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INNATE is going 25 years this year, a fact covered by a selection of comments elsewhere in this issue. However, rather than more navel gazing we will attempt to reflect on how ‘things’ have changed over this quarter century, both at home and more generally.
1987 may feel fairly recent for those of vintage years but a baby born then is now a mature adult well out of the first flush of youth. In Northern Ireland 1987 was the year of the Enniskillen cenotaph bombing, an event whose symbolism and ferocity added to the pressure for an end to violence and did no good for Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA as it meant they lost support which it took some years to regain. One of those present, Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie was killed in the bombing, became himself a symbol of reconciliation through his forbearing and calm response to such a personal tragedy. The start of the ceasefire process, in 1994, was still some years away but the total destructiveness of such violence was coming home to even most of those who had supported armed struggle.
However much things moved on through the 1990s and in particular the Good Friday agreement of 1998, the slowness of the whole peace enterprise meant that it was nine years after the Good Friday Agreement when it became stable, just as the ceasefires of the 1990s had been an on and off affair. However North-South cooperation as part of any deal had been very much on the cards since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, a phenomenon which had left unionists and loyalists out in the cold. It was only into the twenty-first century that the vast majority of unionists came into the powersharing fold.
Nevertheless support for paramilitarism and militarism in Northern Ireland is neither dead nor gone, a fact that the recent killing of a prison officer by republicans still committed to armed action demonstrated; some loyalist paramilitaries are also still recruiting and training, and in other cases former paramilitary people, and occasionally even structures, have entered the community field – something which has both positive and negative connotations. A former paramilitary wielding a photocopier is much preferable to them wielding a rifle or bomb but there is the question whether government and other support copper fastens some of remnants of the old and bad days in an unnecessary way. And rejection of violence by most people in Northern Ireland has not translated into much greater awareness of the possibilities of nonviolence beyond party politics. Support for military actions by the British Army in Afghanistan (and Iraq in the last decade) is commonplace among the Protestant community in Northern Ireland.
Regarding the nature of political progress in the North, we have stated often enough in these pages before now that ‘powersharing’ is perhaps too strong a word for the two largest political parties (the DUP and Sinn Féin) dividing out power, divvying up the spoils so to speak. The limits to powersharing have been shown quite clearly on the ability of these parties to as yet come up with a meaningful policy on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration. ‘Divided they stand together’ may sound peculiar but it is an accurate reflection of the reality of chalk and cheese working together. Politics, and society, in Northern Ireland have a long road to travel yet.
Twenty-five years ago was before the era of the Celtic (paper) Tiger when the hair shirt was still on the people of the Republic. Despite an enormous boom and a very painful bust, the expectations and reality of today in the Republic are better than they were in 1987, though it is difficult to overestimate the significance of the millstone of the bank debt underwritten by the state; the citizens of the Republic are suffering greatly so that European banks do not suffer. The morality or justice of that situation is hard to support. Northern Ireland, relatively cushioned from some of the fierce winds of economic recession by British money, will be hit hard by UK-wide welfare and other cuts, and while being outside the Eurozone has saved the UK economy some of the trauma that this has been going through, the economic indicators for the UK economy are not that great either, while many of the indicators for the Irish economy (in the Republic) are actually good but then you cannot disregard the noose of bank debt which hangs around taxpayers’ necks and the extremely low level of the building sector.
While the concept of a no-growth economy, for green sustainability reasons, is around and being spoken of now in a way that was pretty invisible twenty-five years ago, there is as yet no general acceptance of the need for it. Traditional ‘economic growth’ is seen as the way to overcome the negativities of recession. Thus we may move to the next boom and bust. The case that we are living beyond our means ecologically has been well made by a number of groups and analysts; how far we will have to go with global warming before ‘public opinion’ and politicians see the need to go there is indeed scary. Partying (even if less wildly than in the boom years) on the edge of a precipice is a dangerous occupation. And there is also no awareness of the changes that need to come with a ‘no growth’ economy – redistribution of wealth and resources, not just wind turbines and renewable energy. Dealing with the increasing levels of poverty and hopelessness in the current recession is a very real challenge, in both the Republic and North.
The Irish contribution internationally is a topic open to debate. Emigration which was a feature of the 1980s is unfortunately with us twenty-five years later after considerable net immigration, including returning Irish people, in the 1990s. It might be difficult to have thought in 1987 that an Irish government would have been so cowardly and unprincipled, however, as to give the US military unbridled access to Shannon airport for its Afghan and Iraqi military adventures, and to refuse to question its policy despite opportunities to do so. ‘Irish neutrality’ has taken many knocks in this period, including through the increasing identification of the EU with NATO. Nuclear war and weapons, which was a real threat in the 1980s, still remains an unfortunately real issue today.
