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Billy King


Nonviolence News



Nonviolence: An Introduction
1. Bringing About Change: Nonviolence and political struggle

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‘Politics’. The very word conjures up many different kinds of images. In Northern Ireland party 'politics' is seen as not only being dirty (as in 'getting your hands dirty') which it would be elsewhere but also dangerous because of the risks which have been associated with it if you stick your head up over the parapet, something which will change slowly. But politics is not just about party politics - this is a key part of it - but about seeking to influence how decisions are made and policies implemented by the government and by other bodies and organisations. 'Politics' happens on a day-to-day basis in all our communities, local and otherwise.

'Nonviolence' may have differing meanings for people. In one way it can be defined, negatively, as an unwillingness to harm other people; put positively, it involves complete respect for other people - pretty difficult in a world where deriding your opponent has been turned into an art form! So does nonviolence become a nice, polite, irrelevance? This short piece tries to argue that nonviolence is not only relevant to politics but also successful.

Northern Ireland is used not only to the politics of sectarianism and the sectarianism of politics, but also a situation in which normal political issues such as unemployment, poverty, policy issues and health are neglected because of the sectarian and violent situation, even when a local administration is in place. While co-operation does happen to a surprising degree across a number of barriers, there is a large lack of trust of people on 'the other side'. And everything is seen in win/lose terms; if Protestants gain, Catholics have to lose, if Catholics gain, Protestants have to lose. It may be difficult to see and follow through the possibility of 'win/win' solutions, where everyone gains something; but, to put it in its most simplistic terms in relation to Northern Ireland, what if unionists have increased and real security (not the military kind) and nationalists increased recognition of their identity in a 'win/win' solution?

In the Republic, various scandals regarding politicians have increased the already existing scepticism about what politicians are there for. There is a need for integrity, for clarity of purpose, and for a vision beyond simply milking the Celtic Tiger, when so many social needs remain unmet.

Changing Shoes
When I approach things nonviolently I seek to learn about and understand the other person. I try to step into that person's shoes. I try to respect and appreciate her or him. In Quaker and religious terms I am seeking to recognise 'that of God' which is present in everyone; in non-religious terms, simply to respect the other's humanity. If I try to do this, I begin to discover what makes the other person tick; what their priorities and essentials are. I am then more likely to approach the person in a sympathetic way which enables him or her to react positively. It is very easy to make demands in a way which seems to involve total surrender; with a nonviolent approach this should not happen and understanding and imagination can come to the rescue.

But its does not mean that we have to give up on our own political ideas and aspirations. Rather it means that we appreciate the other person has valid political ideas; we recognise we need to get to know them, to build up a relationship with them. Once we start to do this we can look at ways in which we can develop 'win/win' solutions rather than 'win/lose' solutions. Because it is effective it can be adopted for 'pragmatic' reasons ('it works') as well as 'moral' reasons ('it's the right thing to do').

But complexities and difficult issues remain. 'Boycotting' is a classic nonviolent tactic which can be used to great effect (the business sector was an important factor in leading to changes in apartheid South Africa, in response to boycotts and economic pressure). But, to take the Northern Ireland context, is it legitimate to boycott a shop because you disagree with the political orientation of the shop owner? Internationally, sanctions against Iraq have been seen to bolster Saddam Hussein and injure ordinary people. Such questions need to be considered in the wider context of what is likely to lead to progress in a situation.

What if the other person or group refuses to budge over an injustice we suffer and feel? What then? Nonviolence has a range of options. We can ask for the help of a third party, respected by both sides in the dispute (see later on third party interventions). We can use our imagination to explore creative ways of bringing the other side's attention to the issue and our concerns. This can be symbolic, such as a demonstration or piece of street theatre, or it can be nonviolent intervention - which can take many different forms (including economic action or physical intervention). It was, for example, nonviolent direct action which brought about negotiations with the company prospecting for lignite on the western side of Lough Neagh, some years ago.

'Nonviolent direct action' is where we use our bodies in some way as a nonviolent weapon in a political cause or do an action which is deliberately illegal (e.g. destroying GM/genetically modified crops). It is often used by mothers or parents in blocking roads to protest against traffic accidents involving children. It was used to some effect during Bishopscourt Peace Camp in Co Down between 1983-86 in protest against the radar base which was then located there. It has been used with effect in Britain against road developments and in Germany against nuclear waste shipments. A key point of such nonviolence is that protesters accept the consequences of their actions; while they may vigourously contest any resultant court cases they will openly admit the actions they were involved in.

Sometimes power is equated with brute force. There is a good little exercise done in pairs; one person is told to clench their fist and the other person is told to get it open. It is extremely difficult to force open someone's fist! You may risk injuring them if you take it too far. But what if you offer a hand of friendship, a handshake - the other person is likely to respond by opening their hand to shake yours. Brute force or aggression usually antagonise the very people you seek to influence so that the end result can be worse than the first.

Nonviolence has a lot of strength; it aims to be strong but sensitive, determined but not damning the other side. Those using nonviolent action don't claim to be 'pure' in the sense of having solely altruistic motives! Those who believe in nonviolence should be fully aware of their own drawbacks and deficiencies - it's certainly not a matter of being perfect. But in dealing with an injustice which we feel, we have a moral strength in dealing with the issue in a way which is least threatening to the other side, and least likely to divide and alienate our own supporters. We are not made to feel guilty about dealing back dirty deed for dirty deed. Our openness and respect for the other should make communication easier.

Nonviolent Possibilities
Our attention to planning, and taking into account possible responses from the other side, are important. We use our imagination. We can have a range of aims. An opponent can come to agree with us (be converted); they can agree to deal with the particular issue in question because that is easier for them (accommodate us); they can also be forced to deal with an issue because of public opinion or for economic or other reasons (pressure or even coercion of this kind is a possibility within nonviolence).

Nonviolence is an approach essential to the future of this island, North or South. The range of possibilities and approaches within nonviolence are enormous. Politics is sometimes defined as the art of the possible; in Northern Ireland this has become the art of the impossible (because each side expects of the opponent what is impossible). Nonviolence is a way to break through the impossibilities by building relationships of growing respect and interdependency. It's a long road still out of the quagmire in Northern Ireland, and nonviolence is an important and essential part of that road.

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:

  1. Is nonviolence relevant to change and political struggle? If 'yes', then in what ways?
  2. How difficult is change on different situations? Think of, or list, different situations (e.g. poverty and unemployment at home, sectarianism in Northern Ireland, racism and the need for multiculturalism, world poverty and justice etc.). How can change take place on these issues?
  3. Do you enjoy being involved in 'politics' and political change?
  4. What kind of nonviolent tactics do you think are appropriate or inappropriate in our situation and for the causes you believe in?

]Read on to the next chapter]

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