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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 212: September 2013

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

The Syrian disaster

The situation in Syria has continued to go downhill, from bad to worse and now more than disastrous. A country is ruined, the proxy war aspect of the conflict has continued to build, there may be a hundred thousand dead and a million child refugees, with seven million displaced (five million internally) and there are those in ‘the West’ who want to intervene militarily. This is pouring fuel on the flames, and there are far too many flames already.

Of course it is tempting for those who think militarily, in the face of what was a chemical weapons attack, to say “We will not tolerate this” and want to strike out with force but this is unlikely to contribute anything beyond further death and suffering. However even a majority in the British parliament seems to have realised this. Chemical weapons are terrible but it also requires a militarist mindset to say that we will use violence because a particular party has used an especially drastic means of violence, when the level of violence inflicted by more conventional means has been terrible for a long time. And can we believe the USA when it offers ‘proof’ it was the Assad regime who used chemical weapons? Probably it was, possibly it was not.

Intervention in an ethnic and sectarian civil war like that raging in Syria, assisted on both sides by countries and parties of various kinds, is complicated. To put in weapons and military assistance is not what is needed. What is needed is continuing efforts to organise a non-military and non-violent solution, whatever that might be, and it could come about in a number of ways but has to include some kind of negotiation, even if shuttle negotiation, between the regime and the rebels. Persuading Russia to stop backing the Assad regime is obviously key here and possible leverage could include guarantees to Russia about its future in the region. This might be difficult for ‘western’ or NATO countries to do but it might be a price worth paying, even if that sets up issues that need to be dealt with in the future. We are opposed to all military presence in the Middle East but in the current situation that might be one tactic in the current power balance.

It is always easy to be wiser with hindsight but the culture of the arms trade is partly to blame. Why was the Syrian regime equipped to the level it was? The main supplier may have been Russia but the same question can be asked of ‘the west’ about many, many other countries which have major sectarian or ethnic and political and justice issues present. And while the Assad regime clearly carries a disproportionate burden of the guilt in refusing to reform, and using violence and military muscle against protesters, the willingness of opposition parties to go to war in a situation where the government had advanced weapons and forces was foolhardy.

People choose from the options they feel are open to them. Many in the opposition in Syria obviously felt they had no choice but to take up arms. A continued nonviolent resistance in the situation would have been difficult but not impossible, and it would have been a courageous choice. But without an understanding of the possibility of nonviolent struggle in such an appallingly difficult situation, and being egged on by outsiders, the opposition in general went for the military response. The Assad regime might have tried to come down hard on protesters and rebels regardless but the death toll in a nonviolent struggle could not have been as high, the social and refugee situation would not have been as drastic, and the prospects of resolution could have been greater.

Military intervention in Syria, of whatever kind, is the wrong way to go. If people do insist on dropping something from planes it could be medicine and not bombs, as the New Scientist suggested. Whoever wins it is increasingly looking like a pyrrhic victory, whether one side wins over the other, or the parties fight each other into the ground and a stalemate followed by partition. At some point there has to be talking, negotiation and, let us hope, some form of accommodation of the needs and interests of different parties in a situation where the divisions go back deep into history and culture. All outside efforts should be devoted to this end. We need more approaches like the Peace in Syria Initiative, see

On the PUL

This summer was no exception to the rule that ‘the marching season’ in Northern Ireland causes trouble, or trouble arises from it, as it has since loyalist marching became a phenomenon in the 19th century, although the dispute this year was to some extent geographically limited to the Ardoyne in Belfast. This came on the back of the intense flag dispute in Belfast at the end of last year and since.

Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) disenchantment in Northern Ireland, particularly in the working class has a number of roots which we have explored before. Part of it is the lack of political representation and the fact the Protestant working class has never voted in numbers for a loyalist working class party. Part of it dates back to the loyalist identification with the state, or their perception of the state, and what it should do, and, historically therefore a failure to organise effectively to get their issues seen to, either by themselves or others. When communication does take place it can be in a violent form and that leads to further rejection from the powers that be and from the middle-class, and instead of being included people feel more excluded.

There is Protestant deprivation in Northern Ireland which needs dealt with but statistics still show clearly that deprivation in Catholic areas is more widespread. However there is certainly Protestant working class disenchantment and the feeling by some that their identity is threatened. To feel threatened by restricting the flying of a flag to 18 designated days a year in a fifty-fifty city (Belfast), and when one of those days includes the birthday of someone who only married into the British royal family a couple of years ago, indicates very considerable vulnerability and volatility. It was the Provos who lost ‘the war’ after all, though, as the saying goes, they were too clever to admit it or show it; Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom. There was a price to pay for arriving at the relative peace now enjoyed and that was accepting Sinn Féin into government; this some loyalists still find hard to stomach and may be the source of a certain amount of the angst.

Drawing loyalists into political rather than violent interaction is a difficult task. Many loyalists, as many republicans, remain attached to either a military mindset or the acceptance of past armed struggle. The exclusion of republicans who reject the Good Friday Agreement is another side of a similar but different coin. A nonviolent approach would have much to recommend it; imaginative and creative action which challenges others to deal with the issues concerned. Violence may challenge the powers that be to find a solution but that may be simply containment.

Loyalism tends to coalesce currently over symbols such as flags or marching. Marching has always, as we say, been the source of trouble where those being marched past objected – though the vast majority of loyalist marches pass off quite peacefully. We have a problem with marching as a semi-military form of cultural manifestation which is clearly about marking territory when we need to be getting beyond the concept of ‘our’ or ‘their’ territory and building a sense of sharing, and INNATE certainly has difficulties with any form of military or semi-military conduct. Different forms of cultural manifestation are possible.

