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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 284: November 2020

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

We are now looking at winter skies and winter darkness though you can get some magnificent winter sunsets. The best colours in the trees are now gone, and the majority of leaves have been shed.  One amazing thing about walking at this time of year is when you get a fresh carpet of leaves and you look down at the ground and see a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours in yellow, red and brown, nature’s own spectacle at your feet as well as in the trees. Bare trees can have their own majesty and that will be the primary arboreal reality until the spring.

A crash course
Some of us like to get our exercise in early in the day and in the summer a very early cycle or walk was possible for us before the day’s commitments took over. Now in the darker mornings it is not possible to be so early, at least if you want daylight. My partner in life and I have been alternating cycling and walking each morning since the lockdown in the spring and we have a ‘usual cycle route’ which takes us through some suburbia, a park and then – very fortunately – a greenway on a former railway line.

Apart from the very start and end, we return the same way we went out (our walking route, on the other hand, is circular). At one point on the greenway, close to a main road, there is a part which is twisty, quite narrow, and uphill (or downhill coming the other way). It was a bit awkward cycling because bushes planted in the grass for 25 metres or so close to one of the bad bends meant you couldn’t see whether anything was coming, pedestrian or velocipede. It was a point to go slowly and carefully.

However one day in July, coming downhill to the bend, we met another cyclist coming the other way right at the bend and he was in the middle of the path. We couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see us until we met. My partner had to break suddenly, not that she was going fast, but because of the slope she went over onto the ground......and I was that close I crashed into her and went down as well. We were a tangled mess that the cyclist coming the other way helped to disentangle.

Fortunately we were all right apart from a few bruises, and maybe our pride as well, and when we realised this we told the other cyclist to head on. We examined our bikes and they were all right to proceed. But it was clear the bend was dangerous and, indeed, within a week or two we met another cyclist on the bend, completely on our side, but because we were being extra extra careful we didn’t crash out this time.

Anyway, convinced that this bend was the cause of a bad, much worse, accident waiting to happen, after our crash we took finger to keyboard. Different authorities had different responsibilities – for the greenway in general, for ground maintenance, and in this case the land actually belonged to the housing authority (Housing Executive in Northern Ireland) although this wasn’t clear at the time.  Someone in the ‘Active Travel’ part of the Infrastructure department of government took up the issue and found out who was responsible. Everyone was good at responding almost immediately.

And a couple of months later on our way home along the greenway we saw work was started to take out the offending bushes (which it also has to be said were covered in convolvulus), leaving the trees there which posed no problem to line of sight, and planting grass where the bushes had been. It was a neat job and fixed the problem.  You still need to be careful because of the incline, and the narrow and twisty path, but you can see if anything is coming and take extra care, and move right to the side if need be.

Problem solved.  Isn’t it great in life when it is so simple to get something fixed, and everyone is responsive. If life was only like that all the time......

1932, 2020
When (the 26 counties of) Ireland gained limited independence from Britain in 1921, the jurisdiction was plunged into a civil war which dominated politics for many decades afterwards, indeed is only now waning as a marker in politics south and west of the border. You can blame Britain for the civil war if you like – its refusal to grant full unfettered independence – but terrible things were done by both sides in the civil war, not least in terms of executions by the new state. It was perhaps not untypical of what happens in new states when the old enemy is removed and the anti-colonial military struggle becomes an internal military struggle between previously united forces.

However Eamon de Valera and what became Fianna Fáil swiftly moved into constitutional politics during the course of the ‘twenties, reneging on their old friends who remained wed to their unadulterated republican ideal. Fianna Fáil contested the elections of 1927. And then they won in 1932. The question was – in the fledgling democracy of the Irish Free State, would there be an orderly transfer of power? Would those who were on the ‘Treaty’ side (primarily Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, but others as well)  willingly hand over the reins of government to those who were their mortal enemies just a decade previously? Yes was the answer and indeed Fianna Fáil became the main ‘party of government’ for half a century.

Of course the foundations of Irish parliamentary democracy had been set a long time previously including by the likes of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. However while good foundations are necessary, that does not necessarily mean that a building will be strong and stand the test of time. Because constitutional pressure for independence was only successful in a limited way (Home Rule was on the statute books when it was put on the back burner by the First World War), military-minded republicans changed the course of Irish history though the 1916 Rising. You can argue the point as to whether ‘1916’ led inexorably to the civil war (force of arms as a, or even, the legitimate way to make your point) but that is a bit off the point here. It could not be assumed that parliamentary democracy would be plain sailing in the new state.  However it had settled down by 1927 or 1932.

