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History provides us with many ironies. Exposing and ironing out those ironies is part of what any movement for peace and justice should be about. In this editorial we will explore some historical ironies before looking specifically at the Irish example of Shannon Airport being used as a USA military base.
Irony can be understood in different ways. One definition is “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects” and this may or may not be humorous. There are different kinds of irony used in writing and drama but what we are talking about here is real life irony, and in particular where there is a gross contradiction between a key piece of a country’s ideology, history or self identity and the reality in the past or present. We use the term fairly loosely.
One ironic situation still working its way through politics and international relations is the UK’s departure from the EU through Brexit. Given that a considerable amount of support for Brexit was nothing to do with the EU but rather austerity and a feeling of loss on the part of some voters, most esecially in England, that is one irony. Another is that Brexit was supported as a means of increasing the UK’s international role, relationships and trading prowess when it is crystal clear that it will diminish all three. Of course any country is entitled to decide its destiny, and decide to be poorer if it feels the direction is right, but you might wish that the decision would be taken through logical reasoning rather than falsehoods.
The USA projects itself as “the world’s policeman” and has an anti-imperialist struggle at the heart of its formation as an independent country from its declaration of independence in 1776. While some countries who feel threatened by neighbours or others welcome the perceived ‘policeman’ role, for the majority of the world the perceived role is of the schoolyard bully. Of course the perceived anti-imperialism of the founding fathers did not restrict its internal colonialism in regard to the native peoples of north America. And the 1823 ‘Monroe Doctrine’ opposing European intervention in Latin America quickly developed into a doctrine which favoured intervention for US economic or strategic interests, and the number of right wing coups supported or engineered by the USA in that continent is long – and highly ironic given the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ opposition to European colonialism there. Meanwhile US neo-imperalism developed to stretch its way around the world, with upwards of a thousand foreign military bases.
Germany can be considered the European country which was the last to unify, in 1871 (although it was split after the Second World War and united again in 1990); previously the German cultural area had been a conglomeration of smaller independent states. It thus missed the initial western European surge of colonialism, especially in Africa, but became part of growing imperial rivalries that led to the First World War. Ironically it was the 1919 Versailles ‘Peace’ agreement, especially by financially penalising Germany, which set the stage for the development of fascism and the Nazi regime. That regime, in a country which had only become united sixty or seventy years beforehand, became one of the most barbarous and brutal colonial regimes in history.
Ireland is a small country on the edge of the continent of Europe. Resistance to colonisation was an ongoing feature of life for centuries but in some ways Ireland was drawn in to be part of the United Kingdom, and the division between Catholics (usually nationalist in outlook) and Protestants (usually unionist) – which stemmed largely from colonisation - complicated the matter somewhat but was also part of the typical colonial ‘divide and rule’ policy. However the concept of Ireland not participating in British war efforts dates back to Wolfe Tone; in the First World War initially the majority of nationalist Ireland backed Britain and its war but that changed after the 1916 rising and the attrition of the First World War itself.
Neutrality was a key concept of the young Irish Free State, including involvement with the League of Nations (in which Irishman Seán Lester played a prominent part, and to which Éamon de Valera was very committed, serving as the president of its Council in 1932). Later on neutrality included positive roles in nuclear non-proliferation, and successful moves against particularly vile weapons such as landmines and cluster munitions.
Shannon Airport was set up as part of modernisation efforts in the late 1930s but it was the end of the Second World War that it was developed as an economic free trade zone and transatlantic hub. While it was used for refuelling by US military planes during the Gulf war of 1990, it was only after 9/11 that it began to be transformed into a forward operating base for the US military with literally millions of soldiers having passed through. The number of breaches of neutrality and international law involved are too numerous to go into here but are detailed in a publication like the Afri/Shannonwatch publication “Shannon Airport and 21st Century War”.
In the period from 2003 onwards there have been numerous nonviolent actions at Shannon challenging US military use of the airport. These have continued to date with the most recent being by two US former military personnel, Ken Mayers and Tarak Kauff, members of Veterans for Peace, and their cases and the ones of Dave Donellan and Colm Roddy have still to be resolved. Public opinion polls have consistently shown strong support for Irish neutrality and opposition to US military use of Shannon. Irish governments have had clear and open opportunities to take a moral stand and end US military use of Shannon but have refused to do so despite continued hypocritical expressions of support for Irish neutrality.
