Category Archives: Billy King

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Billy King

BILLY KING: RITES AGAIN

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts [and the worst puns in town – Ed]

Well hello again, and welcome to you, April is usually the driest month in Ireland so it is (I hope this year too) a great time to be out and about. And if you are out and about, literally or metaphorically, I do hope you understand that the shortest distance between two points is the way that you want to go – and not a straight line, unless of course you decide that a straight line is the way you want to go. Going in a straight line, on anything, can be tedious; going in the way you want to go can be effortless and joyful. May a thousand crooked lines blossom.

Once upon a time

Once upon a time there was a country, part of an island, that was divided. And in the smaller part of that country there was further division between people. They could not agree and they could not agree to disagree, so they often killed each other, or forced people to flee from their homes, or did other horrible things to each other. Even when the killing stopped there was still pain and disagreement, and the people suffered because no way forward could be agreed on many things which needed agreement to proceed. The people In Control, at the top, added to the problems and indeed some had been involved in the fighting and killing.

When the killing had stopped inside this place, weapons of war were still made, and some of the people In Control gave more money to build new and more efficient weapons of war so other people could be killed elsewhere in the world, and so those In Control could go to war when they wanted. They called this peace. It was not peace. It was a shocking insult to anyone who respects peace and what has to be done for peace. It was really war. But, as we all know, war is peace, and money and jobs, no matter how terrible their product, are all that matters. This is what is positive in life. We should roll over and accept it.

Weapons of mass distraction

Things have certainly changed massively in a few decades in how news and views are disseminated. Social media means you can get news ‘out there’ even when the established ‘mass’ media ignore you – though the concomitant danger is when people only pay attention to the social media they agree with and ignore everything else. In this latter situation we arrive, as in the USA, at people in the same place living in parallel universes. [Sure Norn Iron has had parallel galaxies for hundreds of years – Ed]

However my comments on social media are a preface to asking some questions about the mass media in relation to a couple of recent peace actions in Belfast. The mass media still have inordinate influence. Both actions, deliberately (because of Covid), were small actions by a few people. The first took place at PSNI headquarters in Belfast on 22nd January 2021 when the TPNW/Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons kicked in to international law; see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/50862311953/in/dateposted/ The second was St Patrick protesting about military drone production at Spirit AeroSystems on 17th March 2021 (as mentioned in a news items in this issue); see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/51046065166/in/dateposted/

Press releases went out to ‘all’ the media, including broadcast. Five photographers turned up at the nuclear disarmament event. News items subsequently appeared in “The Irish News” and the “Andersonstown News”; this seemed to fit the Norn Iron stereotype of criticism of the British state only appearing in CNR/Catholic, Nationalist, Republican outlets but you would think that an issue of such political import as the UK acting illegally in international law (and totally ignoring said law) would be newsworthy for ‘everyone’ irrespective of national allegiance [What would make you think that? – Ed]. Obviously there was a good bit of theatricality in both, as in street theatre, particularly in the event with St Patrick – though St Patrick did issue a statement partly based or modelled on his ‘Confession’.

In the case of St Patrick making an appearance to drive out military drones and missiles, two photographers appeared (it was St Patrick’s Day) but we are not aware of any mass media coverage. The lack of coverage of the latter is particularly interesting as a) With Covid there were no other St Patricks about, b) Ditto Covid, the only ‘St Patrick’s Day issue’ in Norn Iron really around was whether there would be wild Covid-regulation-ignoring parties and rioting in the student Holyland(s) area of Belfast, c) Given the transferred imagery of St Patrick driving out drones rather than snakes, it did seem visually interesting. (and both events got a fair bit of social media attention, the first one ‘going almost viral’ in a couple of countries far from here).

So why did the mass media not bite? Was it they considered that a) Neither issue was of any importance or interest to readers/viewers/listeners and/or it just slipped through the net (which is the same thing), b) It was only a few peaceniks doing their thing harmlessly and they could be ignored – there was no drama and no violence involved, or c) In relation to Spirit AeroSystems (and Thales missile production which was also mentioned) there were jobs involved (550 at Thales) and ‘East Belfast’ jobs at that so that could not be questioned or raised as an issue, or d) Some unknown reason(s) understood only by the media workers concerned.

