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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Issue 150: June 2007

Also in this editorial:

A government again: The North
Pigs can fly. Miracles do happen. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as FM and DFM respectively (First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Office of OFMDFM) in Northern Ireland; mirabile dictu. This time it looks like it's for real, for good, for a lasting settlement. Out has gone the rhetoric of the Good Friday Agreement being traitorous, or of Stormont being a partitionist parliament; in has come a desire to share power together.

Ian Paisley's transformation to being a man who says 'yea' rather than 'nay' is one of the wonders of the Northern Ireland peace process, perhaps of any peace process anywhere. Much of it is to do with being top political dog in elections; there is no longer anyone to rail against. It is unlikely that Paisley would have played second fiddle to anyone. When Jeffrey Donaldson, a consummate politician who had jumped ship from the Ulster Unionists to the DUP at the right time to avoid going down with the Trimble ship, was asked whether the fact Paisley was top dog politically was the factor in the move to power sharing, Donaldson put a different slant on it - the majority of unionist voters had been persuaded that the DUP policies were the right ones. Indeed they did and it is amazing where forty years of saying 'no' can get you.

It remains to be seen how well the new system will respond to the needs for change in Northern Ireland. We have said before, often enough, that in the longer term the Good Friday Agreement system of government is inadequate - hopefully it will be outgrown if the North develops in the right way. But if it is simply a matter of a power carve up between the political parties then there is the risk that it will be inadequate even in the short term. The various ministers are, however, keen 'to deliver' in their respective areas so that, by itself, is an incentive to get things done. But thorny issues of various kinds are sitting firmly in ministers' in-trays, including the divisive issue of the iniquitous 11+ exam which buck stops on the desk of the (Sinn Féin) Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane. While not ideal, the mooted suggestion of postponing the division of children until 14 (the 'Craigavon solution' as practised there) is at least one vaguely bright idea.

If the restoration of the Stormont parliament is a lasting solution for the foreseeable future, it did not happen overnight. It happened over twenty-five years from the time of the Hunger Strikes as some brave politicians sought to lead rather than be prisoners of their followers and the history of Ireland. It would not have happened without those who kept Northern Ireland together in the meantime - community and voluntary groups and activists, sometimes church people, women's groups, people in interface areas and people in homogenous areas, and many others, who refused to accept that Northern Ireland was forever doomed to internecine warfare, and were willing to put their heads up over the parapet where many others, understandably, took shelter and put the time into talking, talking, talking, mediating and helping negotiate. Without all these people and a huge amount of work behind the scenes, the politicians would not today be sitting in Stormont and we might instead be discussing the latest killings in the Troubles rather than departmental policies. Disillusionment may slip in over time, and disagreement over fundamental issues, but for the moment Stormont has the goodwill of the vast majority in Northern Ireland. And after 38 years of the Troubles and its aftermath, that really is a miracle.

The same government again? The Republic
Beyond the thrill of any election, if you're into politics, the election in the Republic was a thoroughly depressing affair. There are some who describe Fianna Fail as a centre or even left of centre party but this description is misplaced. If you look at the company Fianna Fail keeps in the European Parliament, if you look at its economic policies, if you look at its policy on Shannon and the Iraq war, or who its preferred coalition partner has been (the Thatcherite Progressive Democrats) it is quite clear that Fianna Fail is a centre right or conservative party - a populist conservative party quite unlike the British one, for example, but a conservative party none the less. This election saw Fianna Fail holding its own in terms of percentage votes, and the other major conservative party, Fine Gael, gaining ground (by almost 5%). So the two major conservative parties have continued to hold centre stage at a time when the Green Party, Sinn Féin, and Labour were all hoping to make gains but at best gained marginally in percentage votes (in the case of Labour being down marginally) and Labour and Sinn Féin lost a seat apiece.

But it was also a depressing electoral process in terms of policies. The consensus seemed to be to cut income tax by a couple of percent. Cutting stamp duty on house sales at a time when house prices have soared (though currently static in the Republic) is probably fair enough however the idea that services can be improved at this stage without increasing tax is a complete myth and chimera - but one which the Irish public seem to want to believe. If you want good public services you have to pay for them and the taxpayers in the Republic do not pay enough, despite wealth beyond the dreams of twenty years ago, to achieve them. What is lacking is political will, and the courage of the public and political parties to opt for slightly higher taxes to give much better services. Political maturity in the new wealthy Ireland will only come when this is a real option.