But the political problem for loyalism can be in choosing struggles which it cannot win. Belfast is no longer a ‘Protestant’ city and the political representation reflects that. But what is wrong for people identifying with Britain when the British flag is flown on a civic building the same number of times as it is in many other parts of the UK? And in a situation like Ardoyne, is it so unreasonable of the Parades Commission to determine that loyalists could only parade at a flashpoint interface one way and not back in the evening? Was it realistic to expect the Parades Commission to change its mind or someone in authority to help change its mind for it? Expecting always to get your own way in a shared society is not a recipe which is good for anyone. Is it ‘civil and religious liberty for all’ or ‘civil and religious liberty for all loyalists’?

Loyalism could ‘win’ on some of its issues by taking a different tack to that generally adopted, by persuasion through non-violent means, by interaction and negotiation, and creative campaigning. All of these would require much work and a different road to that generally adopted. Some discussions did take place about the Ardoyne situation this year but when the heat is on people are unwilling to compromise and come to agreement – and when the heat is off then people can put things on the back burner.

There are many possibilities for loyalism in terms of expression of identity and campaigning on issues which would be more successful in persuading people that things need to be done, and that they are going about raising issues in a positive and non-threatening way. Powerlessness and the feeling of powerlessness are never good and need addressed. What could celebrating ‘the best’ of British identity and culture mean in Northern Ireland? Asking that question could lead to some interesting results and approaches. Picking unwinnable fights can only lead to further demoralisation in working class loyalism, and further sense of victimisation.

The extent to which anyone can expect the state or statutory agencies to reflect their own identity is another issue which we have also addressed in these pages. This relates directly to the flags issue. Most especially in a divided society the extent to which it is possible to expect the state to reflect ‘your’ views is limited but you can expect it to respect your views and include you in whatever way possible. Thus the state has a responsibility, as indeed does everyone in Northern Ireland and some outside it, to work for the inclusion of all, most especially those loyalists and republicans who are not enamoured of aspects of the status quo.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Affinity with the Earth
Over the past 540 million years there have been five mass extinctions. According to Nature, 3rd March 2011, a mass extinction is the death of at least 75% of species over a relatively short period of geological time, in other words one or two million years. Scientists inform us that a sixth mass extinction is in process. This extinction is unique on two accounts, its rapidity, an estimated 200 years, and its cause, human beings. One or a combination of the following caused the previous five mass extinctions: the shifting of continents, comet or meteoroid impacts, and climate change. The mass extinction we are living through is largely due to loss of habitat, invasive species and climate change. The last mass extinction was, as every school child knows, 65 million years ago when 76% of species died including dinosaurs.

Given the popularity of apocalyptic films and novels, and that an estimated 80% of people believe they are accountable to God, one would have thought that the evidence-based finding that we are responsible for ecocide would have acted as a catalyst for change in how we go about the business of living. This has not happened. Given the level of investment in global warming fuels with the active support of governments, such as the tax breaks the UK government gives to fracking, it is unlikely that we will avert a sixth mass extinction.

What accounts for our indifference in bringing an end to the world that has evolved over the past 4 billion years? Is it not the case that the major religions in not living the eco-sustainable creed are betraying the textual origins on which they base themselves as in destroying the world we are exercising a prerogative which is the preserve of God. We are also systematically trashing the handiwork of the Creator and in doing this subverting ‘Her / His / Its’ will. In the canon of sins extinguishing species and altering ecosystems is greater than Lucifer’s who God condemned to eternity in Hell. It is greater than Adam and Eve’s sin who God cast out off the Garden of Eden. What will our punishment be? Our blasé destruction of nonhuman life is all the more intriguing when considered from the perspective that humankind is the mind of the Earth. This view is held by some eminent theologians including Martin Palmer, head of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and the Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff (Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, 1997)

A news story that illustrates our deplorable disregard for the intrinsic value of nonhuman life is Ecuador abandoning its effort to preserve a pristine corner of the Yasuni national park. The plan was to ban drilling for oil in the park only if a trust fund could raise $3.6 billion to help compensate for lost revenue. In six years only $13 million was contributed from the international community. As reported in The Guardian, 17th August 2013, “This is an area of the Amazon that contains more species in one hectare than all the wildlife in North America.” There are more than enough religious billionaires in Ireland, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who, aware of the edict of not worshiping false gods (money), could have promptly met the target. Four would have sufficed.

Science and technology exist to enable humankind to live comfortable, stimulating, enriched lives in a peaceable and environmentally sustainable way. What is needed in order for us to do this is a deep affinity with nonhuman nature. This affinity, which is visually depicted in the wonderful 17,000 year-old paintings of animals in the Lascaux cave in France and evident in wildlife friendly farms and gardens, is largely absent in our society. If we are to avoid the sixth mass extinction, and it may be too late, we have to be cultural rebels and nurture and communicate a love of nonhuman nature. As Leonardo Boff says “we must think ourselves as Earth, feel ourselves as Earth, love ourselves as Earth.” (p. 201)

A strong affinity with nonhuman nature is politically important for the reason Jonathan Haidt outlines in his widely acclaimed book The Righteous Mind (2012). His thesis is that our decisions are based on intuition. Reasoning comes second and is used to justify our intuitive decisions. This means that scientific evidence and logical argument will alone not persuade us to live in an environmentally sustainable way but love of the Earth will.

Copyright INNATE 2021