The great cultural change worldwide has been in and through the field of communications. The world wide web was but a human spider’s dream in 1987; now it, and the other telecommunication advances of the period, mean that we may choose to ignore things happening elsewhere but we cannot plead ignorance through lack of information. However, the phenomenon of information overload now means that many things can be hidden in plain sight.
One of the greatest changes in Ireland in the last twenty-five years has been the move to secularism and a decline in church going, especially marked regarding attendance at Catholic churches, and, indeed, the power or perceived power of the Catholic church. 1987 is much closer to 1979, and the Pope’s visit to Ireland, both in time and in the then reality. As with many such phenomena, there are negatives to this as well as positives. The fragmentation of communities, and move to individual consumerism where nothing positive has replaced faith belief could be considered a negative. The fact that people are freer to choose what to believe has to be a positive. Most of the churches will be entering unknown territory in the future, as numbers decline further for most, and humility for the churches is no bad thing.
Another enormous change in this period has been the multi-cultural development in the nature of Irish life, all over the Republic and in Northern Ireland as well. In the booming years the Republic attracted many newcomers from different parts of Europe and further afield. The bipolarity of Northern Ireland life has been somewhat reduced by the presence of other ethnicities. The problems with racism, which were latent, are real and worrying - as is the ongoing nature of sectarianism in the North - but the presence of many ethnicities in Ireland is very much a positive development and the hope - and work – must be that newcomers are welcomed and enabled to contribute the enormous amount that they have to give to Irish life.
While issues to do with women’s rights were well on the agenda by 1987, progress on these has been patchy. Equal pay in legislation - already in place in both jurisdictions in Ireland by 1978 - masks significant differences and there are various glass ceilings still existing. It is notable, too, that the UK in its national action plan to implement UN Standing Committee Resolution 1325 refused to recognise Northern Ireland as an area where this should be applied – which is certainly ignoring the elephant in their own room. There are important and deep issues to do with masculine culture and identity which need addressed in taking gender issues forward and building a peaceful society and these have hardly been touched upon at all.
1987 seems a long time ago politically; Northern Ireland was in the political doldrums, and the Republic was in the arms of Fianna Fail and Charles Haughey as Taoiseach (from March of that year). There has been an enormous sea change in politics both North and South of the border but probably little change to the overall left-right balance in Irish politics - that has changed little. Despite the political carve up in the North, the fact that there is the level of cooperation that exists between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin is remarkable but making the next step to an integrated society may be difficult when that threatens the power bases of both parties.
The patterns of continuity and change in the last twenty-five years are both marked. Many realities have changed, many have not. It has been a turbulent period in Irish life, but then when can you say it has not. Peace, green and political change movements have had their successes in this period, and many failures. The challenges that face us in the second decade of the twenty-first century are different to those of a quarter century ago; the greatest new challenge to appear in front of our noses has been global warming, which, despite being there is steadfastly ignored by many. The challenges of building justice and peace on this island and internationally continue, and the urgency of the issues demanding our attention remain alarming. There are many plates that we need to keep spinning simultaneously in the air.
Fortunately or unfortunately it is no time to hang up our boots.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Leaving a Legacy
Stop whatever you are doing! Listen to the sounds and the silence of the world around you. Become mindful of your breathing. Still your thoughts. In quiet contemplation you might become aware that the clock is ticking on your life-span that each heart beat is one less to take. In the midst of your bustle and busyness your life is melting, drop by drop into nothingness.
Most people find the subject of their own death, what Stephen Cave (New Scientist, 20 October 2012) calls “our own apocalypse” too unpleasant and disconcerting to reflect on for very long. Rather than use thoughts about our mortality as a prompt to reflect on the meaningfulness of how we use our time, energy and intelligence we live out our lives on the basis of ingrained values, beliefs and habits. Some of these might be beneficial to us and our community while others, particularly those vigorously promoted by our political and economic culture cause self, community and environmental harm.
Our dominant political and economic ideologies define a meaningful and well lived life as one in which we devote our lives to acquiring, and often gratifying our desires, at the expense of others. The appetite to acquire things, as personified in the idea of shopping as a recreational and ethically neutral activity, is fed by advertising, Hollywood movies, computer games and the celebrity culture which are underpinned by the desire of large corporations to increase their capital. The near-collapse of the banking system, property speculation, war and the arms industry, the purchase of huge expanses of land in Africa, Asia and S. America to grow food exclusively for the rich while simultaneously disempowering the poor; the clear-felling of rainforests to grow palm oil and mine metals and minerals are a testimony to this. Fairtrade is a notable exception.
The dysfunctional nature of our dominant political and economic ideology is perhaps best highlighted by the tragedy of war. In the course of the 20th century millions of lives came to a horrible and untimely end in wars that were fought for no other reason than vanity and greed. According to Milton Leitenberg, Peace Studies Program, Cornell University, 231 million people were killed in wars during the course of the 20th century. Many millions more were injured, traumatized, suffered starvation and made homeless. Archaeological treasures and fragile environments were destroyed. This insanity continues today in Afghanistan, the Congo and Mali to name a few places.
