Category Archives: Editorials

Only the ‘Editorials’ from 2021 onwards are accessible here. For older Editorials please click on the “Go to our pre-2021 Archive Website’ tag on the right of this page.

Editorials, NN 288

So what is democracy?

While we cannot realistically expect to have one agreed definition of democracy in societies which call themselves ‘democratic’, or indeed in any one of those societies, the concept of democracy is woefully ill-defined in general. It can thus be used by autocrats and dictators, by rabble rousers and crooks as they see fit. However this relates closely to nonviolence since meaningful inclusion in society, and in society’s decision making, is not only an important part of democracy but also an important part of arriving at a nonviolent society; without such inclusion there is exclusion, and exclusion breeds ill feeling and violence even if such violence is not directly undertaken or sought by those in power.

The first thing to say is that democracy is not just about voting, though voting and how voting takes place may be an essential part of it. Participation by citizens can take many different forms, not least campaigning and organising on particular issues, and this is an important part of it; the freedom to organise and campaign. Without the latter, aimed at influencing other citizens and the government, anything else is a sham. ‘Participative’ democracy is not an option, it is of the essence.

If the term ‘democracy’ breaks down to the Greek for ‘rule by the people’ there is still the question or questions – what sort of rule? And which people? Some definitions do include freedom and equality in their definition – e.g. “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves” (Cambridge Dictionary, online). When you look at one definition, you then need more; what do ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ mean? ‘Equality’ is not currently understood as economic equality, that is for certain, in a world which has become much more unequal – and where the rich can use their money to influence decisions for good or ill.

However some definitions also include the concept of ‘majority’ rule, even ‘rule by the majority’. And what does this mean? That a majority can ride rough shod over the wishes of a minority? Or that the arithmetic majority political elite are the only ones to count and be counted, certainly between elections? Any definition of democracy which simply defines it as majority rule is asking for problems since it justifies a multitude of sins, even what is taking place to Uighurs in Xinjiang in China, perpetrated by the majority Han Chinese government (though the one party system in China does not fit at all with free democracy).

This leads us on to the problem of defining, and working, democracy in deeply divided societies – whether that be in the USA in relation to Trumpism or in the UK in relation to Brexit. These are ‘current’ divisions which have links to longer term political divisions. Then there are societies where there are historical ethnic-political divisions, such as Northern Ireland, where democracy is taken to mean whatever suits someone’s particular interests at any time. And in the latter, even armed struggle can be engaged in pursuit of their understanding of ‘democracy’ by different sides.

As is well known, there has been a resurgence of right wing politics in many ‘western’ and other societies in the recent past. Governments in these societies not only wrap the flag around themselves and adopt an authoritarian approach to people and issues. Can there be a ‘democracy’ where the government acts in an undemocratic way? Of course; democracy is not something given – it is something achieved and vulnerable. There are many different ways of assessing the level of democracy existing in society; these include not just regular free elections but ease of access to these elections (e.g. this makes the USA less ‘democratic’ because of the enormous practical and financial barriers to participating in federal elections). Other factors include the freedom to organise (in political parties, pressure groups and free trade unions), an independent judiciary, and a government which is at least somewhat responsive to popular will, subject to human rights concerns.

The last phase ‘subject to human rights concerns’ is necessary because ‘responding to the people’, if the demand is for xenophobic petty nationalist policies, can be totally antidemocratic in regard to others in the country, citizens and migrants, who may then have basic human rights ignored. So adherence to international human rights standards is also a key aspect of democracy.

All of this might seem to make democracy very complicated and difficult. It can be if you let it. But there are innovative methodologies which are a significant help. The use of the citizens’ assembly model in the Republic, trusting a random selection of citizens to thrash out issues, has been very useful to setting an agenda for politicians to then take forward. The similar-but-different Civic Forum in Northern Ireland, arising from the Good Friday Agreement, was not entrusted with similar faith by political parties there and bit the dust as a result; this was a mistake. Political parties can be very jealous of others engaging in democratic debate and this is particularly true in Northern Ireland.

Voting methodologies are also an important aspect of democracy. The British first-past-the-post voting methodology, used in Westminster elections including in Northern Ireland, is the antithesis of a fair or representative system. PR-STV (Proportional Representation – Single transferable Vote), as used in Dáil and NI Assembly elections, is a much fairer system though it still allows parties with significant support to appeal only to their own converted, especially in a consociational system like the North (where power-sharing across the divide is obligatory).

And in referendums, simple binary, yes or no, voting can be both divisive and inefficient in arriving at a truly democratic result. The obvious example of this is Brexit in the UK where a simplistic and ill-defined choice led to a narrow majority for one option; this was then held (by the supporters of that option) to be sacrosanct, and taken on to deliver a result which was not what an arithmetic majority of people would have chosen had they been given full information on consequences.