Answers on a postcard please, or an e-mail will do (seriously, comments to innate@ntlworld.com if you feel like speculating). If I was choosing, my money would be on the jobs but I be wary of conspiracy theories – though, as they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.

Near death can make you value life for everyone

Near death experiences can make you value life – not just your own life but others as well. There is a brief reference to this in an article looking at one man’s attempts to grapple with the phenomenon of near death experiences: Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson said that after their experience ““They see a purpose in life they didn’t see before. I don’t know of anything else that powerful.” When the writer of the article, Alex Moshakis, asked for an example, Greyson said “ “I’ve spoken to people who were policemen,” he says, “or career military officers, who couldn’t go back to their jobs, couldn’t stand the idea of violence.” I ask why. He says, “The idea of hurting someone becomes abhorrent to them.” He shrugs. “They end up going into helping professions. They become teachers, or healthcare workers, or social workers.” “

Very interesting. Near death experiences can of course be explained in a number of different ways, and the release of endorphins as we go on the voyage and passage to death may explain a lot and I am not going to get into possible spiritual ramifications of it all in this space. And I’m afraid it is highly unlikely I will be able to comment to you when I eventually get there. However, if the near death experience gets at the core of our being in some way, stripping away all the other layers of socialisation and environment, Greyson’s description actually puts nonviolence at the centre of our existence. In other words, nonviolence is deeply, deeply innate in us. And that is also pretty good when you are involved with an organisation named INNATE. See https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/07/the-space-between-life-and-death

The current Norn Iron situation in one sentence

A friend in another country, extremely well up on conflict, international affairs and nonviolence, asked me for my take on the current situation in Northern Ireland. I wrote over a page and a half or so in response. After he had come back again, saying he was always amazed at the complexity of conflicts, I wrote back with my partial summary of a summary, referring to Brexit: “Most Prods/unionists backed/bet on the wrong horse and are now complaining about the result – but they don’t deserve to lose their shirts”.

So there you have it. I hope you understand that this is not a nuanced (!) summary but a serious light-hearted attempt to put the current situation in Northern Ireland into a metaphorical one-sentence nutshell.

Spell chuck

The perils of the spell check going unchecked is something I detailed quite some time ago when I mentioned how, in an official Catholic Church press release, the now retired archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (a lovely man incidentally, may he have a long and happy working retirement) became Dairymaid Martin and bishop Colm O’Reilly became Calm O’Reilly. It got a bit more unintentionally derogatory and political recently when my spell check questioned ‘Irishness’ and gave the following alternatives for it; bearishness, whorishness and feverishness. ‘Britishness’ brought up no question and no alternatives offered whatsoever, and ‘Frenchness’ gave just ‘Frenchless’ and ‘Frenchisms’. Yes, I know we live on a small island but that spiel cheek could do batter.

Cy-CLING etiquette

The legal requirement to have a bell on your bicycle presumably dates back to the era before motor traffic was as dense as it is today. These days, in busy traffic, a bicycle bell is about as much use as an umbrella in a strong storm. Unless you are going to, as the British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell did years ago, instal a transatlantic yacht fog horn on your bike, you couldn’t make a sound impression on someone enveloped in what amounts to a big and insulated tin box (be that car or lorry). Maybe there is a gap in the commercial market to be filled here.

But in the era of lockdown and cycling along greenways and through parks, what about bells this weather? What bellwether indication could be given? Well, in such situations a bell is a necessary piece of equipment ar an rothar; for safety’s sake you may need to quickly advise a pedestrian or cyclist that you are behind them.

But is it considerate or inconsiderate to do this routinely where the passing space is limited? Because there is as yet no established common practice, different pedestrians, or indeed cyclists, may take it differently; some will appreciate the warning that there is something coming up and past them, while others may feel, “there go those arrogant cyclists again, ringing their bells as if they own the place”. You can startle people by ringing the bell and you can startle people by not ringing it.

