Billy King: Rites Again 299

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Well, hello again, April has now been and gone and once more it looks like it was – as it is on average – the driest month of the year in Ireland. It wasn’t necessarily very warm all the time but some of my plants in tubs were looking very weepy for want of water. The weeds in the garden are doing well too.

The Planter and the Gael

It was 1970 and all hell (or maybe not all hell but a fair bit of it) was about to break out in Northern Ireland, not that anyone really knew that at the time. In a piece of perspicacious planning the Arts Council in the North arranged a tour by two poets under the title ‘The Planter and the Gael’; I don’t know who suggested it but I hail the originator of the tour. The two remarkable poets involved were John Hewitt and John Montague. It was an inspired programme and I am sufficiently long in the tooth to have attended one of the sessions, a privileged memory which has stayed with me. One of my possessions still is the booklet of poetry which went with the tour but had to be purchased separately to admission.

The two poems which I would like to refer to from what was presented are ‘Once alien here’ by Hewitt and ‘The Siege of Mullingar” (it was the Fleadh Cheoil, not a military siege) by Montague. Hewitt’s ‘Once alien here’ is quite well known and an exposition of how ‘a planter’ can belong and how he/they “must let this rich earth so enhance the blood / with steady pulse where now is plunging mood / till thought and image may, identified / find easy voice to utter each aright” – the ‘each’ being “the graver English, (and the) lyric Irish tongue”. In the middle verse where he refers to “The sullen Irish” and proceeds from there, I presume (hope) is is deliberately dealing in stereotypes and popular images and that his depiction should not be taken at face value.

John Montague’s poem, ‘The Siege of Mullingar’, is looking at the behaviour of young people at a fleadh cheoil and concluding “Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone / A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain”. It is a portrayal of a new Ireland, a changing Ireland, or maybe an old Ireland re-emerging, and it is very forward looking or prophetic, written as it was more than fifty years ago. Though when I see a portrayal of any society as monolithic in its views I always tend to question that; is it really monolithic or is it just appearing so because some people are unable to speak out? Was ‘puritan’ Ireland really a mixture of genuine puritanism and, to a considerable extent, enforced puritanism which people did not necessarily agree with but could not publicly dissent from? I think the latter. Maybe that still makes it ‘puritan’ but is nevertheless an important qualification. Maybe ‘society’ can be puritan when the majority of individuals aren’t so.

The title of the tour was ‘The Planter and the Gael’, emphasis added by me. Or, in relation to demographic changes in Norn Iron, that could soon be ‘The Gael and the Planter’. There are no ‘buts’ in that title, it is not ‘The Planter but also the Gael’. It is not ‘The Gael/Planter but we will allow the Planter/Gael a look in at some later point’. ‘And’ is the operative word. More than fifty years later Norn Iron can still learn from a simple title adopted for a poetry tour. Maybe such learning might even apply to the title of “First Minister and Deputy First Minister”,

Smoke and mirrors

There are so many competing narratives in life that it is sometimes difficult to navigate them, either in coming to a fair comprehension or avoiding going overboard. One such area is Brexit and the good old (or not so good in some people’s book) Northern Ireland Protocol. It is quite clear that the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson MP, has told various lies in relation to said Protocol, not just that he would never adopt such an approach (in a promise to unionists) but also that it would have no effects on trade and people could tear up any associated paperwork.

And various people go in various directions on the issue, including loyalists who see it as the thin end of a united Ireland wedge. And their concerns deserve being listened to. But they also need to listen to other perspectives, not least business exporters in the North who see inclusion in the EU single market as an opportunity, and the fact that even most unionists don’t put the Protocol as their top concern.

The British government meanwhile has been valiantly trying to use the Protocol as a stick to beat the EU (and the EU could have been a lot faster to compromise but trust was in short supply) saying all sorts of things such as they only agreed the Protocol (a binding international agreement) as a temporary measure, and even that if the EU didn’t reform the Protocol in an acceptable way they would reform it themselves. Ahem, it may seem strange to have to point out that an agreement (and particularly a legally binding international agreement) is an agreement between at least two parties and a position taken by one side is not an ‘agreement’; the British government doesn’t want to understand this simple fact of life.

And the senior British politicians who negotiated Brexit and the Protocol, now decrying it as a terrible affront to justice and Britishness, as if it had nothing to do with them, well, it takes some gall. Yes, everyone is entitled to change their mind but to make it look like they have been consistent requires stunning somersaults which should qualify them for some elite political athletic team.

Anyway, on occasions something penetrates the mist and a beacon of light shines forth. It can be argued (some loyalists disagree) that one such featured a former senior Norn Iron civil servant, Dr Andrew McCormick, in a statement which was quite clear. And he witnessed Brexit negotiations himself. “There is little credibility in any argument that the UK government either did not anticipate the implications of what it had agreed, or was constrained and unable to choose any other option. The facts and choices had been spelt out clearly over the whole period from 2016 onwards and the detail of the provisions (notably most of the applicable EU law contained in Annex 2 to the Protocol) were known at latest in autumn 2018.” He went on to say “its collapse would create uncertainty and instability – which cannot be in the interests of those who want Northern Ireland to succeed”.