There are however pluralist decision making mechanisms, such as those espoused by the de Borda Institute which can be used to not only engage in a full and proper debate on issues but which give a much more representative, and nuanced, picture of the view of all voters on a matter. The Modified Borda Count (MBC) is one way forward in societal decision making, and one which is unlikely to have a polarising effect.

The de Borda institute states thatA decision-making procedure can be described as democratic if, from a range of usually 4 – 6 options independently chosen to fairly represent the debate, it identifies the option(s) which gain(s) the highest average preference score(s)… and an average, of course, involves all of the voters, not just a majority of them.” We are unaware of any better operational method to arrive at a decision which best represents ‘the will of the people’; portraying the ‘will of the people’ as 50% + 1 in a two-choice vote is or can be a travesty.

It is a cliche to say that Ireland is at a crossroads. Societies are always at crossroads, with various directions possible, at any time. However in Northern Ireland there is the prospect of a border poll ‘some time’ in the next couple of decades, and the outcome of that cannot be assumed one way or another. In both jurisdictions on the island, the disenchantment with politics and politicians needs addressed, and not just by having citizens’ assemblies on important issues (though that is welcome). In the Republic there is the concomitant question to the border poll in the North – what kind of society and political entity would a united Ireland be? And in the mean time there is the question of decentralising state functions and decision making so the state is closer to citizens and not in an authoritarian way.

The way forward for both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and indeed in relation to the possibility of a united Ireland, would be made easier and more progressive by meaningful thought and debate on the nature of democracy. As stated at the beginning, it is unlikely and indeed impossible for everyone to agree on one definition. But building awareness of democracy’s essentials, and ways to deliver those essentials, would be of great service in defining where ‘we’ go in future. Our peace and wellbeing may depend upon it.


The elephant in the room reappears

We have said before that masculinity and particularly macho type masculinity is the elephant in the room when it comes to violence, and violence against women. [See and go to “Masculinity, violence, men…”] The #MeToo movement has focused on male sexual violence. The killing of Sarah Everard in Britain recently, with a serving police officer charged with her murder, has raised further questions – and so it should.

Things are no different in Ireland where fear of male violence by women is a stark reality. And fear of violence prevents women going about as they would wish. A survey by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, launched in a report in March, showed that over half, 55%, of women would not use public transport after dark and just over a third stated that feelings of insecurity prevented them from travelling alone (and this research was conducted before Covid when more people would have been out and about and streets less deserted). While the actual figures for those who have suffered violence are considerably smaller, the violence that exists has a severe knock on effect on women’s lives, wellbeing and freedom.

In addition there is the issue of male-on-male violence which sometimes is ignored or taken for granted. This also takes many forms, unfortunately some ending up in the courts with manslaughter or murder charges. And the number of male-on-female rapes which are reported, prosecuted, or result in a conviction is woefully small, in some cases in low single figures for conviction. So even when severe violence takes place, the perpetrators face a low risk of consequences.

The task is certainly not just one of better and more comprehensive relationship education in school, though that should be a very definite part of the package. There are many challenges in growing up today and in some ways expectations and pressures of many different kinds can be a powder keg for individuals. Relationship education should be a key part of schooling – we would also argue that education in mediative techniques (including the practice of peer mediation in schools) should be an essential part of civic education. And education in mediation has an important connection with nonviolence; listening, and being able to listen (which militates against violence which is the pinnacle of not-listening).

Riaising the issue of male violence is understood by some men as being ‘anti-men’. It is nothing of the sort. It is pro-men, for a healthy definition and understanding of what manhood should entail. Male violence is also a fact of life. It is certainly not about ignoring female violence, or support for violence, or pushing it under any carpet but it is a matter of reflecting on, and dealing with, the fact that the vast majority of a wide variety of different forms of violence are directly inflicted by men. Asking ‘Why?’ is a good starting point.

There are deep cultural questions to be asked about the nature and source of violence, and where it relates to our being as humans. One thing is sure; we are not necessarily a violent species, nor are males necessarily violent or more violent than females (as anthropology shows us). It would be fascinating to go back 5,000 years to the Céide Fields in north Mayo to see what their concepts were, and how they lived their lives; it is accepted that this was a peaceful, settled, cooperative society with evidently no enemies. Whether it was a pre-patriararchal, matriarchal or gender-balanced society we do not know, but we do know it was relatively non-hierarchal (all the houses were the same size). But it is one example on our island of a society which was certainly relatively non-violent and which challenges concepts such as ‘violence has always been with us’. How far have we travelled backwards in 5,000 years?