A judgement is necessary and it is difficult to get it right all the time. If I ring a bell and someone then moves over, or, if it is a dog owner and they make an effort to control their dog, I will certainly bid them a greeting and thank you – they deserve it, and it also indicates that the bell ringing was not a hostile act but a friendly notice or warning.

Perhaps as cycling continues to grow in popularity, the ringing of a bike bell will become, as maybe it once was, a routine act of giving notice of your presence. However I have written before about practising considerate cycling which means making allowances for sudden movements by pedestrians, or others, and taking care not to frighten anyone, as much as possible. And ringing a bicycle bell still doesn’t give you ‘right of way’, care is still needed, and some pedestrians may be deaf or with earphones installed (not always a wise move, if you are going to use headphones out and about I suggest you make it singular – one ear in and one ear out, for safety’s sake) and not hear even the loudest and most persistent bell.

But, if you haven’t had your bike out over the winter then it’s time to give it a check and have it back on the road. You don’t need to give us a bell when you do.

Showering the frog

Showering the frog’ sounds like it might be a euphemism for some aspect of personal care and cleanliness, but recently I did, deliberately, shower ‘our’ frog. When I say ‘our’ frog, I am not claiming proprietary rights, it is a frog which happens to be resident in our suburban garden and it is very much its own being. And I was mentioning it rather recently [You must have a frog stuck in your throat, it was only last issue – Ed], I am not sure it is the only frog around as I saw a smaller, juvenile, one last autumn.

Anyway, I was working away on the back of our house, repairing a concrete plinth or trim which exists at the bottom of the brick wall of the house, going down to the ground. At one point where there is a vent to provide underfloor ventilation there was a part of this which was ‘boast’, loose, so I had to take the whole vent off. As I did so there was a small flurry of building dust and dirt, some of it extending over the thick clump of montbretia beside it (Montbretia – the late summer, orange flowering plant which has indigenised itself in Ireland’s ditches). Then I noticed something very dusty and dirty, around 10 cm long, moving. It took a few seconds to realise it was ‘our’ frog which presumably had been in the montbretia. Worried that it might attempt to jump into the hole where the vent had been and be stuck in there, I replaced the vent as best I could.

I know frog’s skin can be sensitive and I thought anyway it might not take to a covering of building dust. So I ran off to get the watering can and it was still there when I returned half a minute later: I gave the frog a shower to clean off the dirt. Maybe it felt better for the shower, I don’t know, but it soon hopped into the nearby sage bush and I didn’t attempt to follow it after that – I still had a wall and vent to repair.

However I can now add ‘showering a frog’ to my list of life experiences. It beats washing your hare any day, and more appropriate.

Well, here we are in April and hoping for to an easing in Covid controls when and as that proves possible – and brighter days, literally and metaphorically. It will be holidaying ‘at home’ again this year but there is still plenty to choose from, and remember Ireland has an interior as well as lots of coastal places worth exploring. Not that we should not celebrate our coastline, and this is a small enough island that you can combine coast and inland activities if you want. Everyone has their favourite spot or spots, and even somewhere like Dingle and Kerry, following the departure of a certain dolphin to the Great Seabed or Beyond, still has lots of non-Fungieable assets. [It’s Easter time and I am getting hot and cross about your puns – Ed]

Wherever you go, when you can go, just take care – of yourself and others. Until I see you again, Billy.

Billy King, NN 287

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Hello again. This is where we came in, this month a year ago, with lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions. I hope the year has not been too disastrous for you and that you have been able to take the good (such as less or no time commuting, and more positive time with family if you live with them, and more time with nature) with the bad. It has been a strange old year. One great boost in the early part of last year was the excellent weather – and April is usually the driest month in Ireland – so I hope the weather pattern will be repeated this year so we can really shake off those winter coronavirus blues. Though ‘a summer’ would be great too.

Still, there’s a grand stretch in the evenings – sez he as he raises his arms and pushes them outwards after tea-time….

No frog in my throat….