Although we live lives, determined by culture, class and genes, education has the capacity to liberate us from a passive, mechanical-type existence by giving us a degree of agency and choice. It is through education – a process of increasing our awareness, compassion, confidence, skills and knowledge - that we can find the means for society to make the transition to one that is environmentally sustainable, wholly democratic, and based on social and economic justice.
Regardless of whether we consciously consider our own death we all want our life to count for something and most people want to leave a legacy as a testimony to their existence. One way our life can count for something while leaving a legacy that will outlive all memory of us is to restore ecosystems and create wholesome communities sustained by an economic system and political ideology that are based on an ethic of compassion for our own and nonhuman kind.
Avoiding thought about our own apocalypse leads to all sorts of destructive illusions, including the idea that there can be infinite growth in a finite world, that technology and culture exist in a realm separate from Nature and that it is a glorious thing to kill, destroy and die for one’s religion, tribe or country. As Stephen Cave writes, thinking about our own death causes us to re-evaluate what really matters. Given the dire state of the world we all need to think about our oblivion and cosmic insignificance a great deal more than we apparently do.
Co-President of Pax Christi International
Marie Dennis, Co-President of Pax Christi International (PCI), was in Belfast in October (2012) and while there spoke to Rob Fairmichael of INNATE –
Rob Fairmichael – Marie, delighted to speak to you today a bit about Pax Christi and your own involvement with it. Maybe you could start by saying something about how you got involved in the whole field of peacemaking and then with Pax Christi and Pax Christi International.
Marie Dennis – Well, I have been involved in work for social justice, peace and reconciliation since the early 70s, really initially because of the influence of the encounter with people in exile from Latin America who shared their story and their journey, and a recognition of the juxtaposition of serious poverty and significant wealth even in the suburbs of Washington DC. I have been involved for the last 25 years or so with Maryknoll, a Catholic missionary community of sisters, priests, brothers and lay missionaries, as the director of their Global Concerns Office which was charged with bringing the experience of Maryknoll missionaries from forty or so countries around the world and shaping public opinion and policy in the US government and other institutions.
I have been involved with Pax Christi since the middle-80s, first in Pax Christi in the United States, in the late-80s and early-90s I was on the national council of Pax Christi US, and national chairperson, and shortly after that became involved with Pax Christi internationally because that was a very good fit with my work for Maryknoll. My interest in peace is very closely tied with my concern about social justice and the integrity of creation – it is very hard for me to separate them out...
Rob – You can’t have one without the other...
Marie - ...when I became involved with peace. I suppose a major focus on peace was in the late 70s and throughout the 80s on nuclear disarmament. I helped organise what was called in the United States the ‘peace ribbon’, on the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was a very creative, interesting expression of what people couldn’t bear to think of that would be lost in nuclear war. My connection with the work for peace has been pretty long but very tied to work for social justice.
Rob – Pax Christi International is obviously an enormous organisation in the sense it is far flung around the world, more groups and sections in certain parts of the world than others. Maybe you could reflect on some of the challenges and opportunities which PCI has to advance its work for peace?
Marie - I think the greatest opportunity in some ways is the fact that the facility of communications and aspects of globalisation have made it much easier for us as a global network to communicate with each other, to work together, to set direction together. Although Pax Christi is almost seventy years old we have often worked as collections of almost autonomous national sections and member organisations, and that is still true. Each part of our movement works within its own context and that makes its work unique but we now have a facility of communication that is helping us to think of Pax Christi as an international movement working together as well as sections and organisations working locally.
In a way that is a brilliant opportunity, and the challenge, aside from the great challenge of peacebuilding in a world which seems completely bent on perpetual war, creating divisions, creating enemies, I think that a great challenge for us probably for the last twenty years or so, in Pax Christi which started in Europe, has been increasing the presence in the global South. Not always by the name of Pax Christi, much more often the joining member organisations have kept their own name. I think we have been at the point the last twenty-five years or so, finding ways to structurally integrate our members in the global South, to give them more voice and power within our own movement, and to encourage our member organisations in the global South to join those in Europe and North America in shaping the future of Pax Christi. How we shift power to those within our own movement in the global South is a big challenge for us, and a great opportunity right now.
Rob – In any international body like Pax Christi that is a challenge because if you also have different kinds of organisations, a section structure and a group structure, there is the question how do you equalise that. The PCI website does show on a map where you have a presence around the world. What kind of themes would you see emerging from this process of bringing Pax Christi together as a global structure and organisation?