We also live in a culture which still glorifies violence in conflict and war if not in interpersonal relations. While warrior-hero models may be disputed as a cause of intra-societal or interpersonal violence, we are not so sure. If the image of the ‘brave’ ‘strong’ man in warfare is still inculcated by both the state and some parts of civil society, and certainly in films and media, who can say this does not carry over into civil society concepts, especially for men? And men who feel they are lacking in self image and self awareness may translate that into a desire to exercise violence, in a twisted way, towards having a ‘positive’ self image.

Some pschological studies have shown that playing violent video games does not make young men more violent in their behaviour. Again there are questions here. While this judgement may or may not be true on an individual level, there is also the societal level where even the tolerance for violent, clearly fantasy, games carries over to the real world. Why do the militaries of armies who use drone warfare recruit young men who are good at computer games? Because a) they have directly transferrable skills and b) they may be already inured, through violent games, to ‘remote’ killing and real life, remote killing may just seem another game to them.

Masculinist’ movements (for “men’s rights”) which protest that women now have the upper hand in some battle between the sexes are barking up the totally wrong tree. Equality of any kind has not been achieved by women although vast progress has been made. Statistics regarding violence show a much truer picture of where things are at, and the Irish figures quoted earlier show just how women are affected.

It is also totalling misplaced to depict such issues as a battle between the sexes. Going forward is not a zero sum game, it is defintely a question of achieving win-win. Being violent in any way is not a good place to be in, and while it may be infinitely worse to be on the receiving end, being violent is not good for the body or the soul (in a secular sense – as figures for PTSD among soldiers can attest).

There are new, positive images of masculinity which can be inculcated. These also are a win for men in potentially having more satisying and fulfilling lives, in sharing burdens, and in better relationships with their partners and children. There is thus a carrot for men to redefine what it means to be a man and this is important because wielding a big stick and saying sternly ‘you need to change’ may not communicate what is necessary – it might raise the issue but be seen as a threat rather than an opportunity.

It is long past time that society asked some of these questions, and more, about male violence. The women’s movement has tried hard to raise some of the issues, and deal with some of the consequences, e.g. of interpersonal violence in so-called ‘domestic’ violence. The issue of gender is often falsely throught to be an issue for women. (See “Gender, meaning of the word…” poster at ) Men need to realise they are indubitably also a gender (without here going into the reality of issues of non-binary identity) and have a gendered identity. Society as a whole, and especially men who are by far the most violent gender, need to deal with these issues through becoming informed, discussion, debate and then action and implementation; however the discussion needs to take place fully involving women or it would be men ‘again’ making decisions by themselves. But as the more violent gender the onus is on men.

Without such action we will continue with where we are at the moment – masculinity affecting individuals and wider society, particularly women, in a really toxic way. Europeans sometimes laugh at the ridiculous stupidity of the lack of gun control laws in the USA and the resultant carnage. We are equally lacking in insight if we allow macho masculinity to be unchecked. Saying male violence is ‘the elephant in the room’ is a metaphor indicating the size of the problem and its reality as an issue; the very first stage is to recognise this. At the moment there are many who ignore that elephant.

Editorials, NN 287

Northern Ireland:

Nul points’ for zero sum games – but who makes the rules?

There is a tendency to see everything in Northern Ireland in ‘zero sum’ terms; a win for them’uns is a loss for us’uns, and vice versa. In relation to Brexit there would seem to be a clear zero sum game in progress; an Irish Sea Border being seen as a defeat for unionism, an Irish border ‘border’ being a defeat for nationalism. But things are, and should be, somewhat more complicated than that.

Talking generally (before going on to look at the current situation) the complications are to do with both parity and justice. Clear victory for one side and clear defeat for the other can be very dangerous because it creates resentment and ill feeling which can then spill over into various other aspects of life. Then there is also the question – what is just? In the sectarian and heated political environment of Northern Ireland these are not easy questions to answer but it is still possible to at least try to listen to ‘the other’ and see what can be done. However sometimes what can be done to ‘even the score’ may be limited, though using ‘neutral criteria’ such as established human rights norms may help in some cases.

While it has been stated before here that some policies of the EU, in relation to neoliberal economic policies and increasing militarisation, are very unwelcome, the UK decision to pursue Brexit was part of a flawed decision making process. Yes, a majority in the UK voted for leaving the EU but a larger majority in Northern Ireland voted to stay. People in the UK knew not what they were actually voting for and that meant that any democratic mandate for it has been very shaky.

