January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]
Telling our stories
We all enjoy a good story, and this is true from a very early age, and becomes no less true as we get older. However there are stories and stories. Stories, written, verbal or visual, can be used as simply a means of entertainment, and there is nothing wrong with that. However many of the earliest stories children hear, nursery rhymes, have messages attached (be they positive or negative). But the obession with personalities, be they major or minor celebrities, royals or whoever, can be a distraction from the realities of life – they can be the ‘circuses’ of ‘bread and circuses’. Again, there is nothing wrong with some distraction so long as it does not cloud reality and distract from other vital aspects of life.
When it comes to peace and justice, we too need our stories, not simply of big figures who have done great things but also ordinary people who have done ordinary and extraordinary things for peace, justice and humanity. Stories are the most effective way of showing our position in the world, showing we are not alone, and calling on others to join us. Stirring clarion calls to justice have their place but stories about people and their acts and work can often communicate in a way that will affect people deeply.
In the ‘Readings in Nonviolence’ feature in Nonviolent News we also try to tell many different stories as well as explorations of the meaning of nonviolence. The INNATE photo site is a different way to tell stories, visually.
In Ireland, INNATE is working with others to try to establish peace trails in a whole variety of places. There are a myriad of stories to tell. While this project is well off the ground, it has not yet achieved ‘lift off’ in terms of public knowledge and participation. The truth of the matter is that, while more areas are needed to be covered, it is better to do the initial work quietly and withour pressure to deliver a final product. When information is gathered on a number of areas then financing will be sought to produce all of them to a good and appropriate standard and format.
“The past is a foreign country” (L P Hartley) can be taken to mean that putting ourselves in the shoes of others from recent or bygone eras is a difficult ask; we are likely to misunderstand certain things. However being in the place associated with someone, or a particular action or event, can assist identification with the story and our understanding of it. This is particularly true when we are from, or identify with, a particular place which is featured. Thinking globally and acting locally can be greatly assisted by knowledge of those who have already done that and walked that walk.
There is no one template for peace trails. Where there is too little for a ‘trail’ then something can be a peace ‘feature’. Trails can focus on different things, in general an attempt is being made to include ‘peace, justice, inclusion and sustainability’. In Northern Ireland, that ‘inclusion’ certainly includes Catholic and Protestant but can also involve a variety of other minority or even majority (women are a slight majority on the island compared to men) groups or categories. Technological changes which have benefitted humanity, and important cultural features, can also be included.
The content and focus will obviously vary from place to place. But what will be in common is that work, that struggle, to make life better through establishing peace and justice.
If you have some stories to tell in your locality or region, why not start on creating something that will communicate these to others. INNATE will be very happy to work with you if we can be of assistance. The accumulation of appropriate stories, and information about any one story, can take time and effort but it is not rocket science.
In Gracehill, Co Antrim, during the 1798 rebellion the Moravian community provided sanctuary for people who were at risk of being killed by troops. In Belfast in 1786, Thomas McCabe successfully disrupted a business meeting to set up a company trading in slaves. In the early 1980s, at a time of tension in Belfast, Frank Wright painted out sectarian graffiti during the day so that people would see what he was doing. In Dublin in 1984 ten workers in Dunnes Stores refused to handle South African, apartheid, goods and continued their strike, at considerable sacrifice to themselves, until the Irish government banned the importation of South African goods almost three years later.
These are just a very few stories from different eras. If you look there are hundreds more that deserve to be told; please help INNATE to do so. More information about the peace trails project.
Following European elections North and South, recent local elections in the North, and more recent local elections in the Republic, some trends stand out. One trend is a possible chink in the sectarian nature of politics in Northern Ireland. A second point is something of a Green resurgence. The third is a decline in support for Sinn Féin, particularly in the Republic. We will look briefly at aspects of these features.