Bertie Ahern's 'ordinary man' persona stood him in good stead in the face of allegations of financial misbehaviour regarding his house purchase years ago. That image of being an ordinary Joe Soap and the culmination of the Northern peace process (restoration at Stormont) and speaking at the British House of Commons all gave him the fillip he may have needed, the latter polishing his statesman persona. Perhaps the only thing that can be said in his favour regarding his house purchase is that the sums being talked about are in the tens of thousands of pounds - and not in the millions which fell into Charles J Haughey's greedy hands.

In terms of the change needed, maybe the best that could happen at this stage would be a Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition, but it remains to be seen if Fianna Fail would pay the minimum price that the Greens would want, and there are major foreign policy differences on the likes of Shannon but that is unlikely to prevent a Green Party intent on arriving in government. Meanwhile Sinn Féin's dream, nay expectation, of being a major political player in both parts of the island received a major set back - it remains a fairly marginal party in the Republic. All live on to try to come back another day (the Progressive Democrats, indeed, from the edge of extinction in the Dáil with just two seats) but the re-emergence of a dominant two-party system, both conservative, is a thoroughly depressing one for those who believe in peace, equality and justice.

Perhaps Joe and Joan Soap were persuaded most by the economy and the continued boom in the Republic over the last decade; they felt they were doing quite well and did not want to rock the economic boat. But the fact of the matter is that growth in the Irish economy is unsustainable - primarily unsustainable ecologically, but unsustainable for other reasons too. Change has to come to build an economy which can survive in the post-oil era which requires massive changes in infrastructure as well as mindset. So far Fianna Fail has adopted a minimalist approach to responding to climate change and whether they can be persuaded to be more meaningful in this crucial area remains to be seen.

Eco-Awareness Eco-Awareness

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column.

Consumption and Happiness
"The measure of domestic progress published by the New Economics Foundation is just one piece of work showing that the link between economic growth and wellbeing is tenuous once a modest level of prosperity is reached. It operates on the basis that there is no such thing as enough."
(Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 21 May 2007)

If humankind is to effectively address climate change, the rapid loss of biodiversity that is occurring almost everywhere, as well as the rapid depletion of minerals that are the mainstay of our technological society (see New Scientist, 26 May 2007) then we are going to have to understand and act on what drives our species to consume as if we lived in a world where there are no limitations. We behave, whether we are aware of it or not, as if the bounty of the Earth, its very metabolism, were there for our generation alone, and most especially for the minority of affluent people among the 6,580,000,000 of us alive in April of this year. The affluent most definitely includes people in the European Union who live with services and safeguards unimaginable in the poor countries of the world.

What apparently drives Homo sapiens is the all encompassing wish to be happy. This inherently basic quest becomes an environmental problem when a society's fundamental needs have been met and people are not obliged to use the greater part of their time and energy in keeping warm, clothed, fed and physically secure. The myth - propagated by the advertising and celebrity industry - that gets the affluent out of bed each morning is that wealth buys happiness. Thus people work beyond what is necessary in pursuit of the illusion that the more they have the happier they will be. Shops not only sell things essential to our wellbeing - toothpaste and soap, fruit and vegetables, books and pencils, but also goods which many hope will bring them happiness through enhanced social status, novelty, convenience and entertainment. Shops with their displays, smells, lighting, colours, music and the selling skills of sales assistants, are nothing less than magicians' dens selling potions and charms that we believe will transform our lives in a positive way. Clothes, cosmetics, computers and cars, to name a few things, are sold on this basis and bought without much thought to the ecological and social cost.

Research on the relationship between economic prosperity, as measured by average annual income, reveals that above the level needed to meet one's basic material and recreational needs there is no relationship between the amount of wealth one has and level of happiness. This is counter to the myth at the bedrock of consumer society, that having rather than being makes us happy. Although experience has taught us that happiness cannot be realized in a substantive and sustainable way through buying things, we keep on buying in the hope that we will find on some shop shelf that very special thing which will bring us the happiness - self-realization we yearn for.

If we want the Earth to sustain life for a few more million years it is imperative that the scientifically verifiable case that happiness is not derived through income in excess to our needs be woven into common consciousness to the end that people cease to be consumers and instead live lives of simplicity. Finding meaning and a sense of fulfilment through simplicity is the only way to dispel the belief that "there is no such thing as enough". We have to do start doing this today otherwise we will bring about the end of the world as our species has know it since the end of the last ice age.

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