Meanwhile the UK’s Lord Frost (quoted in the same report) spoke of how the EU was treating his negotiating team as “the supplicant representatives of a renegade province”. Eh, could this be because they are sick and tired of the whole matter and also it being a factor of the current power relationship involved? And the UK is not a ‘province’ now because it is fully outside the EU with the exception of Norn Iron staying in the single market.

In addition “He said he had assumed it would last only until Stormont voted on whether to keep the accord in 2024.” However this would not seem to accord with the fact that the British government stipulated this Stormont vote as a simple majority matter and not as a cross-community vote (i.e. that a majority of both unionists and nationalists would have to support it). My understanding was that the ‘simple majority’ method on the issue was adopted by the British government to ensure a ‘yes’ vote in support of the Protocol and therefore they were expecting (and supporting) it to last beyond 2024 and had no doubts about it – and the brilliant deal they were saying they negotiated – at the time.

But I do favour the EU being a lot more liberal in how the Protocol is enacted.


This issue has a piece on ‘Jesus and nonviolence’ by John Dear. INNATE is not a religious body though some people involved would be inspired by their religious tradition or beliefs, and others come from a secular background; the INNATE policy is respect for all people. We are equally happy to publish articles on religions, philosophies and beliefs other than Christianity and their relationship to nonviolence, and we have done so.

However I was musing the last time on the difficulty in finding a balance between religion and secularism, in our context in Ireland. There is an adjustment needed on all sides and I was thinking about how something Christians think of as deliberately not being ‘Christian’, to accommodate all comers, can still come across as being Christian to others.

However there is another side to the coin. Because of secularism and past oppression supported by Christian churches – in both jurisdictions on this island – including clerical sex abuse and institutional abuse of women and children – Christianity of any form or denomination is written off as a valid world view by many people today. ‘ABC’ as an acronym can mean many different things, from ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ in relation to wine, to Anarchist Black Cross in the political arena, or Always Be Careful, and a host of other things. But in our context here it can stand for Anything But Christianity.

However, and I hasten to add I am attempting to inform and not proselytising here, plus I have some experience of being on the unpleasant receiving end of actions by Christian churches or clerics, there are some things Christianity has going for it. Incredibly, many – most – Christians – including many prominent church people – don’t know that for the first two or three hundred years after Jesus it was incompatible to be a soldier and a Christian – in other words the early Christian church was nonviolent. What happened? Well, partly Constantine but I look forward (I am being facetious here – I will not hold my breath) to hearing church leaders explain why the change took place – I think it is spelt ‘p o w e r’. We have as a poster on the INNATE site (click on ‘Nonviolence and Christians’ ‘NC’) the quote from Mohandas Gandhi that “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians”.

The early Christian church was also communitarian and held goods in common. In Polish/German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s words, it was communist in consumption if not in production. So what happened to that? Maybe that was ‘g r e e d’.

And who usually presided over the Passover meal, which was what the Christian ‘Last Supper’ was? Why, the matriarch of the family. So almost certainly the ‘Last Supper’ had women at it (and not just those who cooked or served) – and the early church had women leaders. So what happened there that women were written out of the church and its early history? I think that one is spelt ‘p a t r i a r c h y’. And of course in Ireland later on there was St Brigid who had the status of a bishop.

Dangerous raging radicals, those early Christians; so there are some things in Christianity which we can draw on and refer to, whatever our beliefs in relation to religion, if we find it acceptable to do so – and some may not and that is fine too.

Not seeing the wood or the trees

The amount of land planted for forestry in Ireland (Republic of) in 2021 was just a quarter of targets contained in the Government’s Climate Action Strategy, the Central Statistics Office has stated, and the area planted has shrunk considerably over recent years. This is incredible. Instead of boldly going forward to a greener arboricultural future Ireland has been very bold (as in naughty) in going backwards. And the 8,000 hectares aimed for planting was itself reduced from an original 20,000 hectares.

This has serious implications for Ireland’s plans for net carbon zero by 2050. Yes, there have been problems with licensing and other issues – and local communities have to be engaged with and brought along in woodland areas -but it is the job of the minister and responsible bodies to sort all this out. It feels tree-sonous not to get this sorted, and it is certainly highly irresponsible on a global level, not to do our part, it goes against the grain to have such a wooden response. The issue should resin-ate with people in general. Some people need to turn over a new leaf, and introduce root and branch reform, fast [Or their bite needs to be stronger than their bark – Ed].

Well, that is me until next month when I will meet you in Nonviolent News Number Three Hundred – Nonviolent News has only been published monthly since 1994 and was occasional for a few years before that. And for most of the first ten years it was only two pages of news. Now, well, if you read it all you’re doing better than well and your day will be well gone [Just give it some well-y! – Ed]……..See you soon, Billy.