…but one in the garden, I have met them/him/her a couple of times recently, more visible at this time of year before foliage grows. I saw a young frog in the garden last autumn so I don’t know if we have two. We have a slightly bigger than average suburban garden which has a 2.75m wall around it and the only way in or out is through a garden door – or over the wall. I did wonder if native Irish frogs can climb as foliage from what had been wilderness the other side of one part of our back garden would have touched foliage in our garden – but the advice I received (from Ethna Viney no less) was that it would have come through the door.

A frog is certainly a gardener’s friend. The part of the garden when ‘our’ frog tends to be is much less problematic in terms of slugs and snails than elsewhere (though they may also eat worms which is not so positive for the soil). With a garden grown on organic lines, and a little bit of montbretia wilderness that I leave as 365-day cover, I hope it’s an agreeable environment. We first realised we had a frog a decade ago when I opened the back door to bring in the small compost bin we keep in the kitchen, it was draining after being washed, and in hopped a frog……that visitor was a bit of a surprise.

Frogs don’t actually need water except for breeding, as frogspawn and tadpoles need it, and where they get that around here I don’t know (maybe there are garden ponds I don’t know about). But it feels a privilege to play host to this particular variety of wildlife, and have our garden as a ‘croak park’ (we are an attentive audience when we see our friend). If the lifespan of the frog we have in this part of the world is 5 – 10 years it is just possible that my friend I saw recently is the same one that hopped through the door a decade ago.

Finishing with a joke, well, it’s actually a cartoon: A frog and a snail are comparing notes, the two of them having received the same invitation. One says to the other “This invitation that we both received to dinner at the French embassy does seem a bit suspicious….”

Michael D on imperialism

President Michael D Higgins was going well on his bikeldey (a reference to the Saw Doctors song about him….) and set a cat among a number of pigeons when he wrote about ethical remembering in Ireland concerning centenaries – and (British) imperialism. I have recently penned (keyboarded?) thoughts on colonialism so I will pick this up here as well.

Michael D is totally correct in sayingA feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together.” He goes on that “It is vital to understand the nature of the British imperialist mindset of that time if we are to understand the history of coexisting support for, active resistance to, and, for most, a resigned acceptance of British rule in Ireland. “ He states “In my work on commemoration, memory, forgetting and forgiving I have sought to establish a discourse characterised by what the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney calls “a hospitality of narratives”, acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events can and do exist. The acceptance of this fact can release us from the pressure of finding, or subscribing to, a singular unifying narrative of the past.”

However the bit that might have rubbed up some of our neighbours the most came in “while it has been vital to our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important and has a significance far beyond British/Irish relations.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/11/empire-ireland-century-partition-present-britain-history

Commentator Owen Polley responded in “The Daily Telegraph” in a piece entitled “The Irish president has a cheek lecturing Britons about history”. See https://headtopics.com/uk/the-irish-president-has-a-cheek-lecturing-britons-about-history-18662371 He accused Irish nationalists of being as guilty as the British, if not more so, in rewriting history. Of course there are some Irish nationalists who have done just that, and continue to do so. But Polley does not acknowledge the significant process which has been taking place in Ireland – in the North as well as the Republic – to examine history in ‘the decade of centenaries’, warts and all.

He is simply wrong in stating “The stories that the Republic tells itself about its formation have barely changed in 100 years and they are challenged rarely by its historians and columnists.” In saying this he either hasn’t been paying attention and/or hasn’t done his homework, and that statement by him is shockingly ignorant of what has been happening; if he had said it in 1966 it would be fair enough but not today. Though mentioning ‘warts and all’ reminds me of the old cartoon with a stern male school teacher, with cane, reading from the ‘New Balanced History of Ireland’; “And Cromwell, quite reasonably, told the Irish to go to hell or to Connacht….”

Certainly there are more voices in Britain criticising and analysing the great British empire than there were. But surveys have shown most people – and someone like Tony Blair has been of a like mind – indicate strongly that on balance the British empire was A Good Thing. Attention to this area arising from the Black Lives Matter movement has been because of popular feeling. The government and establishment in Britain have been trying to crack down on such ‘subversive’ (my adjective) activities as the National Trust examining links to slavery, e.g. through pressure on museums and other bodies to toe the line – and implicitly funding has been threatened for those who don’t. In relation to this area, the British government has a policy of ‘retain and explain’; this looks to me like it may well be a euphemism for a policy of euphemism about the past.