Naomi Long of the Alliance Party picking up the third seat in Northern Ireland EU elections has been debated in various ways. It is clear her increased vote was a ‘Remain’ one but it has to be debated as to whether this is a breakthrough by Alliance to a bigger league. They did substantially increase their vote and representation in the local elections, so they certainly have made a bit of a breakthrough. But challenging the bipolar sectarian nature of Northern Ireland, and its resultant sectarian politics, is another and rather more difficult day’s work, and Alliance’s vote is still very slim in most areas aside from Belfast and the north-east. It should be noted that the EU elections showed the arithmetic majority in the North in regard to remaining in the EU increased very slightly (pro-Remain candidates reckoned to have received 57% of the vote compared to 56% in the EU Referendum). It has still been an excellent result for the non-sectarian, middle of the road and generally ‘soft ‘u’ unionist’ Alliance Party.
A Green resurgence took place however, to a limited extent in the North but more in the Republic where Green candidates topped the poll in many Dublin electoral areas in the local elections. Amazingly, there are now more Greens on Belfast City Council than members of the Ulster Unionist Party. The Green vote in the Republic has finally recovered from the damnation received by its former coalition partnership with Fianna Fáil at the start of the recession. Climate issues are now centre stage but ensuring adequate action is taken by the Irish government, beyond the lip service it is so good at, is the issue.
It was a very disappointing time for Sinn Féin. They lost hand over fist in the EU elections in the Republic, and their local representation declined substantially. Martina Anderson topped the poll in the North’s EU elections but was actually the third person elected due to the lack of transfers, although their support in the North has changed little. But far from an inexorable rise to involvement in government both north and south of the border, Sinn Féin look like they have lost support in the left of centre environment to the Greens (and environmental issues are not ones which are prominent in Sinn Féin campaigning).
Along with the Ulster Unionists who lost their EU seat to Naomi Long, it is Sinn Féin who have lost most in the recent electoral period, and they have considerable work to do to regain what they have lost let alone make progress towards their goal of being a natural party of government in the Republic. The Green surge is a welcome development and we will have to see whether middle-of-the-road politics represented by Alliance in the North is having a new dawn.
Meanwhile, the recent comments by Seamus Mallon about a united Ireland needing a dual majority (Catholics and Protestants in the North) received much comment. The Good Friday Agreement’s “50% +1” as all that is required for a united Ireland is, by itself, a recipe for disaster (as we have written about in this space). On the other hand, with partition having been maintained on a simple majority, it is difficult to argue that a united Ireland needs majorities in both communities in the North, and a dual majority might mean intransigence is rewarded.
What is needed in proceeding in this area is clarity and a process. It is incumbent on the Irish government, and Irish nationalists, to explore what a united Ireland would or could mean; obviously this discussion should involve unionists, of all sorts, in the North who are willing to engage (and many won’t be so willing). But even if and when “50% + 1” is achieved for a united Ireland, there needs to be a process – both before and after the vote - which will arrive at the shape of any new state, along with laying out what rights citizens will have and how institutions will protect those rights, and how the economics of any new arrangement will ensure much needed economic development in the North.
Building a united Ireland would be a major project. After a hundred years of different jurisdictions, there are many different experiences and expectations and it cannot be a smooth ride all the way. But if it does come to pass there should be maximum preparation and consultation. It is clearly not going to happen today or tomorrow but knowing what possibilities and eventualities lie ahead is key to making it work at all, and allowing people to make rational and informed decisions about its possibilities.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column:
The recent reports on our eradication of biodiversity and the catastrophe of climate chaos highlight our inability thus far to grasp the full measure of what is required to prevent the annihilation of life on Earth. The front-page news headline of the i newspaper on the 7th May 2019 reads:
“Planet in crisis: ‘one million species at risk of extinction’
- Future generations will be at risk of starvation as food and water shortages grip world, warns landmark UN report
- Human behaviour, climate change, over-development and intensive farming ‘destroying nature’s safety net’
- Hope that 1,800-page report will spur world leaders into action”
The report is by the UN convened Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It took three years to write and is based on the work of 350 scientists and diplomats worldwide. Given its non-partisan pedigree it can be considered as humanity’s admission that we are the author of innumerable accounts of ecocide and rendering the planet increasingly unable to sustain life, including our own. Mass extinctions are only one of a multitude of environmental problems we are responsible for. Others include the depletion of soils, the loss of corral-reefs, air pollution and chemical contaminates in almost every living thing, including the human body. In regard to the latter refer to The Guardian, 19th May 2019.