The irony in all this is not just the craven sleveenism of most politicians (there are however numerous honourable exceptions) in being unwilling to challenge USA policy while outwardly supporting ‘Irish neutrality’ but also being a country which was colonised, and has a very vivid memory of what that was like, supporting the neo-imperialism of the USA. Along with the developing militarisation of the EU, it means there is much work to be done to support and develop Irish neutrality as a positive contribution to the world and international peace.
The killing of Lyra McKee at the hands of the New IRA in Derry has been a notable event in many ways. It showed the disregard for life which paramilitaries (and many others) possess. It ended the life of a remarkable young woman who already had significant achievements. It has forced politicians to get into talks.
Lyra McKee’s death also showed, simultaneously, both how far the North has to travel and how far it has actually come. If her killing came during a particularly brutal period of the Troubles for deaths, she would have been on page 1 of the papers the following day, possibly an inside page the following day, and forgotten the next week. Now, while it is no real compensation for her loved ones and friends, her story is still being told and it has forced politicians, including the tardy Karen Bradley, to act in getting political talks underway.
Of course this was assisted by the redoubtable Fr Martin Magill’s contribution at her funeral when he asked why it took the death of a young woman to get politicians together; the spontaneous applause by those present which greeted these words has been perhaps the most powerful barometer of public opinion there has been in recent times on the current situation in Northern Ireland. Referring to politicians coming together after her death, he said “I am however left with a question: “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29 year old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?”
Nevertheless delivering restored powersharing at Stormont out of the forthcoming talks is another day’s work. Neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin want to be seen to scupper talks and the possiblity of success but each have their red lines. Erasing those red lines, or enabling something new to be written over them, will be a major task. And with the Brexit process still an ongoing debacle, and the RHI/Renewable Heat Incentive report due over the next couple of months, there will unfortunately be a wariness among the two dominant parties to move too fast. This is where there is clearly a role for public opinion to keep the pressure up for compromise which takes us all forward.
While the focus in the killing of Lyra McKee is obviously on the New IRA, it needs to be remembered that there are other paramilitary forces who have not been going away, and who have been involved in intimidation and death since 1998. While the end of active engagement by the Provisional IRA regretfully fed into the rise of some other small republican military groups, there is still in place more of the modified but ‘old’ structures of the loyalist paramilitaries, the UDA and UVF. Around 160 people have been killed since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, all by paramilitaries (none by the police or military). l Northern Ireland has not yet moved beyond the tentacles of paramilitarism.
Martin Magill mentioned the word ‘nonviolence’ or ‘non violence’ at Lyra McKee’s funeral, the context being his appeal to Lyra’s killers that “I plead with you to take the road of non violence to achieve your political ends.”
Nonviolence is a key element in moving beyond paramilitarism. Until nonviolent struggle can be recognised for what it is, a more successful tool, technique and approach than violence, then Northern Ireland may continue to be saddled with paramilitarism because some people feel they ‘have to’ use violence to defend or advance their cause. Of course while some may be involved in paramilitarism as a cover for criminal greed, or easy power, delegitimising the concept of political violence should be a key goal.
However in the long term the delegitimisation of paramilitarism can come through the realisation that nonviolence and nonviolent struggle ‘are the way to go’. Nonviolence is so versatile an approach that a million and two things are possible. But, if people are unaware of nonviolent possibilities then they might as well not exist. This is a particular challenge to those committed to peace; to show the range and extent of nonviolent approaches and what they can achieve - see here for example.
Condemning violence can be relatively easy to do (though not easy in all circumstances). The condemnation of the New IRA for killing a wonderful young woman in their attempt to kill a member of the police may be appropriate but it can also reinforce those involved in a siege mentality and there is a need to break away from, and out of, that.
All of those in Northern Ireland, and many south of the border and further afield, have a role in taking the situation forward. This will not least be in exercising opinions in public and in the ballot box to encourage progress. But those believing in nonviolence have the responsibility to show its efficacy and that will also take very considerable work.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
The Real Challenge of Ecological Meltdown
The banner headline that humanity has eleven years to save the world is in the genre of a sales pitch for a 1950s science fiction film. This, however, is 2019, when much of what was then science fiction has become reality. The warning comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which on the basis of the present level of global warming gas emissions estimates that the temperature of the Earth will reach 1.5 Celsius above that of the pre-industrial age by 2030. This degree of warming, and it is reliably expected it will rise to 3 Celsius by the end of the century, spells disaster on a scale never experienced by humankind.
