Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
Welcome again, my friends [Surely ‘friends’ should be singular? Ed] [You are being singularly difficult, you thran thing, you – Billy] to my May musings, some of which may amuse you. [Or belong in a museum? – Ed] Well, spring is now well on and I have often said before how ‘honesty is the best policy’ – I have loads of both white and mauve specimens of honesty in flower, thankfully, to give colour after the daffodils faded away. It is almost time to put delicate specimens of plants outside but in the cut and thrust of political and peace life you can’t be too delicate or you would never get out…..
Speaking of which, I thought the best humorous take on the Good Friday Agreement love in was the word bubble in Phoenix magazine showing a picture of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern where they are saying “Give peace a chancer”. I take that as a general comment on their machinations rather than specifically about the GFA which they did put some effort into, particularly Bertie who journeyed north immediately after his mother’s funeral to try to contribute, so credit where credit is due (and Bertie has a lot of other debits where debits are due).
Who fears to speak of ‘98?
Well, it is amazing to see 1998 and The Good Friedegg/Belfast Bap Agreement rendered as “’98” when “’98” to me certainly means 1798. But what is a couple of centuries between friends? There are however some people who still fear to speak of 1998 because that agreement has never been fully implemented and the stop-start-stop nature of powersharing/carve-up is a sorry tale of missed opportunities to take Norn Iron in a more positive direction.
Of course 1798 led to the 1801 Act of Union (1st January 1801 so obviously set up in 1800) which subjugated Ireland in a different way to being a subordinate separate kingdom, incorporating it into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; with the island of Britain having at that time slightly more than twice the number of people, ‘democracy’ was in sort supply. As has been mentioned in these pages recently, the Irish Parliament voted itself out of existence because of bribery and pressure by various arms of the British government (the same method had been used to bring about the union with Scotland previously) so for unionists to uphold anything to do with the Act of Union is, to me anyway, a bit bizarre. You can see where they are coming from but the details don’t stand up to any kind of democratic scrutiny, and the promises and expectations of fair treatment for Ireland were unmet.
The picture of the bringing about of the Act of Union is, however, not all bribery and corruption as https://www.historyireland.com/an-act-of-power-corruption/ reveals. Nevertheless to call it in any way ‘democratic’ is stretching language a bit far.
Coronation military fest
As you may know if you are a regular reader of this Colm I am not a royalist for a variety of reasons. But one of those reasons, which has been expressed in these pages, is the tie up between the British royal family and the military. Queen Elizabeth’s funeral was 95% a military pageant; King Charles’ coronation will be likewise (“the largest military ceremonial operation in 70 years” – News Letter). Military pageantry may be stirring for some while for me it stirs memories of war and a whole variety of other things including that militarism is the first refuge of untrammelled state power and, in the British context, a symbol of class and economic inequality (the military being used to make some part of the establishment look good when its policies are threadbare).
There will be 6,000 armed forces personnel involved in King Charles’ coronation event. To what end? To add military clout to religious clout bestowing je ne sais quoi mais vraiment rien on the new monarch. The military aspect alone – and royal family members falling over due to the weight of medals they have been given for doing nothing – makes me reject it as a spectacle. When the organs of the state do so much to inculcate militarism is it any wonder people in general, of all sorts and beliefs, decide violence is the way to go and get things done?
A sinking feeling
Ruby Wax waxed strongly recently on a visit to the Titanic Museum and hotel in Belfast labelling it as macabre and said that she was left shaking and traumatised as a result. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/entertainment/news/comedian-ruby-wax-brands-belfast-titanic-experience-traumatic/328373932.html She wondered whether there are interactive rides at other disasters.
Various people attacked her but I sympathise. The Titanic story is obviously BIG but there is something a tad strange about such a successful visitor attraction being created around a disaster (“Come to Sarajevo where the First World War started – Experience the moment crown prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated” ?). If the Titanic had lived out its expected working life ploughing the seas across the Atlantic then the ship would be remembered as a luxury liner but only as one of many ships built in Belfast and primarily by aficionados of historic ships – and there would certainly be no Belfast visitor experience about it.
Of course all human life is there in the story – “Man’s pride can be his own downfall” as Johnny McEvoy sings in the best song about the disaster (you can word search his name and “The ballad of John Williams” but I suggest you choose his original video which is wonderfully anachronistic – cheaper that way – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOX5wIeKEcw ) that never even utters the name ‘Titanic’.
You can of course buy Belfast T-shirts emblazoned with “She was all right when she left here”. But she wasn’t OK when she left Belfast and this was nothing to do with the workers who built it. There weren’t enough lifeboats because the company wanted more first class promenade space; the rivets used were the ‘best’ which were inferior to ‘best best’; the hull and bulkhead design was deficient in relation to possible flooding making the ship unstable if the outer shell was breached below the water line; a fire in coal bunkers may have weakened the hull. It is a sad, sad story of pride coming before the downfall that Johnny McEvoy sings about, and I guess it is the contrast between the hype and the reality of what happened which has made the story so compelling and such a draw. But whether you want to indulge in Titanicitis (enthralment about the Titanic and its stories) is up to yourself.