In the same piece Owen Polley states “In fact, Ireland was not a colony when partition took place. It had been part of the UK for over 100 years and was represented by 103 MPs in the House of Commons.” To label Ireland, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in relation to the ‘Ireland’ bit in any sense a ‘democracy’ under the Act of Union is flying in the face of reality. Ireland was not dealt with in any way equally or according to the wishes of its inhabitants (my piece in the last issue on how Ireland was treated in the 1846 Famine period is illustrative of this). And the only way in which this ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ was created in the first place was through massive bribery and corruption by the British government of Britain’s elite in Ireland in getting the Irish Parliament to vote itself out of existence. A massive sum of money was spent in bribes as well as the bestowal of various titles (I believe I have an ancestor, the brother of a member of Parliament, who was a beneficiary).

To imply this was ‘democracy’ – or in any way in accord with Irish people’s wishes, even at the time – is outrageous. And the Irish Parliament, while composed of a Protestant elite, was still gathering a bit of steam and self confidence in the late 18th century; a separate kingdom to Britain, it was still subordinate to that island. So the ‘United Kingdom’ of the 19th century as it related to Ireland was camouflaged colonialism because the island of Britain had all the power and superior numbers and the system was designed in the first place to subjugate Ireland after the 1798 Rising.

Yes, Ireland still has a long way to go in coming to terms with its history. However I would argue that Britain and those identifying as British have a longer path to tread. But let’s move.

Hats off to the people of Myanmar

The people of Myanmar have been through a huge amount. They face an enormous struggle against the might and entrenched power of the army. The situation is more blatant now but as some commentators have said regarding the military, “they never went away you know” in terms of the extremely military-friendly (biased) constitution. They have been taking a page out of D Trump’s notebook in alleging fraud at the last election, with absolutely no evidence, and this provided a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party. The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, lost massive international goodwill through their whitewashing of the brutally violent treatment, and genocide or ‘exocide’ by the army, of the Rohingya people. Suu Kyi has suffered much but both she and the NLD have also been accused of an imperious attitude to others; Suu Kyi is now detained again and subject to ridiculous trumped up charges.

There is no way the people deserve military rule which means there is little or no possibility of advancing human rights, freedom and democracy. A promise by the military of a general election in a year is a meaningless promise and it is probable that the army would only contemplate another election when they have rigged it sufficiently for their preferred candidates to win. What is the point for them staging a coup to allow the same – democratic – results a year later?

Apart from expressing solidarity with the people of Myanmar and asking for the maximum non-violent pressure (not entailing substantial harm for ordinary people) by governments and international business interests involved, I wanted to focus for a minute on the nonviolent actions taken to demand the restoration of democracy (such as it was). Whether these protests can be sustained remains to be seen but hopefully what public demonstrations remain possible, ‘disguised disobedience’ and international pressure can have sufficient effect over time for the generals to realise they are meant to be an ‘army’ and not a ‘government’, and a violent and repressive one at that.

One successful open tactic recently has been cars ‘breaking down’ and blocking roads. Hackers disrupted military and military government propaganda. A widespread campaign of non-cooperation with the new regime, and strikes – even some in departments controlled by the military – has been in place. There have been many more imaginative tactics to express dissent from the coup. However the military is getting more and more violent, and shooting to kill. It is amazing that any body, military or not, should be so isolated from the reality of people’s wishes that it sees a coup, and the force it must have known it would have to use to try to stay in power, as an answer to anything.