Be that as it may, the DUP/Democratic Unionist Party jumped in enthusiastically to the Brexit camp, thinking that it would make Northern Ireland more ‘British’. They seriously overplayed their hand. They could have backed Theresa May’s deal to ally the whole UK to EU standards which would have meant no ‘Irish Sea Border’. Instead they went for broke. However the reality of the power relationship between the larger EU and smaller UK, and the nature of the EU single market, meant disaster for them. While all the time denying their role in such a cock up for unionism, they initially played down the significance of the Northern Ireland Protocol until unionist opinion exerted itself and they felt they had to be more strident. Unionist and loyalist rhetoric has been ramping up.

Pretty much all of unionism is now singing from the same song sheet in demanding that the Protocol be replaced. Even senior figures got in on the act. Peter Robinson said it might come to a choice between Stormont (the Assembly) and the Protocol because of the difficulty in opposing it while being involved in the power-sharing Executive. However unionist commentator Alex Kane pointed out that each time there is a break or hiatus in government in Northern Ireland, unionism comes back weaker. David Trimble argued forcefully that the Protocol breached the Good Friday Agreement because it changed the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the agreement of the (unionist) majority. Arlene Foster spoke about the need to heed the will of the majority, seemingly ‘heed’ as in ‘accede to’.

But to each argument there is a counter-argument. Some pointed out that ‘unionism’ is no longer ‘the majority’ in Northern Ireland (even if there is not a majority for a united Ireland). Unionists were happy, in relation to the majority in Northern Ireland voting to stay with the EU, to point to the (small) majority in the whole of the UK who voted for it; but when it came to the government of the UK making an arrangement that they did not like, they spoke about ‘the majority’ in Northern Ireland. Others said that if David Trimble considered the NI Protocol to breach the Good Friday Agreement, surely Brexit did this first (this matter is open to endless debate but Brexit has certainly affected human rights issues in Northern Ireland).

The EU has indicated it may be open to flexibility in the implementation of the Protocol but both it and the British government have indicated the Protocol is here to stay. The EU says the British need to live up to their side of the bargain (e.g. real time information sharing on trade flows) before considering liberalisation of rules. From its point of view the EU may need to protect its single market but there is nothing which stipulates there has to be the particular level of bureaucracy which interferes with a variety of aspects of previous trading patterns, and availability of products as it has in Northern Ireland, even though Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market and Britain does not. There could be a very considerable simplification of what is required through trusted trader status, analysis of trading patterns and information (as the EU have asked for) and so on.

The unionist demand for the complete replacement of the Protocol is unlikely to get much traction except in extremis. Britain – England – wants to move on. And this is where the danger comes. There is no easy alternative, and a trade border on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be even more difficult to police and would replace one set of people feeling a grievance with another (nationalists and republicans). But the longer problems are highlighted, and the slower it is to get issues sorted, the more strident voices in unionism and loyalism will get ramped up and the closer loyalist paramilitarism may get to violence. The risks to the EU single market could be protected in a much less obtrusive way.

So action is needed fast. Whether ‘the maximum’ can assuage unionism remains to be seen. Business on the other hand wants certainty and some firms in Northern Ireland importing certain goods have had major problems, others involved in exporting welcome the opportunity for freer trade with the EU than now enjoyed by Britain. The EU and British government, or indeed the Irish government, simply stating that the Protocol is here to stay is not very helpful; telling people “you have made your bed, now lie on it” is hardly conducive to de-escalation. Unionists are feeling aggrieved and need listened to carefully; however what could, or should, be done in response is another matter. It is not a matter of stringing anyone along but exploring what options exist; those may be limited but need attention and action straight away.

Unionism is not the force it once was in Northern Ireland. But those who consider themselves British need listened to carefully, just as those who consider themselves Northern Irish or Irish. When it is disturbed, ‘parity of esteem’ can turn into ‘parity of steam’ and the lid risks getting blown off. Such an explosion is not in the interest of anyone or of progress in what passes for a ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland.

Good riddance, Direct Provision (whenever it eventually disappears….)

When the Direct Provision system was introduced in the Republic a couple of decades ago to provide shelter to refugees and asylum seekers, it was a ‘temporary’ arrangement that became semi-parmanent. It was also a very large and distinct blot on Ireland’s record on human rights and treating people fairly. With direct provision centres often located in out of the way locations, and crowded conditions with no choice as to whom you associated with (or even shared a room with), and no choice of food or opportunity to cook for yourself (to name just a few issues), it heaped insult on injury for people who had already been through so much. It has been kicking people while they were down. Mental health and self esteem suffered. The opportunity for integration suffered. Eventually people gained the right to work after six months in the country but the whole system was unfit for purpose.