Unionist unity unties unctuous ultimatums
Understanding unionism in all its forms in Norn Iron is a difficult task, even for commentators from within that broad tradition – and calls for unionist unity can be a) a call to keep them’uns out (the same can apply on the republican side) and b) an attempt at a sectarian roll call. The DUP has made some cataclysmacly bad strategic decisions in recent years which has contributed significantly to the current situation of there being something of an economic border in the Irish sea between Norn Iron and Britain, and a Norn Iron budget which is reducing rapidly at the rate of inflation. However we do need to understand the unionist minds (not one mind, mind). A good example of this came recently in a post by ‘Choyaa’ on the Norn Iron political website Slugger O’Toole (no relation to Fintan!). It is at https://sluggerotoole.com/2023/04/16/searching-for-the-holy-grail-of-unionist-unity/ written by Fermanagh unionist Choyaa.
His account is a critical but also nuanced one from within. “As a consequence of internal divisions and warring factions, Unionism has suffered, the bloc has shrunk, it’s continually on the back foot and there are endless fears about further splits. A movement whose core objective is to maintain the Union with Great Britain but cannot maintain any form of union with itself is an irony not lost on many….At every big decision in Northern Ireland’s history, Unionism has found itself split, isolated, or both, and each time the UK government has dismissed Unionist opposition. ”
“Even the fundamentals are problematic within Unionism with so many having a different interpretation of what a Unionist is leading to the term “real Unionist” being bandied about, but what exactly is a real Unionist? Is it enough that someone votes to remain as part of the UK on referendum day, or should there be a core set of values that Unionists subscribe to? Many people within the “Other” bloc don’t want to be labelled a Unionist due to some of the connotations it conjures up, whilst others for the same reason prefer the term “Pro-Union”, this opens the possibility for a rebranding within Unionism along with some modernisation. ……”
“Developing a coordinated approach within Unionism that can produce a plan to not only make Unionism an attractive option but the Union with Great Britain should be central to Unionist thinking. Ending the infighting (not the debates/introspection) and selling a vision of Unionism and Northern Ireland that is positive and attractive is a difficult ask, it’s much easier to remain at that crossroads dithering, squabbling and slowly dying. …” However I don’t expect unionist unity any time soon while on the other side of the fence the only unity is coming from the ongoing march of the Sinners (with a pronounced ‘h’ after the ‘S’!) and the ongoing electoral decline of the SDLP.
A positive future for Norn Iron, in a United Kingdom or an incipient United Ireland, needs a confident unionism which can negotiate for the future and what role and status they will have. Political unionism is no longer in an arithmetic majority though the North is far from 50% +1 voting for a united Ireland at this point in time.
Richard Deats didn’t accept defeats
Richard Deats was a longtime peace activist in the USA who worked for the FOR/Fellowship of Reconciliation there for three decades, with a long activist history before that. He died in April 2021, aged 89. A word search will throw up more about his life and work which was significant both in the USA and internationally. However why I am mentioning him here in particular is because I wanted to quote a few stories or jokes from his 1994 book “How to keep laughing – even though you’ve considered the facts” – I’m not not sure where I got the book but as it was published by FOR-USA it might have been from Richard himself at some international peace event.
Some of the entries are a bit US-specific and some are older than the hills [Rather like your attempts at humour then so you have something in common – Ed]. But, as the title might imply, if you didn’t laugh you’d cry, and we could do a lot of crying so laughing is a better option. Many of the stories in the book aren’t to do with peace or even politics but here are a few to lighten your day, a slight majority in my selection have turned out to be religious –
Regarding the USA’s involvements abroad, “Syndicated columnist Dave Barry defines the Monroe Doctrine as having three parts:
1) Other nations are not allowed to mess around with the internal affairs of nations in this hemisphere.
2) But we are.
3) Ha, ha, ha.” Many’s a true word was spoken in jest.
“John Kenneth Galbraith referred to 1980s Reaganomics as ‘horse and sparrow” economics: the idea that if you just give enough oats to horses, some will be discharged on the roads for the sparrows.” There is a lot of this approach about.
“Chant of a gathering of liberals:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“In due course.” “
And one of the best religious jokes: “A Zen disciple goes up to a hot-dog vendor in New York City’s Central Park and says, “Make me one with everything.” “
“But my favourite story about an evangelist has to do with the time Billy Graham preached in Edinburgh, Scotland at the height of the Cold War when there were great fears about nuclear war. Lord George MacLeod, Moderator of the Church of Scotland and IFOR President, went up to Graham during a reception and said, “Billy, what do you think of nuclear weapons?” Replied Graham, “Well, I am an evangelist and my job is to lead people to Christ. Once they have been saved, then they will know how to deal with questions like that.” “Well, Billy,” said MacLeod, “you’ve been saved. What do you think of nuclear weapons?”
“Once I received a letter asking if the Fellowship of Reconciliation was a non-prophet organization.”
And a final and old one: “A Philadelphia rabbi was asked if he knew that many of his members had become Quakers. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “some of my best Jews are Friends.”
Meanwhile an esteemed (e-steamed?) colleague in the peace movement has suggested that we should have a regular feature entitled ‘Negotiating Conflict’ to be written by P. Steele. [I had to steel myself not to groan – Ed] [Blame him, not me, I am just repeating it for pun-ishment – Billy]. With that thought I bid you a fond farewell until next month’s instalment though maybe in-stall-ment is reserved for Stormont, I don’t know….Billy [At which point there is a general collapse of readers – Ed] l