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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Issue 129: May 2005

Also in this editorial

As the North goes to vote again as part of the UK general election, and for local councils, many questions exist about how a political breakthrough can come in Northern Ireland, and more widely about the nature of democracy itself. The 'first past the post' system used for UK parliamentary elections is a real political dinosaur where it can be argued more votes are 'wasted' than in any place this side of Zimbabwe. The Single Transferable Vote system of Proportional Representation (as used in elections in the Republic and local and assembly elections in Northern Ireland) is an advance but has imperfections too.

'Democracy', if it is to mean what it says, has to be 'government by the people'. While governments may be elected to govern, if they ignore the wishes of the people on important issues then it is only democratic that the people have an effective way of getting their message across .And the idea that an 'X' or listing of preferences every 4 or 5 years is a definition of democracy is ludicrously inadequate. In decision making it is not only what people feel but how strongly they feel it; Tony Blair ignored that over Iraq, as it can be argued Bertie Ahern did over use of Shannon airport by US military. In the British general election, people are faced with difficult questions about throwing babies out with the bathwater if they vote against Blairite Labour. But societies with divided communities, such as exists in Northern Ireland, further strain possible definitions of democracy and a system which does not allow for positive compromise is asking for trouble (and Northern Ireland got thirty years of Troubles).

In Northern Ireland itself the battle is, as usual, more within the nationalist and unionist communities respectively than between the two sides - but allowing another candidate to 'slip through' is used as an electioneering tool. The collapse of the Unionist Party vis a vis the Democratic Unionist Party will not be complete but the DUP is sure of increasing its mandate. Sinn Féin may suffer a slight reversal of fortune in places in the wake of the Robert McCartney murder and Northern Bank robbery but its overall performance is unlikely to suffer too much, indeed it may makes further gains to relation to the SDLP. When and how any political breakthrough can come for a devolved government in Northern Ireland is very uncertain; if the IRA did lay down its weapons it could lead to a breakthrough in a relatively short period, despite some unionist denials, but the IRA's response to Gerry Adams' call on that matter will only come, surprise, surprise, after the elections on 5th May.

Democracy is about how decisions are made which affect the whole of society. Electing a government is part of that but only part, and at the moment not a very effective way of initiating 'the will of the people'. In short, we need a process to redefine what we mean by democracy in our societies and how greater democracy can be instituted. Otherwise it is futile to moan about low turnouts and apathy on behalf of voters.

Boys oh boys
The crisis in identity of the male gender is perhaps nowhere better, and worse, illustrated than in the appallingly high suicide rate which young men have in Ireland, North and South. Suicide is a very particular, and extreme, case but it is reflective of a certain malaise in our society. Meanwhile the shifts in gender roles and expectations have not necessarily alleviated the lot of women - in many cases they do virtually all the work at home as well as going out to work in paid jobs, in essence two full time jobs. Objectively women still get a raw deal but are perhaps better as 'getting on with it' than men, and, despite disadvantages for many women in the workforce, they have created many successes.

But expectations and norms have changed significantly, and for many young men there remains either a hopelessness about achieving something or intense pressure to achieve which individuals can feel unable to live up to. When these different pressures interact with other family pressures and individuals' own identities and even psychological difficulties, the result can be catastrophic. Our society has not been good in helping men create a new identity for themselves in the midst of cultural change. Old expectations and possibilities have gone out the window. The man is no longer necessarily the breadwinner and indeed may not have the capacity to be the chief breadwinner in a family and can find it extremely difficult to carve out a role.

All of this can have implications for violence. Old macho responses have not necessarily been replaced by something new. And new frustrations and uncertainties have been added to the male existence. The result can be personal and family tragedy, including through the high incidence of domestic violence. As well as political and military idealism or commitment, male notions of identity have been key in sustaining paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland.

There are no easy answers. But there are plenty of answers to be found. Some of them are simply helping men to work out for themselves who they are and what they want to be. The state has a strong role to play in helping men to find appropriate roles in a workforce and society which has changed spectacularly in a generation or two. But much of what needs done is through careful nurturance in the family - men as neither superior nor inferior to women but with important roles to play, and any differences to be agreed on.

The workshop accompanying this month's edition of Nonviolent News is on gender and violence ('Big boys, big girls - men and violence, women and violence') which remains a key issue in creating a peaceful world. While many women are trying to build new, creative roles in peacemaking, many states seek to co-opt women to their war-making machinery. Both genders have got essential roles to play in a peaceful future which offers hope for all of growing up in a nurturing and loving environment. Both genders have got work to do.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column:

Enchanted Worlds

Enchantment, and lost worlds, are not confined to books of fiction, such as that by Sir Arthur Colin Doyle, but can be found here in Ireland. Recently, I discovered a lost world in the form of woodland, whose unfolding goes back, without apparent disturbance, to the end of the last ice -age. The human hand of order has not touched it. There are no stone circles, deserted cottages or ruined churches, no remnants of tilled land or hedged fields, no plastic bags, old tyres, aluminium cans, or paths. The place is pristine, where not even the sound of the internal combustion engine intrudes. Flora is in abundance, with trees as tall as I have ever seen in a tropical rainforest. Wells and streams, fallen trees, decaying leaves, moss, lichen, flowers and vines a plenty. On my hike I even came across a sandy beach by the banks of a deep fast flowing river.

The woodland is a perfectly closed loop: birth - maturity - death - and birth again. A sequence that industrial society would do well to mimic, as it is the only form of sustainability there is. After two hours I had traversed only a small portion of what there is to see. During all of my time there I felt that I was in a truly amazing place. I look forward to returning in the later spring, and in the summer, to enjoy the seasonal changes and become better acquainted with it. If nirvanas are actual places, then this is surely one, a profusion of life that invites one to transcend personal circumstances through a sense of wonder. Readers will under understand that in order to protect the integrity of this woodland I am bound to keep its location a secret. However, there are without doubt other undisturbed places on our island that the keen outdoors person can discover, and if they do, keep to themselves, not out of selfishness, but to protect from the hotels, restaurants, roads and litter that modern tourism brings.

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