The consequences of climate chaos are happening now and experienced in various degrees of seriousness across the globe including Ireland which cost the exchequer, insurance companies and individuals as a collective billions in Euros and sterling. In spite of the scientific evidence, the traumatic experience of hundreds of millions of people, and the change in weather patterns observed by almost everyone, those with the power to shape events, namely governments and corporations, have done precious little. The norm in fact is business as usual. This is highlighted in the run-up to the Local Council elections in Ireland and the UK with many of the political parties wooing the electorate with the promise of economic growth.
Although there are considerable technical and organisational challenges in rapidly reducing our emission of global warming gasses and changing land and marine use practices in order to protect biodiversity the real challenge in arresting ecological meltdown is an existential one. The ecological ill-health of the biosphere will only begin to heal when we change how we view the nonhuman world and our sense of our place within it. This is exceptionally difficult to do because we are largely ignorant of the nature of our own mindset, which is the collection of expectations, values, believes, sensitivities and sense of self which form the prism through which we make sense of the world.
As these were largely formed during our early socialization through a process called enculturation we are mostly unconscious of them. The body of our beliefs and values were acquired in the unconscious manner we acquired language and accent. When we engage in casual conversation we often don’t know what we are going to say until we say it nor hear our accent when using it. When it comes to how we live in the biosphere we are creatures of ingrained habit and consider our views and behaviour as common sense and view perspectives and behaviour significantly different from ours as looney, eccentric, extreme, dangerous, radical.
Our ecological stupor is such we live as if the biosphere were an inanimate object devoid of feelings, intelligence, purpose and morally irrelevant. This could be no better illustrated by the fact that every ten years we concrete over a portion of the world equal to the size of Britain, annually turn thousands of square miles of bio-rich forest into desert-like plantations, fill the oceans with plastic and smother it with algae, exterminate birds and insects by the billion. There is no getting away from the fact that in ‘enhancing’ our lives beyond that of simple comforts we are turning our gloriously beautiful and enchanting bio-world into an ever larger death zone.
This does not have to be. As Jeremy Lent writes in The Patterning Instinct (2019):
“When one realizes the immense power our culture has had in shaping the very structure of our minds, it’s tempting to surrender to it and merely accept the network of meaning in which we’re enmeshed. However, daunting as the task may be, it’s not impossible to regain at least some autonomy. Even our brain’s neural network, sculptured from infancy by our cultural influences, can be literally reshaped to a certain degree. Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that the adult brain remains plastic, thus permitting us to consciously resculpt some of the structures of thought that our culture has instilled in us from infancy.” (p.81)
The ecological awareness raising protests by Extinction Rebellion, the international school climate strike movement inspired by 16-year old Greta Thunberg, and a dramatic rise in the number of people in these islands and beyond who have become vegetarian, and to a lesser extent vegan, suggest that not only can we step outside our enculturation but that the world might be on the cusp of a major ecological awaking. Whether this is the case or not the awakening required is of mythical proportions as is the effort and determination needed to bring about a change in the mindset of corporate and political leaders in regard to them treating the biosphere as a moral entity. People with the outlook of US President Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil won’t be easily persuaded that nonhuman nature has intrinsic value and there is more to life than the accumulation of material wealth and making one’s country “great” through military might.
A measure of the challenge environmentalists face is the revelation in the i newspaper, 23 April 2019, that the oil and gas industry is to increase its investment in developing new sites of fossil fuel extraction by over 85 per cent in the coming decade. We can rightly feel indignation that the energy corporations, and the politicians and governments that facilate them, are ignoring the science at our peril. Yet, we cannot hide from the fact that most, if not all of us, behave like the corporations in that although we know about the negative impact we have on the biosphere we do little about it.
What the new awaking requires, the idea we should weave into our mindset, is that although we are individuals we are simultaneously community and the circumference of community includes the life-forms we share the planet with. This sense of integration and interdependency becomes apparent to most people when they need medical treatment or specialist help of some kind. We need others and others need us. The others include those we have no prior personal relationship with as well as nonhuman life-forms. Seeing ourselves as an intrinsic part of the whole, that the harm we do to others we do to ourselves, is surely what is needed in this period of rapid ecological meltdown.
Condolences to the family and friends of Polly Higgins, a barrister who campaigned for the recognition of ecocide and died in April aged 50 of cancer.