In terms of previous resistance to military rule, Francis Wade has said “Activists stacked political pamphlets on the roofs of stationary buses and watched them blow through streets and into people’s hands as the drivers took off. Underground journalists smuggled footage out of the country, sometimes travelling by foot across the border with Thailand to hand videotapes to waiting colleagues, or otherwise uploading footage to the internet via a router in a waiting car outside their home. Exiled female activists, acquainted with the generals’ superstitious fear that their power would be sapped if they came into contact with women’s underwear, posted pants and bras to Myanmar embassies. Farmers continued to till land confiscated by the military. Political prisoners discreetly held seminars in their cells. Teachers in ethnic minority regions refused to comply with orders to instruct only in the majority tongue. These acts all signalled that the opposition, even during the darkest days, still had life.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/11/generals-myanmar-seizure-power-military

Of course various countries and international bodies are implicated in the current situation. They may have suspended training for Myanmar police because of the coup, but the EU Mypol training scheme worked with the police – though they said only on ‘defensive’ policing. Crowd control techniques for military-controlled police? Sounds like a helping hand for all eventualities. The world needs to get its finger out to support the people of Myanmar.

That’s me for now. We are officially in spring. The daffodils are flowering, and, to use flowery language, I hope we are able to flower too, despite everything that Covid continues to throw at us. See you soon, Billy.

Billy King, NN 286

BILLY KING: RITES AGAIN

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Well, here I am again as 2021 wends its way and unfortunately to begin with it has been something of a replay of 2020, at least so far as Covid and the effects of it have gone. But spring is around the corner – however while I may identify as culturally Irish, I certainly don’t go with ‘spring’ beginning on St Brigid’s Day on 1st February….it is still f-f-freezing (well, the damp cold anyway if not below 0°) at this time. Nevertheless, time to check the seed packets and think about the garden, if you have one, or the window boxes and tubs or even the house plants.

Framing ‘the Famine’

It is a long time since I studied ‘the Famine’ of 1846 in history lessons, however it is something that I would have an interest in and so felt fairly ‘well up’ on. Perhaps not so, as the RTE couple of programmes (“The Hunger: the Story of the Irish Famine”, marking the 175th anniversary – available on the RTE Player) in late 2020 revealed in terms of what I learnt from them. Of course, as Afri, Sinead O’Connor, and Christy Moore have told us in different ways, and many others besides, “there was no famine”; there was food other than potatoes but the starving peasantry either had to sell it or had no money to buy it.

Christy Moore’s piece, “On a single day” (lyrics by Peadar Ó Riada, available on Afri’s CD “The Doolough Famine Walk – Music from a dark lake”), detailing the amount of food exported from Cork harbour ‘on a single day’ in 1847 is a tragic masterpiece, and each recitation of an item of food a shocking blow in the gut to the starving. The Irish language term, An Gorta Mór, (‘The Great Hunger’) is a much more accurate term for this period.

One of the comparisons which the programmes made was with how countries in mainland Europe dealt with the risk of starvation there, since the blight was present in those countries too. While the European mainland peasantry may have been less dependent on the potato, exports of food were stopped by the likes of France and Belgium, and free food given out as necessary. It was pointed out that part of such relative generosity (I say relative meaning relative to Britain’s record) was because of a fear of rebellion but it would not appear solely because of that. A million people died in Ireland; a tenth of that in mainland Europe in total.

Robert Peel’s Tory government of 1845 was portrayed as dealing fairly effectively to support people in Ireland following the partial potato failure of that year. But the Russell Whig government from 1846, with the infamous Trevelyan on board at the Treasury, intervened too little too late and ended schemes far too early; the government stopped public intervention measures in the summer of 1847, declaring the famine to be over, when the peasantry had exhausted all their resources – it was indeed ‘black ‘47’. People had nowhere to turn, and workhouses could not cope. The RTE programmes defined ‘the famine ‘ as lasting 7 years; the terrible Louisburgh-Doolough-Louisburgh famine walk, commemorated by Afri annually, took place in the spring of 1849.

The programmes also mentioned that the British government spent £8 million on famine relief in Ireland, much of it in loans to be repaid. In comparison £20 million was spent to reimburse British slave-owners during abolition in 1833, and £69 million on the Crimean War of 1854-6. In the same period as ‘the Famine’ in Ireland the government spent £14 million on ‘security’ – the army and police in Ireland – the best part of double the expenditure on ‘famine relief’, and the number of soldiers stationed in Ireland doubled. In fact the people of Ireland were generally too shell-shocked and impoverished or emaciated to rebel.