Marie – The themes are both interesting and at a certain level they remain contextual, so that as a basically grassroots organisation, the direction Pax Christi goes regionally and ultimately globally take a lead from local organisations. In Latin America where we have a regional coordination and quite a few member organisations, some called Pax Christi and some not, the kind of themes that are emerging are human trafficking, the violence associated with mining and extractive industries, and to some extent the street violence and violence that is both driven by gender oppression and the supply of weapons, and the connection to drug trafficking, and what feels like a violence that is out of control. That experience in Latin America is certainly echoed in other parts of the world, in Africa the extractive industries and small arms and larger weapons are very serious.
But then in Africa and North Africa and the Middle East there is the importance of inter-faith dialogue, of building inter-faith understanding at a time when a lot of the power seems to be directed at making and creating enemies. At a global level the effort to build understanding of difference is becoming increasingly important. The bottom line, we have a constant challenge between issues that are very specific – what is going to happen in Sudan and South Sudan, what is going to happen in Kenya when the elections take place next year, or the situation in Syria, or Lebanon, or Sri Lanka – those all have a very particular, local or regional character but they are tied to some of the big international issues.
As an international movement we continue to be deeply concerned about the presence of nuclear weapons in our world, the irrational behaviour in relation to nuclear weapons and their operation. From the beginning we have had a major focus on disarmament and we continue to do so. I guess that is the mix of very specific local issues and very transnational larger issues. At an international level we always take our lead from local players; we might be involved in the Congo in a programme of reintegrating former combatants into local communities, or in other parts of the world our energy as an international movement goes to building capacity, and generating conversations about nonviolence and the effectiveness and possibilities of nonviolence in difficult situations.
At the global level we have also been very actively gathering the articulation of a spirituality of the work for peace and nonviolence and that has its own face in different parts of the world. But it is a very rich collection and it is coming together.
Rob – And in terms of coordination at the international office in Brussels, how many people do you have working there?
Marie – We have a small number including a new secretary general, José Henríquez......
Rob – We mentioned his appointment in our newssheet.
Marie – We are very satisfied with him, he is a wonderful person. We have amazing staff, some of whom, like Paul Lansu and Greet Vanaerschot, have been there for twenty-five or thirty years each. We also are regionalising our staff, we do have a regional coordinator based in Bogota in Colombia, and we will be replicating that model in Africa, Asia and the Middle East as well, partly because it is the only way to work effectively.
Rob – I was interested to learn about the situation with Pax Christi in the Netherlands where there was the coming together of different organisations with a concern for peace. Can you say something about that?
Marie – This is a very interesting model, it is also unique, the only place this kind of coming together, of IKV and Pax Christi Netherlands, has happened. It has been very effective. It is also true that in the Netherlands the political situation, the direction the Dutch government has gone, has been both challenging and a complement to that joint organisation. The joint organisation is a very strong civil society organisation in the Netherlands and has a staff of seventy-five or eighty full time people. They have a major project focus and have done phenomenal professional peacebuilding work. Pax Christi Netherlands does still have a grassroots membership which forms the base of that part of the movement.
Rob – So Pax Christi still has its own entity and comes together with IKV?
Marie – Yes, it’s a bit of a hybrid, it’s quite interesting and unique, we know of no other places in the world where this takes place. [See reference below – Ed]
Rob – The Netherlands is an interesting place. I have partaken of more nonviolence training in the Netherlands than in any other country in the world including Ireland.
Marie – You can compare the capacity of Pax Christi in the Netherlands with Pax Christi in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which is a small group of young Haitians who have brought a tremendous amount of peace and commitment to life and to nonviolence to Cite Soleil, which was a very, very violent, marginal community in Port-au-Prince. It makes you celebrate the very great difference of the two models of the reality of our movement.
Rob – A final question I wanted to ask you; Pax Christi International defines one of its aims as ‘human security’, how would you understand that term or that concept?
Marie – To understand that I need to go back to where I started in talking about the interconnectedness of social justice to peace and the integrity of creation, they are so intertwined. Security almost means nothing without the capacity to live a dignified life, and to have what is needed for survival. What we are seeing more and more is that our survival as human beings is inherently interconnected with the survival of the planet on which we are living. I think of human security as security that is both sustainable and socially just.
Rob – Thank you very much.
For a photo of Marie Dennis in Belfast, see the INNATE photo site at
The Pax Christi International website is at www.paxchristi.net which includes a short biographical note about Marie Dennis.
For IKV Pax Christi in the Netherlands see, in English, Note you can click for separate information on both parts of the organisation as well as the joint IKV Pax Christi.
Pax Christi Ireland is contactable at 52 Lower Rathmines Road, Dublin 6, ph 01 – 4965293, www.paxchristi.ie
Information on PCI affiliated organisation Kerry Diocesan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Committee can be found on the diocesan website at www.dioceseofkerry.ie by clicking ‘Justice’ on the menu bar.