Agencies or groups working in the field such as MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland ) and Doras (in Limerick, ) have welcomed the announced government plans in its White Paper, with some reservations, but it is clear they are not ‘holding their breath’. Plans are largely in line with the proposals in the Catherine Day report of the October 2020. Doras say“We are concerned to see that there is no clear plan to deal with the large backlog in International Protection cases…….. we would like to see the closure of centres beginning this year, instead of 2022, as stated in the White Paper. Conditions in many direct provision centres are currently below acceptable standards, and the daily experiences of international protection applicants are far from acceptable.”

MASI say “The White Paper is ambitious in some areas and lacks imagination in others……. MASI is appalled by the decision not to provide supports for asylum seekers to live independently in the community if they do not avail of 4 months of Direct Provision (whatever name the government calls it) after lodging their asylum claim…..While the White Paper has some positive changes including the end of shared living spaces for families and supports for children, it does have problematic areas that make it difficult to hold the State accountable without putting the provision of accommodation and other supports for asylum seekers on a statutory footing…..”

If “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” there is a long way to go yet. The crazy thing about Direct Provision (with accommodation provided by commercial enterprises) – beyond its considerable human rights abuses – is that it is, as the Day report indicated, more expensive in financial terms than the proposed alternatives. Speedy change is needed and putting services on a statutory basis so that any breaches can be adequately and swiftly addressed.


Let’s celebrate

International Women’s Day……

………and honour the Spirit of the feminine in our shared history today.

By Miriam Ryan

A spirited Cork woman known as Mother Jones, dedicated her life in the U.S. 1860s, to upholding justice and fearlessly supported labour rights, and mining communities and children’s right to be just kids, with her dignified socialist ideas, and trade union activism. Having suffered much tragedy in her personal life, she stood against the abuse perpetrated by a powerful patriarchy, on those people who actually helped create their obscene profits. Intimidation, mocking and jail terms never dimmed her clear seeing and understanding of where terror and injustice was rooted. She is remembered in song by the talented Lisa O Neill, using Mother Jones’s refrain as the chorus of the song, “Pray for the dead. And fight like hell for the living”.

Let’s celebrate Margaret MacCurtain/Sr. Benvenuta, Lecturer and Historian who saw fit to rewrite women back into history. ‘Herstory’, a series of talks held in the National Gallery in the 1990s by Sinead McCoole who recently  wrote the whole story of the Gifford Sisters’ life and their sacrifices and love of freedom. And Grace Gifford who married her lover Joseph Mary Plunkett at midnight, in Kilmainham jail in 1916, and who later that day ‘forgave’ the very young courageous British soldier, who sobbed at her door, ashamed that he had been part of the firing squad, who had shot her husband. And Dorothy Macardle, writer playwright, activist and historian, whose book ‘The Irish Republic’ (1973), is regarded as one of the most influential accounts of the Irish War of Independence.

We honour the present Raging Grannies, and the ‘Guantanamo Granny’ Margaretta D’Arcy for their love of people and human rights and their abhorrence of the cruelty of injustice.

In pre Celtic times, a body of just and sophisticated Laws were enacted by the people for the people. This rich code of laws created the most enlightened , humane legal structure in all of Europe. They were based on restitution and compensation, with no call whatsoever for the death penalty. These laws dealt with every aspect of daily life, for example land disputes, theft, violence, marriage, divorce and no forced marriage was tolerated. And the care of animals and trees, and birds and bees, was taken very seriously. Sadly they were lost in time through invasion and Christianity. Our language was forbidden and placenames, in which so much traditional knowledge was stored, were almost lost. Love of learning and poetry and music is still central to our character, as a culture. It is said that those in power write the history but those who suffer write the songs and poetry and music. The artist Sinéad Smith was part of the “Name the children project” remembering all the children who died in war.

Claire Sands that ‘fearless, feisty, fiddler’ wailing out her songs from a deeply spiritual, raw, ancestral depth to honour Mother Nature and the human spirit.

Tolu Mackey and her Lyrics “Togetherness” digging deep into her soul for such richness.

Ruth Anne, Karen Casey, Angel with her Gospel singing, and of course Denise Chaila with “Anseo”, all wonderful poets and musicians who reveal to us who we are.

And the writer Dervla Murphy who cycled around India, Africa, Russia, and Europe opening up a wider world to an insulated 1970s Ireland, with the diaries of her courageous solo travels. The wonderful writer Edna O’Brien’s novels and Sinéad Bourke’s “Tilting the Lens”, all educators.

And Ann Lovett who tragically lost her life alone as she gave birth, teaching us how essential us human beings are to each other, and how essential it is we face ourselves, and our past. We honour Joanna Hayes, and the recent official apology she and her family received for such cruel disregard of the truth, in the 1980s Kerry Baby case. And Nell McCafferty, writer and journalist and author of ‘In the Eyes of the Law’, who garnered support exposing this miscarriage of justice, and on the patriarchal justice system. Nell’s “Good night Sisters” refrain to us all, from her RTE series, in 1980s, spreading great hope of a more enlightened Éire.