Britain brought about the ‘Act of Union’ of 1801 between Britain and Ireland through bribery and corruption. The idea was that Ireland would become an integral part of the United Kingdom. But what is very obvious from these two programmes and looking at how Ireland was treated at this time, particularly by the Russell government, is that it was still considered a colony and an inferior place occupied by very inferior people. The ‘Union’ was a sham. The treatment Britain meted out to Ireland, and the lack of action, would not have been tolerated had it been happening in England. But as we have explored here before, the colonial mentality is one which can be acquired, in a different way, by the colonised as well as the colonisers.

Scary stories

It was a long, long time ago, so long ago that it feels like aeons, another existence. It was relatively early on in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, an unnamed year in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland. Like many such towns it was – and is – a very divided place, you could feel and often see the division. I have told the story before of going up the main street at this time to buy a pair of trainers; the shop assistant, seeing me in shorts and t-shirt, asked if I was on holiday. No, I said, I’m working on a playscheme. She asked me where. When I said the name of the Catholic estate concerned I was then told, by someone ostensibly there to sell me a pair of shoes, that “You are working in the wrong end of town.” This was said dead seriously, no hint of irony or divilment. I didn’t buy my trainers.

I was there for 6 weeks on a summer playscheme in a working class estate which was Catholic and known as a Provo stronghold; however, as with all such cases, if you dug deeper there were all sorts of political and apolitical views present, and it is a lazy stereotype to simply put one label on it and the multiplicity of people living there.

One woman I met there had comforted a dying British soldier as he lay on the ground, shot as he patrolled by on a walkway at the back of her house; her courage and action in doing so would indicate that she would not have supported the shooting which killed the victim.

I will share three stories here from this time, all different, and the last one light or slight and perhaps hopeful. The playscheme had half a dozen workers, mainly students like myself and they included several from England. To produce newssheets or slips advertising events which we were organising, we used a duplicator. For those sufficiently young not to know what a duplicator was, it was a stencil and ink printing machine; you ‘cut’ the stencil using a typewriter without a ribbon, put the stencil on the inked drum, and ran the paper through. The ink came through the cut part and created your printing. It was efficient enough, and cheap, but not too cheerful. They were the photocopiers of their day.

We used a duplicator located in the house of the local Provo chief, though it was Mrs Provo Chief there when we would have gone to duplicate. One day I went with another volunteer. When we were finished we were told that they were moving the duplicator into hiding as they were expecting a British Army raid and the duplicator would have been taken (and not given back). A petition had been organised against internment and some squaddies (British soldiers of ‘private’ rank) had signed so they were expecting a kind of retaliation. I can still remember almost exactly the words I said, and being more local I spoke rather than the English volunteer; “Presuming that we can’t use it where it is going, do you know of another duplicator around that we could use?”. There was nothing obvious and we said our thanks and left.

It then came back to us through someone involved in community work locally, and a friend of the playscheme, that we had said to Mrs Provo Chief that we weren’t happy with the decision to deny us use of the duplicator, and could we speak to Mr Provo Chief’s superior….. To this day I still don’t know how this interpretation could have arisen from what I said, but somehow it had. The person informing us managed to pour some calming oil on troubled waters, and we did find another duplicator to use. In such a situation and time the Provos also acted as sexual morality police; a warning came, via the same route, for a male volunteer not to get too close to a local married woman.

The second story I will tell of this time is genuinely scary in a ‘things go bump in the night’ way. Us volunteers on the playscheme were accommodated in local people’s houses on the estate, sometimes at considerable squashed discomfort for the family concerned. For some of the time I stayed, along with another volunteer, in the house of a local woman; we will call her Annie Phelan (not her real name). Tragically Annie was killed a couple of years later by her sister’s boyfriend, killing her and seriously injuring her sister; this was not a sectarian killing.

Anyway, Annie told us about her brother, John Phelan (also not his real name). John had bought a speed boat to use on a local body of water a couple of years previously and, tragically, had been drowned. The boat was found straight away but it was a couple of days before John’s body was recovered. One of the people who went searching for John’s body was a Protestant friend of his who was a policeman, in the RUC; there is a tragic and political-sectarian twist to this story as this policeman was subsequently killed, in an IRA action, by a former classmate of John’s.

