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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 121: July 2004

This editorial includes:

  • Poetry from Luken from Below Go...
  • Peter Emerson on Majoritarianism and the Sudan Go...
  • [Return to related issues of Nonviolent News.]

Politics as the art of the possible – especially in Northern Ireland

So it may come to pass over the autumn and winter that Toby Blair and Bertie Ahern will meet and effectively pronounce the Assembly part of the Good Friday Agreement a dead duck, a sinking or sunk ship, and no longer the found Holy Grail of Norn Iron politics. Fortunately or unfortunately that point has been coming slowly for years. As stated before, it is not that we have been particularly attached to the details of the Belfast Agreement of 1998 but that we felt it offered a breathing space while 'normal' politics could be developed and past hurts dealt with in circumstances which did not keep adding many more hurts simultaneously. But other parts of the Agreement will live on.

One problem for any new agreement would be to deal with the problems of tribalism and sectarianism without constricting the future to it. Guarantees of fair play are one thing but a system has to be capable of growth and moves towards consensus. That is not to imagine peace and love are about to break out in Northern Ireland but in those instances where progress is made that all the shackles of sectarianism can be thrown off - including those expressly designed to limit excesses and give fair play. It is a difficult one. But the spectacle of one party (the sometimes brave, often ignored, and rarely voted for, Alliance Party) having to do somersaults to keep the boat afloat regarding their definition as nationalist, unionist or other, is crazy. And the 'everyone in' system of allocating ministers under the Good Friday Agreement meant opposition to official policies was slack - though this did not prevent the DUP/Democratic Unionist Party playing a very clever (and successful) game of being in and out at the same time. But the people of Northern Ireland deserve something better as a system.

And since paramilitarism has not gone away, there are the thorny issues of who has what guns and what they are or are not doing with them, plus their unfriendly use of baseball bats and other weapons of massive destruction to the individual deemed to be the recipient of punishment. The question of whether republican and loyalist paramilitaries and parties should be judged equally, and what this entails, is a deeply difficult issue. Republicans, because of their size, warrant possible involvement in government in a way that the smaller loyalist parties do not in the same way; does that therefore necessitate 'total cleanliness' regarding paramilitarism prior to such participation? The DUP and the Official Unionists both now say 'yes' to this and there is therefore no prospect of a return to devolved government in the immediate future.

But as we have discovered in Northern Ireland, often to our cost, carrots sometimes work and sticks usually do not. Penalising those judged to have been associated in any way with paramilitaries is often counter-productive. There is the risk that the Independent Monitoring Commission's judgement in this matter could bring us back to vetting with a vengeance.

Northern Ireland continues to be a society in transition. How long that transition will continue for we cannot say, but it is safe to say it will be for a very considerable period yet. Violence has thrived in the past when we were in periods of uncertainty and in the lead up to possible agreements; in these situations too many people wished to affect political decision making and mark out their policy with a gun or bomb. Let us hope that that era is passing and that decision making will not be held to ransom by those who try to use violent force.

But there are all sorts of ways forward. At a community level many of these are being explored and adapted every day as activists deal with a whole variety of problems, at local council level, at interface level, and at the level of community and voluntary groups. But at a societal level there are also decision making mechanisms via voting which reinforce collaboration and consensus and do not reward playing the sectarian or militant card (and which the Good Friday Agreement did little or nothing to challenge). Consensus voting mechanisms are not a solution in themselves but they can be part of an answer. Northern Ireland politics has almost always rewarded the politics of the out-manoeuvre (as it has done at the last Assembly and European elections); it is time to reward the politics of inclusion through voting systems (both at the level of the popular vote and within any Assembly) which encourage people to get it together rather than take it apart. The adoption of such voting mechanisms might render much of the cumbersome guarantees, as utilised under the Good Friday Agreement system, unnecessary.

The circumstances may not yet be right to move on yet but they will come. You might say tiocfadh ar lá to that.

Luken from Below
This month's poem from Lothar Lüken (and apologies to fans and to Lothar that this was inadvertently omitted from the last issue -Ed) -

Fertile Fringe (for Mark Minard)

And another lost immigrant:
not yet fitting in here -
no more fitting in there;
A multiple misfit.

Roots still clinging to that old earth,
branches reaching out to that new sky,
he's over-stretched
and growing crooked.

He left a soil that barely nourished
his ravenous roots,
and a sky firmly beyond
his limits.

And it's no different here.
It's us who're so different.
And this planet, these people
that's what's so hard to live with.

Down here, we're all lost souls,
half awake, half evolved,
no more at home in heaven
and always strangers on Earth.

That's where we've landed.
And we're skirting the borders,
feeling along fringes,
living on edge.

We're caught in the turmoil of mudflats,
those ever-changing tidal zones,
where ancient oceans freeze and thaw,
where all things mesh and meld,

and time throws up from mighty depths
new things and old and alien,
and now and then the wrecks of ships,
and startled, shivering strangers.

Majoritarianism and the Sudan

"Asking yes-or-no questions is very unAfrican."
Dr. Ephraim Kanyarukiga, Rwanda, speaking at a conference on the 'gacacas' in Kigali, 5.3. 2003.