And all those women in the Mother and Baby homes, who suffered so much, while a patriarchal system continued to inflict on society, a warped way of looking at the world. And the sheer honesty of Sinéad O’Connor’s wonderful voice, calling out abuse, perpetrated by institutional patriarchy. And Dolores O Riordan’s who rocked the music world with her song “Zombie”, awakening a consciousness of peace against war profiteers, and demanding all of this be done peacefully. As Kathy Kelly with her Irish roots, speaks about the past where ‘weapons were created for war, but war nowadays is created so as to sell weapons’, and obscene profit made out of the creation of human misery. And our former President Mary McAleese, for her fearless practical peaceful, insightful support for genuine human rights.

History should be about classes and events and stories and not about individuals, so Anna Parnell wrote in 1880s. Her book”‘Notes from the Ladies’ Cage” is a record of women’s participation in the Land League, and her pioneering campaigning for housing rights for the urban poor, yet she was perceived as a threat to both the Fenians, the Republicans, and the Church authorities.

We honour Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey, the youngest MP ever, with her astute mind and deep sense of a just society, aware of the class war, perpetrated in Northern Ireland against the whole community. And Mairead Maguire, the Nobel Peace Laureate in 1976, who instigated a call for cross community support to end the Troubles, and Inez McCormack trade unionist and human rights activist. All peaceful revolutionaries from the depth of the heart of the human Spirit, under the guidance of our Goddess Brigid and our insightful, enlightened Brehon Laws, when we understood the meaning of the necessity for social justice, before empire tried to trample our Spirit. In Jo Kerrigan’s book on the Brehon Laws she wonders why today these enlightened laws are not implemented, which would create for us all ‘a World beyond War’. This is a celebration of the feminine, which is found deeply in all of us human beings.

International Women’s Day is on 8th March. The Northern Ireland programme (starting 3rd March) can be found at but for the Republic you may have to look out locally and search.

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Meeting/Conference reports:

by Rob Fairmichael


In reporting on the World Beyond War (WBW) meeting series in Ireland, and the Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) conference in Europe, I am deliberately focusing on particular points of interest that I found and not attempting a comprehensive summary. In any case the videos of the WBW series are available online, with other material, and the report on the UCP conference will in due course join the other ones on the Nonviolent Peaceforce website from the other continental conferences.

1. A World Beyond War?

Conversations on Alternatives

– Meeting series

The World Beyond War chapter (they use the US terminology) in Ireland organised this excellent series of well attended speaker meetings in January and February 2021, accessible to anyone online. All the sessions, and more, are available at

There was a chime between the first and last contributions in relation to the United Nations. Denis Halliday, as a former Assistant General-Secretary, obviously knows his way around the UN. He sees the General Assembly as representative, but spoke of how the powerful countries wanted to control it from the start – which they do through permanent membership, with veto, of the UN Security Council; they are the people who start the wars. The USA, France, China, Russia and the UK have veto power. However he contrasted the work of the forty of so specialised UN agencies. Ed Horgan spoke of how these powerful countries put themselves above international law and readily use their veto to block any sanctions or action against them, e.g. in the invasion of Afghanistan which was in breach of the UN Charter. Ed Horgan identified the US, Britain and France as the main offenders in this context. He suggested taking matters to the UN General Assembly as the only way around this issue, and that military peacekeeping should be removed from the UN Security council and given to the General Assembly (where there is no veto).

Denis Halliday comes from a Quaker family and his father was very involved with the Irish Pacifist Movement He saw racism and colonialism at work in Africa. In his work in and on Iraq in 1997-8 he saw how sanctions punish the poor, and how Madeline Albright thought half a million children dead as a result was ‘worth it’. He worked to increase the impact of the ‘oil for food’ programme. He spoke about the devastating effect of DU/Depleted Uranium in the ammunition used by the USA in Iraq. He identified white Christian Europeans (i.e. Europeans or people of European origin) as the most dangerous people. He resigned from his post as UN Assistant General-Secretary to work to expose what was being done to Iraq at the time of Kofi Annan.

In answer to a final question from Peadar King about whether he saw the current time as more or less volatile than in his young days, Denis Halliday readily identified today as more volatile, frightening and dangerous. And this is itself frightening.

Clare Daly grew up in a family that was both military (her father was in the Irish army) and religious. But her opinions developed; indeed there can’t be too many parliamentarians who have been arrested and charged in their own country for a nonviolent action ‘walk on’ at an airport to protest against government policies, as she has over Shannon airport. Being neutral is more than not starting wars, she stated simply but cogently.