But on to the denouement of the story. When this policeman was still alive he was in the old police barracks in the town. I don’t know how it happened, whether there was a reason to open an old police record tome, but anyhow he was reading a particular page and saw a bone-chilling fact. His friend John Phelan had been drowned at a particular named location on the body of water referred to, on a particular day, month and year; exactly 100 years previously, to the day, another John Phelan had been drowned at the same spot on the same body of water.

It may have been a weird coincidence but if my name was ‘John Phelan’ I wouldn’t be going out on the water there, or elsewhere, anywhere near the centenary of this drowning and the bicentenary of the other.

The final story is lighter and more hopeful. A small camping trip took place as part of the playscheme to an attractive forest park. As with many such events, our biggest problem was getting the teenagers, and in a few cases just-preteenagers, to settle at night time. When asked to go and gather wood for a campfire we had not thought to say, “Only gather dead, lying wood”, which we had wrongly assumed those gathering would have known. Someone axed down a small sapling in a prominent position quite close to a park ranger’s house, a useless action anyway because green wood burns appallingly badly; I applied some mud to the stump to make it look like the sapling had been gone some time or was never there……

But what I discovered, delightfully and accidentally, while on this trip was that two of the campers were Prods; a young lad had invited two of his friends from outside the estate. Natural mixing between people at a time like that was a pleasant picture of what could be in Norn Iron, and a symbol of a more hopeful future. You would have to take hope from such a small, and in other contexts insignificant, event; a bit of more conventional ‘normality’ in a situation which was anything but that.

Atheist Catholics and Protestants

Ian Paisley MP (the namesake son of the Rev) got in trouble recently for referring to “the Catholic IRA”. And so he should. The Catholic church was a vehement critic of republican violence throughout the Troubles and while individual ‘Catholics’ might have been involved, the Catholic church was considered a safe pair of hands, relatively speaking, by the British government, e.g. for funding to local areas (Perhaps I should point out that I am not advocating approval by the British government as some kid of positive test but to show they were not seen by them as supporting violence in any way). And many Catholics were involved in myriad ways in dealing with, and trying to overcome, violence.

It did seem a sectarian point Ian Paisley was making. Using this descriptive term in any way was a somewhat bigoted statement (although he later said he made ‘no association’ between the Roman Catholic Church and the IRA). But the problem is also that the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ mean a whole variety of different things in Norn Iron. You can be a ‘cultural Catholic’ or ‘cultural Protestant’ and also an atheist. The acronyms ‘PUL’ and ‘CNR’ (‘Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist’ and ‘Catholic, Nationalist, Republican’) are an approximation of cultural and political identity for which religious background is a badge. Without considerable nuancing, the language used is not up to the task of being fair and accurate.

Ian Paisley was certainly not trying to be nuanced in his statement. However in saying what he did about the ‘Catholic IRA’ maybe Ian Paisley was simply on the PUL. And maybe his mind wasn’t on the job and he was thinking of holidays abroad…..undeclared freebies he has received in the past include one from a government that discriminates against Christians in general, something which is more than a bit odd considering where he is coming from. He doth Protest-ant too much.

Before I go, I will just say I have to admire Alexei Navalny’s courage. I don’t know much about the guy, and he is far from being a progressive or radical on many issues (e.g. it would seem he is still a Russian nationalist of a sort), but his anti-corruption work has been impressive. To come home to his own country, Russia, and face years of imprisonment by the regime which almost killed him by poisoning some months before, well that requires single-minded courage.

And I will end with sharing a great little online video. ICAN, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons https://www.icanw.org/ is the international body that successfully coordinated the campaign to have nuclear weapons banned. Well, in celebration Scottish activist Penny Stone put together a can-can video, see it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyXrBYJuP1s&feature=youtu.be It is wonderfully silly though with a sensible refrain to keep dancing the can-can until the British government signs up…….

Well, that is me again. Stay warm, stay safe, and see you again soon, as ever, Billy.