Most would agree that the Battle of Mengo, 1892, when African Catholics fought African Protestants, (just outside Entebbe), was a war prompted, in its entirety, by a European mindset. In like fashion, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was to a large extent provoked by the (unAfrican and) very European concept of majoritarianism. This was clearly demonstrated by the fact that the slogan of the Interahamwe was "Rubanda nyamwinshi", "the majority people", (The Rwanda Crisis, Gérard Prunier). A democracy based, not on a western majoritarian system, but on their traditional, consensual 'gacacas', might have prevented the emergence of the Hutu versus Tutsi conflict. So too in Kenya, rather than impose a 'Westminster-ish' two-party system, it would have been wiser to base a form of governance on the traditional methodology of the 'baraza'. In a word, to quote Nelson Mandela, "majority rule [is] a foreign notion" (Long Walk to Freedom, p 25). It is, indeed, unAfrican.

Maybe it is also unAsian. Kashmir, for example, cannot be resolved peacefully by a Moslem versus Hindu, Pakistan versus India, win-or-lose, two-option majority vote, despite the 1947 UN Resolution to this effect. While in Indonesia, the very prospect of various regional two-option referenda has prompted many to resort to violence. Maybe, too, it should be unEuropean. In the Balkans, reconciliation could not be achieved by a closed question, a for-or-against vote in which, as in war, one is 'forced' to take sides; and in fact, "all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a [two-option] referendum", (Oslobodjenje, 7.2.1999). While in Northern Ireland, the Peace Process offers no compromise, but only, via another two-option poll, the same stark choice - "Are you British or Irish?" - which was the very cause of the conflict. This is crazy!

Finally, Sudan. Is this a repetition of history? Is this not another tragic story where the prospect of a referendum on an as yet undefined border is actually an incentive to rape and murder and ethnic cleansing in Darfur? I cannot know for sure, but the chronology is frightening. July 2002 - the Machakos Protocol lays down the right of self-determination for South Sudan, a right to be established by a two-option, either/or, unity or secession, referendum. Well, if for them, why not for others? And in any case, is Darfur (which straddles the mid-point) in North or South Sudan? Jan 2003 - civil war in Darfur.

May I point out that this Institute has done a lot of conflict resolution work in the Balkans, the Caucasus and most recently in East Africa, as well as here in Northern Ireland, of course. And may I add that our own choice of decision-making, the modified Borda count, (for which we have programmed a CD-ROM), is actually a votal form of gacaca or baraza. Democracy, after all, should not be a means by which one lot then dominates the rest. And not least because the will of the people, or the will of their representatives in parliament, is not necessarily the will of only a majority based on a closed question, for-or-against. Rather, the democratic process should be an accommodation, the collective best compromise based on an open question, i.e., the highest average preference from a multi-option vote. A majority, after all, involves only some; but an average, by definition, involves everybody! And that is democracy! Accordingly, may I suggest there should not be a two-option referendum in Sudan. A more consensual methodology is needed.

Peter Emerson
Director, The de Borda Institute
36 Ballysillan Road
Belfast BT14 7QQ
N Ireland
Tel +44 (0)28 9071 1795

Ed - Comments and replies to this welcome, as to anything which appears in Nonviolent News.

"There is no single solution for dealing with the past"

The first step in any truth recovery process must be acknowledgement. Everyone who has engaged in the conflict - including Governments - should acknowledge responsibility for their actions. Only when all organisations and institutions acknowledge responsibility can Northern Ireland move towards a sustainable peace This call has been made by Professor Roy McClelland, Chairman of Healing Through Remembering, a diverse group of individuals who for three years have been investigating ways of dealing with the past.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence Professor McClelland said: "We are heartened by the growing debate in this area but feel that a lot of work needs to be done and we are adamant that Acknowledgment - particularly by the governments - should be the starting point for any process of Truth recovery. Given the current Government initiatives to find a solution for dealing with the past it is important that the opinions of those affected by the conflict are taken into consideration."

And as the current debate becomes focussed on story-telling and truth commissions, Healing Though Remembering points to the need for a number of parallel but separate methods for dealing with the past - as outlined in their report of 2002.

Healing Through Remembering said that there is no single treatment for the healing process in Northern Ireland - processes of remembering, reflecting, informing and educating must be sustained for another generation at least. Practical recommendations from Healing Through Remembering include:

  • Acknowledgement
  • A storytelling process
  • Establishing a day of reflection
  • Permanent Living Memorial Museum
  • A network of commemoration and remembering projects

Professor McClelland explained the current work of the organisation: "Healing Through Remembering is now expanding its membership in order to arrange a number of events in the autumn which will address the recommendations in more detail. These will include conferences and seminars drawing on local and international experiences. The aim of these events will be to draw together the people working on each issue in order to define the most appropriate methods of implementation - including timescale, scope, and who should - or should not - be managing each process."

Healing Through Remembering feel that these events are the best way to progress the issue of dealing with the past - through considered and informed discussion open to all.

Speaking from his experience in South Africa, Brandon Hamber, consultant to the project explained: "Each country needs to create a solution that is appropriate in that place and at that time. What I find so exciting about Healing Through Remembering is that it gives the opportunity to find the resolution to all of the people involved and affected by the conflict, rather than one being imposed from above."
"In particular the unique aspects in this report are the holistic nature of the package of recommendations and the request for acknowledgement as a first step in the truth recovery process. In my view this approach would be breaking new international ground."

[Return to related issues of Nonviolent News.]

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