Clare Daly spoke about growing EU militarisation and the move towards an EU ‘European’ army, and the seismic shift to direct funding of militarism. There was an attempt to justify this through the creation of a ‘common enemy’ which doesn’t exist. There is now a uniformed EU border force with a massively increased budget. And the military budget has increased dramatically, much more than is spent on something like combatting Covid. Ireland has a global standing beyond our size, she said, which could be used for peaceful resolution. Some parliamentarians are well disposed to neutrality and peace but are unwilling to stand up to their party. She spoke in favour of peace and open borders, as well as ensuring people had the proper assistance to live in their own countries, and tackling climate change.

Dave Donnellan, who was the next speaker, is also a graduate of the Shannon Airport College of Walk Ons (it took him four and a half years to graduate to freedom), and began, in relation to a question about military destruction of the environment, pointing out that the Pentagon is the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. He spoke about the thirty court appearances involved in his (and Colm Roddy’s) Shannon action and how this process itself was a punishment. He spoke about how trees take care of each other, ‘mother’ trees, and so should we…. In relation to a question about how we get environmentalists to take peace seriously, and peace activists to take environmentalism seriously, he spoke of relationships and our relation to the planet and cosmos as opposed to ‘whole spectrum dominance’ which is about dominance, control and subjugation. He had spoken movingly about his attachment to Pakistan from living there and the night time grandeur of the stars, infinite and beautiful, and feeling on the inside of that.

Suad Aldarra and Yaser Alashqar, respectively from Syria and Palestine, now live in Ireland. They spoke about human displacement as a consequence of war. The 70 million displaced people today may be the highest ever. When the war came to her home, Suad Aldarra had fled first to Egypt but with the coup and chaos there, and the banning of Syrian refugees, was forced to flee again; she spoke of being torn between different worlds, an identity crisis, and the difficulty in knowing who she is. However she is a data scientist, a storyteller and writing a book on the Syrian diaspora.

Yaser Alashqar spoke about the siege of Gaza, where he comes from. People cannot leave Gaza, they are trapped; Israel may justify attacks by referring to Hamas but they bomb civilian homes. And the vast majority of people in Gaza are refugees to begin with, i.e. coming from or their families coming from other parts of Israel and Palestine. Yaser Alashqar is now an adjunct professor of Peace Studies at TCD. While recognising a certain amount of popular support in Ireland for Palestine he said there is not so much at governmental level; there is arms trade with Israel and involvement with training, universities and research; “Ireland could do better”. Palestine was dropped from the FF-FG programme for Government. Ireland complains about refugee numbers but doesn’t support conflict resolution and human rights internationally. Both Suad and Yaser have had good experiences of welcome in Ireland as well as more negative or open ones.

Ed Horgan, with very significant experience of peacekeeping with the Irish army, spoke on whether militaries are the most appropriate peacekeepers. He spoke of how some UN peacekeeping missions were not allowed succeed by the five veto powers who, as mentioned above, placed themselves above international law. Success is claimed in East Timor, 1999-2000, he said, but it failed to stop genocide there for the 25 years previously; successful operations he pinpointed were Sierra Leone and the Sinai. He argued strongly that Ireland should only be involved with UN peacekeeping operations, not with the EU or anyone else. He spoke about a variety of other peacekeeping operations and lessons from them.

In relation to a question as to whether the military are suitable peacekeepers, he felt in the early stages (of conflict or emerging from conflict) it is useful to have people with military skills and military vehicles for protection. However he stated strongly that aggressive powers should not be involved in such operations. He went on to speak about the failure of the UN peacekeeping operation in Rwanda; permission to intervene was refused by Boutros Boutros Ghali. He also spoke about the crimes against humanity of the big powers.

2. Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP)

European conference organised by Nonviolent Peaceforce

UCP’, unarmed civilian protection, includes monitoring, accompaniment, being present and working with people at risk in many different ways and contexts. This European event was the final regional or continental conference in a worldwide process which has been proceeding for some years to establish good practice, and ‘what works’.

Organising a conference online while maximising participation requires a high degree of organisation and thankfully this was fully delivered. While a participant in such an event is likely to miss the opportunity to catch up with old and new friends in breaks over coffee or evening conviviality, and the chance to grab someone for further elucidation or points of networking, the ‘chat’ facility online can provide a way for slightly less formal interaction, either with the whole gathering or ‘privately’ to an individual. It is still not the same thing and the online pace can be frenetic. And I couldn’t make Irish coffee for people (with neat, vegan or non-alcoholic options)….

