – and even if it does so it is at a cost in terms of demo-cracy (in fact it currently looks like demo-crazy).

Most people in the UK have not changed their minds since 2016 but the vast majority of young people favoured continuation in the EU, and three more cohorts of years of young people have joined the adult population since then. The British constitutional and political system has been unable to deal with stalemate on the issue. Returning to the theme of my school day study of politics, it is a textbook example of how not to do things. And people have been ‘hopelessly’ divided. The unwritten British constitution has proved to be weak.

I am not trying to rehash all the old arguments about Brexit here. But it should be said that in Northern Ireland, the DUP allowed their narrow identity politics to trump the wider interests of people in the North (and indeed the whole of the UK) – and the majority in the North who opposed Brexit. For the DUP, the democratic unit they paid attention to in this matter, unusually, was the whole of the UK because that gave them the answer they wanted; more normally it is Northern Ireland itself.

We don’t know who is going to win on all of this but it is quite possible for everyone to lose - the UK has already lost massively both economically and in terms of credibility – apart of course from the rich and powerful who are immune to possible shocks, indeed may take advantage of said shocks to further extend their control. Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ is alive and well and cohabitating with Jacob Rees-Mogg. As I have stated previously, I am not a fan of a number of EU policies – its increasing militarisation, or its neoliberalism for example – but it is at least an attempt at international cooperation. There is still the danger of its multinationalism becoming a supernationalism on the world stage – and it is certainly not simply a beneficent aunt or uncle who always does the right thing (think of current lack of support to refugees).

Nevertheless, the moral of the whole story for me is that we – we being everyone, not just those in the UK – need political systems which are better able to take decisions through compromise, and that means taking an option or options which have the broadest support, especially on contentious issues where agreement is difficult. That is not delivered by yes/no, two-option referendums or parliaments which do not reflect accurately the views of people (as the UK Westminster parliament does not because of its grossly unrepresentative electoral system). Systems to do this exist, indeed have existed for centuries, and can be found at

‘Mellifluous’ is actually the word but the above title is to pay tribute to the Mela intercultural festival which takes place one day at the end of August in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. Belfast is usually known as a place that does not value the traditions of ‘others’. This is a positive antidote to any such impression or reality: a show case of many and varied cultures, including the local. This year the weather was fabulous and the place was packed. I’m usually there as an ‘exhibitor’ so I don’t have a huge amount of time to wander around but this year I caught a couple of stories, one in particular from Norn Iron storyteller Liz Weir. It is not original and its delivery was made in her own inimitable manner, but I’m going to give you a quick summary of it.

How Liz Weir got the story is part of it too. A visiting Mongolian storyteller told her a story about St Patrick which he had got from a Russian textbook, and through her it has now re-entered the realm of stories here. It is in the nature of a ‘wisdom story’ about St Patrick. Here goes...

A king had three sons but they annoyed a druid by throwing stones at his house. The druid cursed the three sons; one would always have a knife in his hand, one would always be mixing with thieves and criminals, and one would always be begging. The queen was devastated by the curse and took to her bed. The king eventually sent for St Patrick to get his advice. St Patrick said the first son should be trained as a doctor and surgeon, and the second son as a lawyer – so in both cases the prediction in the curse would be a positive aspect of their work. The third son should become a storyteller and artist – so we would always be looking or begging for money. That is how St Patrick turned the druid’s curse into an outcome that was pleasing and positive.

Where the Russian textbook got the story I don’t know but it has now travelled back here via Mongolia. It is a lovely little ‘wisdom’ story about turning the bad into the best, and a wonderful story-about-a-story that has travelled afar and returned.

Well, the weather already feels like autumn but every season has its advantages. Coming is the beautiful colour in the trees, the sharp crispness of a cool morning, and, as we slide into winter I hope the contentment of cosying up nice and warm in our living room at night time with the world at a slight distance in the darkness, and maybe an excuse to do nothing. A hop, skip and a jump and it will be that or not. See you soon, 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).

Copyright INNATE 2021