The United States of America gained independence from Britain in 1776. For its time you can argue it became a generally enlightened example of democracy (though underneath there were all sorts of questions about slavery and the treatment of native north Americans, issues which still resonate in the USA of today). The current constitution was adopted in 1789 – there had been a previous initial one – and this had the separation of powers between the legislature (Congress and Senate), executive (the President etc), and the judiciary.  Although much amended, it can be argued that it has not kept pace with the times, and even within the confines of majoritarian democracy, for example, the Electoral College method of electing a President, where the winner can have considerably less votes than the person who won the largest number, unjust and undemocratic. There are many other aspects in which US democracy is nothing to write home about though civil society can be dynamic and we often get a false picture of what is or isn’t happening on that side of the Atlantic pond.

I am not going to make any predictions about the 2020 Presidential election, or how the process will pan out in the aftermath of that event, and anything I said would immediately be superseded by reality. But it is both amazing and horrifying how there has been so much serious coverage and consideration of whether there will be an orderly transfer of presidential power should Trump lose and Biden win.

US democracy, which I indicated above is rather archaic in some features though it stretches back almost two and a half centuries, is being tested in a way which will determine whether it still deserves the title of (any kind of) democracy at all. Divisiveness and authoritarianism have been the themes of Donald Trump’s presidency and should he win this will have frightening implications for US society.  Should Trump lose, or certainly should he lose by a relatively small margin, the outcome is far from certain.  Violent and right wing forces are not suddenly going to disappear; if Trump wins they will be emboldened, if he loses they may take more drastic action. Whoever wins, the USA remains a superpower willing to intervene most places in the world and indeed kill those it doesn’t like.

Democracy should be moving forward, not back. It should not be static. But what has been happening in the USA is illustrative that nothing in life and liberties can be taken for granted, and EU states like Hungary and Poland show right wing populism can be very much a European phenomenon too. Every civil liberty needs to be defended, every reasonable advance striven for as strongly as we possibly can.  That the USA sits in 2020 somewhere like Ireland was in 1932 (and arguably in a society just as divided, even without a recent civil war there) is a tragedy and a negative example to the world, an illustration of how democracy can go downhill.

Direct Pro-vision
Various groups in the Republic, including Doras and Amnesty International have welcomed the report of the expert group on Direct Provision, chaired by Catherine Day.  In welcoming it, John Lannon of Doras (based in Limerick) said “The proposed housing model, with local authorities mandated to provide own-door accommodation for international protection applicants, offers a roadmap away from the current for-profit system of institutionalised living. For this to be successful, it is vital that the approach adopted by local authorities does not restrict access to employment and educational opportunities, nor does it result in a return to congregated, badly serviced accommodation settings.”

Remarkably, the proposed new system could be cheaper to run than the current Direct Provision system which is inhumane and certainly does not meet international human rights standards, inflicting a remarkable lack of elementary human choices with additional pain and suffering on people who have been through far too much already. As many have pointed out, the aim of replacing the existing system by 2023 is a good target but it is up to the Minister and Government to get it sorted; a white paper is due before the end of 2020 and the expert group report recommends the transition to start straight away. The ball is even more in the government’s court at the moment.

Only the dead
"Only the dead have seen the end of war" is a quotation I came across recently which has been attributed to Plato. Well, it’s online so the attribution must be true. Except when you look it up a bit further online you discover Plato never served that saying up to anyone on a plate. Plato, Tayto, t’aint a true quote from him. The origin of the quote has also been attributed to Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, and appears in a 1922 book of his. However it seems that commonly pointing to an ancient Greek philosopher as its source may be due to US General Douglas MacArthur using it in a military speech he gave in 1962 which did credit Plato. It is also reported that Plato is given the credit for it in its appearance on a wall at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2002.

But what does the quote actually mean? Was it to military advantage for MacArthur to use this quote? Is it anti-militarist, pro-militarist, or neither?  Is it simply pessimistic? I leave you to ponder. But I do think ‘the end of war’ is a reasonable goal for the living, and currently it also depends on whether you talk about a global or more local context – peace and the end of war can grow.


Spring will come though there is a lot of winter to get through first. I don’t normally mind winter with all the opportunities it affords not to go out but snuggle up, warm and cosy, at home. Well, this winter there will be much less reason to be going out anyway.   I have sown some spring bulbs, with more to plant. To my mind, being proactive in planning forward and making the best of what is here is the key to relative contentment. But everyone’s circumstances are different and, whatever they are, I wish you well for the winter. Take care, take care of yourself, take care of others, 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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