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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 215: December 2013

The Troubles: All at it

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

The idea that many people on this island, or indeed others on the neighbouring island, have clean hands arising from the Troubles in Northern Ireland is mistaken. In the last month we have had the revelations from the BBC documentary about the British Army’s MRF, Military Reaction Force, and what its soldiers felt they were doing in killing people in the early 1970s. We had another documentary on the disappeared, killed by the IRA. More recently the Smithwick tribunal found that there was likely to have been collusion within the Gardaí in Dundalk in the death of two senior RUC officers in 1989. We have always indicated that, as time went on, more details would come out about nefarious dealings on many sides in the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Some of this is surprising and shocking but, in the larger scheme of things, we should not be too surprised. People do all sorts of things in war, and normal codes of conduct go out the window. And a number of different sides did see themselves as fighting a war.

However reprehensible all of this seems we have to try to understand why people did the things they did, not just to understand reality, and the reality then, but also to see what we can learn and how those kind of situations can be avoided in future. One lesson is simply never to demonise and caricature another side, an ‘enemy’. This is also a basic lesson of nonviolence. And yet the world seems to want to do it again and again – whether regarding Muslims, Arabs, Syrians currently or Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans in the recent past.

Sometimes in Northern Ireland there is the tendency to blame the violence only on ‘the men of violence’. This also is mistaken for a number of reasons. Those who were engaged in violence, on all sides, depended on financial, physical and emotional support from somewhere, people who encouraged violence, who refused to change, who did not take the action they could have to move things on, or who stayed not just below the parapet but never stood up at all. This is not to say all are equally guilty but it is to say that all bear some guilt. ‘ Sins of commission’ (things people did) are easily seen; ‘sins of omission’ (things people could have done but didn’t) are not always as visible. Some of the ‘men of violence’ were also instrumental in working to get the peace process up and running, so vilifying everyone with the same brush can be wide of the mark.

Civil society itself in Ireland, in the Republic as well as the North, cannot say it acquitted itself nobly in relation to the Troubles. Yes, there were some peace groups and action by individuals in trying to move things on, including Fr Alec Reid who died recently, but in this general area too there were also mistakes and cul de sacs.

There are few people who can probably hold their heads up and say honestly that they did all they possibly could to work for peace and an end to violence in Northern Ireland. And, for some in civil society, keeping your head down and getting on with things as normally as possible could be, or was, a defiance of violence, trying to live a life as life should be lived.

From a nonviolent point of view, with a knowledge of the opportunities of nonviolent struggle (for any side), the Troubles were not necessary, from any point of view, to bring about change or even resist particular changes. But people also did not know or appreciate that. Some of those who committed what can be considered violent atrocities may have become involved for what might be considered altruistic reasons. And once they were in, sold on the idea of violence to achieve political ends, they may have been prepared to use any means necessary.

There is the risk that in condemning violence in retrospect, and as happened so often immediately following violent actions during the Troubles, we are setting up barriers, emphasising our own righteousness, and contributing to a real lack of understanding. None of us are holy and pure. Some may be guiltier than others. We still need to deal with the past, recover what truth we can, but with a modicum of understanding which was frequently lacking during the Troubles and still scarce now.

However all of this should not be understood as a moral relativism. We still need to make judgements and have the necessary standards to do so, based in and on human rights and nonviolence. Those who believe in nonviolence should be quite clear where they stand but that stand should be tempered by compassion and empathy. We also have our failings, we did not effectively show the way to nonviolent action, and still there are those who believe the gun and the bomb is the way to do business, at home or abroad. So there is much work to be done from a nonviolent point of view both in relation to Northern Ireland and showing that the lessons which should have been learnt here pertain in other parts of the world as well.

- - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Complacency is not an option

The scientific reports on climate change present an apocalyptic future for life on our planet. Many would argue that the apocalypse has already cast its shadow across the earth in the form of extreme weather conditions. The most recent was typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines which killed 5,000 people and made four million homeless. To put this in perspective, 4.6 million people live in the Republic of Ireland and 1.8 million live in Northern Ireland. Although no direct link can be made between extreme weather conditions and global warming the view of climate scientists is that the warming of the planet intensifies disruptive weather. Professor Myles, of Oxford University, is quoted in The Guardian, 16 November as saying. “The current consensus is that climate change is not making the risk of hurricanes any greater, but there are physical arguments and evidence that there is a risk of more intense hurricanes.” Bryan Walsh in Time Magazine, 25 November, writes “the typhoon’s strength could well be a sign of catastrophes to come.” If so, this would mean more of the following.

“They sleep on rice-straw mats laid on concrete, recovering from hunger and thirst, mourning the dead, fearing for the missing – without homes or jobs or any clue to what their future holds. These people are, they say, lucky.”

(Tania Branigan on the aftermath of Haiyan, The Guardian Weekly, 22 November)

Human beings are gifted with enormous powers of imagination and yet collectively we have failed to grasp what life would be like if, as UN analysis suggests, the 2C limit of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is reached within 30 years, and will rise in subsequent decades. A 2C rise, as per pre-industrialisation levels, is considered the absolute limit before major extinctions, significant sea level rises, and the demise of ecosystems occur. Some climatologists think the critical limit may be less than 2C. If so eco and economic collapse could happen sooner than we think.

We take the future into account in our personal lives in that we plan the day ahead, prepare our children for life decades to come, and insure things of value. Governments are hyper-active about national security, spending trillions on preparation for war, billions on actual wars, and unknown amounts on so-called intelligence gathering. Yet we are doing little about climate change which is on course to spiral into a global catastrophe that could reduce the human population to small nomadic bands scavenging to survive in an inhospitable world.

While there is widespread concern about climate change government policy exacerbates it. Most governments for instance subsidise the use of fossil fuels. Jim Clarken informs us in The Irish Times, 20 November that “the EU’s fossil fuel subsidies amount to 66 billion Euros a year.” The November UN climate conference in Warsaw, attended by negotiators from 198 countries was sponsored by some of the world’s major polluters including General Motors, BMW, the climate sceptic think thank the Heartland Institute, and Grupa Lotos, Poland’s second-largest petroleum corporation. Coinciding with the climate conference was the Warsaw World Coal Association Summit to which the UN climate chief Christiana Figueres gave the keynote speech. The partnership between a pivotal UN climate change conference and some of the major contributors to climate change speaks volumes about the lack of seriousness governments treat the issue.

The consensus among environmentalists is that the Warsaw conference was a failure. The conference abandoned talks on how to cut emissions from agriculture, which is responsible for 30 percent of global emissions. Loopholes allow some of the biggest polluters including China, India, Brazil and South Africa to delay setting any targets to cut their emissions.

Given the interconnectedness between major global polluters and governments it is not surprising that voter apathy is widespread and people have no confidence in their government acting for the common good. In the UK the comedian Russell Brand received widespread media coverage when he wrote in the cover article of the New Statesman, 25-31 October “I will never vote and I don’t think you should, either.” In response the Radio 4 news programme PM devoted time throughout November to discussing the democratic process.

The question that confronts all who are interested in realizing a low carbon equitable economy is how to achieve it. Given the seriousness of global warming radical change has to be pursued, starting from yesterday. Complacency is not an option. Naomi Klein in an essay in The New Statesman, 25-31 October, writes:

“Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2C carbon budget.”

The urgency of our situation makes revolutionary change, albeit nonviolent, the only option. Essentially societies must do the unthinkable - pursue a strategy of managed non-growth. If political parties pursued this as a priority the constituency Russell Brand represents might vote for the radical change that is urgently needed. Individuals and communities can and should work for a more sustainable world but it is only governments, through taxation, legislation and international agreements that can steer the ship of society in a new direction. This is why we should all play a role in the political process as well as plant trees, buy local, purchase from charity shops and use the bicycle.

Happy Christmas!

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