An environmental problem that is at the forefront of peoples’ minds is climate chaos. According to the latest scientific reports we have until 2030 to become carbon neutral or else the global temperature will rise to a point that life on the planet will be seriously compromised resulting in a high number of human deaths, suffering, trauma and the collapse of civilisation. Extreme weather events connected with climate chaos are presently ruining the lives of millions of people, causing deaths in the hundreds of thousands and costing countries billions in hard currency.
A few decades ago global ecological collapse was widely thought impossible. When I was at primary school in the 1960s a teacher told the class that the ocean is so vast it could absorb the pollutants of the whole of humankind. In other words it was OK to take as much as we wanted from the ocean and dump what we did not want into it including munitions, sewage and the rubble of demolished buildings. This perspective applied to all of our dealings with nonhuman nature. The sky was thought limitless and so we pumped as much poison as we could generate into it, forests stretched from horizon to horizon and so we cut them down to manufacture home furniture, cardboard boxes and paper tissue, and as for nonhuman animals, we adhered to the Biblical teaching that we are the dominant species and nonhuman animals exist for us to do with as we like.
In this age of Extinction Rebellion, pupil strikes, masses of high quality research on the impact humankind has on the biosphere, Green Flag schools and programmes such as Eco-Eye (RTE) and Costing the Earth (BBC Radio 4) it is hard to believe that we were once so ignorant about our place in nature. In spite of the trajectory towards ecological and societal meltdown our innovative abilities give us the means to reconstruct global society in such a way that we live within its regenerative capacities whilst increasing the physical and emotional wellbeing of all.
The initiative for doing this, for igniting the change, lies with those not emasculated by extreme poverty, whose needs are so immediate they can’t think beyond the closing of the day. We in the rich world, the 1%, have the means to pioneer the transition to an equitable, ecologically sustainable society through reimagining ourselves as creatures with a cosmic identity. This is the realization that the aim of life is not to have more than what we actually need, not to aspire to be the dominant figure at the table, which is at the root of a great many wars, but rather live a life based on the knowledge that we are of the cosmos, are sustained by it, and at death merge into it. This extension of our identity makes real the fact that when we harm nonhuman nature we harm ourselves and the generations of life-forms to come.
This view of ourselves as cosmic beings, disposed to recognize and respect the rights of nonhuman nature, is nothing new. Hunting and gathering societies have long recognised that nonhuman nature has intrinsic value with defined and known interests. Some modern societies have woken to the need to legally recognise this. In 2008 Ecuador included the chapter Rights for Nature in its constitution. In 2011 Bolivia passed the Law of the rights of Mother Nature. A number of countries recognise bio-regions as legal entities with their own rights. In 2012 India recognised the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, as well as their tributaries, as legal entities with rights. Recognising nonhuman nature as having rights aligns with the late Polly Higgins’ campaign to have an international law on ecocide. Given that companies are recognised as legal persons acknowledging in law that nonhuman nature has rights is not that radical. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized corporate personhood as far back 1886 in the case Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad Co. (Wikipedia)
The website Wake up World gives a synopsis of the rights of nonhuman nature enshrined in Bolivia’s constitution.
“The law would give nature legal rights, specifically the rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance and restoration. Bolivia’s law mandates a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature. It calls for public policy to be guided by Sumaj Kawsay or Vivir Bien (an indigenous concept meaning “living well”, or living in harmony with nature and people), rather than the current focus on producing more goods and stimulating consumption.”
Campaigning groups could do no better than lobby their government to pass legislation recognizing the rights of nonhuman nature. Educational and religious bodies could compliment this effort through exploring the idea that we are cosmic beings, part of nature rather than separate from it. A heightened sense of ourselves as part of nature would benefit the entire bio-world.