See photo and some other info at

The reports from conferences on ‘the other’ continents on this topic can be found at

The conference was organised in 6 sessions; introductions to each other and the topic, four ‘subject’ sessions and a closing session which provided report back and chance for further reflection. The ‘subject’ sessions were on ‘Working for the rights and security of refugees’, ‘Monitoring, observing and protecting against violence by police and other state agencies’, ‘Working with tensions in communities to prevent or reduce violence’, and ‘Unarmed civilian protection in contexts of war and violent conflict’. Discussion and themes overlapped considerably between the subject sessions so my comments are not necessarily defined by the session. This conference was about ‘UCP’ work in Europe, not about Europeans being involved in projects like Peace Brigades International (PBI) elsewhere (many moons ago PBI did have an assessment done by Lynne Shivers on a possible project in Northern Ireland)

The opening session included a quick intro to the concept of unarmed civilian protection by Christine Schweitzer. As she pointed out there are lots of different terminologies used (and different ones in different languages). In English, ‘protective accompaniment’ and ‘civilian peacekeeping’ would be part of it. However there are other models which weren’t covered in the weekend including the kind of long term mediation presence which Quakers are often involved in (e.g. Quaker House in Belfast) – though Quakers did get mentioned by Christine. As she pointed out it is alsoa practice of activists developing their own strategies of self-protection, collectively or individually.”

In one slide Christine Schweitzer identified the following types of work in this field:

Longer-term projects with protection as part of the mandate, with the Cyprus Resettlement project, Balkan Peace Team and the monitoring work in Northern Ireland as perhaps the main NGO projects, and with missions by the European Union and OSCE as governmental missions;

– Short-term inter-positioning projects during the wars in the Balkans, and shorter-term peace team activities, for example in Germany (Gorleben) and Turkey.

– Situational protection against violence, with protection of refugees in the early 1990s the prime example.

– Protection activities by projects that were about other objectives but who took a role in protection when the situation warranted it;

– Non-cooperation and public protest in case of fighting the Mafia.”

I missed the session ‘Working on the rights and security of refugees’ which is not an area I am involved in but would have been interested to learn more, not least because in the European and EU situation it is a vital area of concern. However a summary was provided in the final session (and ‘post it’ type notes provided for each session). Points included creating space for refugees, building trust and relationships; concrete realistic goals; precise observation; having experience of different cultures; looking for allies (‘feeding angels not monsters’), including local small businesses; and looking outside the box. The tension between documenting what is taking place and respecting people’s dignity and privacy was one of the areas of concern; blurring people’s faces in photos and video was one possibility mentioned. Obviously the context is of tightly closed borders and increasing criminalisation of solidarity and humanitarian work.

There were different experiences in different environments, for example in relating to police or building relationships with them – where possible this was certainly considered important. One comment on a country from the former Yugoslavia was it depended on the individual police commander what was possible. The use of mobile phone cameras to document police and other behaviour also varied greatly, with seemingly important use in Belarus and Palestine but in France there is an attempt by the authorities to criminalise such practice. And the extent to which this might be considered antagonistic behaviour also varied, and in addition there was a warning about GDPR issues in the EU, as well as issues to do with encryption. So awareness of issues and possibilities is vital but it may be impossible to generalise what someone should do in a given situation.

The final session showed some demand to hear more about people’s practice, and this may happen, because apart from the session on ‘Unarmed civilian protection in contexts of war and violence’ – which had four short talks – sessions were ‘sharing and discussing’ so we got some context but not a huge amount about most. This model went straight to discussion of issues rather than going through description of practice first.

The speakers at the session on ‘Unarmed civilian protection in contexts of war and violence’ were Ann Patterson and someone called Rob Fairmichael, both on Northern Ireland; Goran Bozicevic on the Western Balkans, and Giulia Zurlini on Kosovo. Ann Patterson showed a short video on the formation of the Peace People (produced for their 40th anniversary) and spoke about some of the early Troubles peace activities, including standing between soldiers and civilians. I covered monitoring by INNATE, CAJ/Committee on the Administration of Justice, and MNI/Mediation Northern Ireland, in relation to the latter particularly a three-year project in an urban interface area of Belfast. The INNATE ‘Monitoring/Observing’ checklist which featured as a backdrop in one of my slides received some attention

Goran Bozicevic spoke of work in Pakrac, the Balkan Peace Team, and the importance of practical solidarity work during the turbulent period of war and conflict. Giulia Zurlini spoke of standing with both communities in Kosovo, staying when there were threats, speaking their languages, listening to the stories of those suffering but rehumanising ‘the enemy’, as well as providing practical help to people.

The importance of socialising with local people, in various ways including drinking or smoking, came up. And also the fact that it can be easier to work with women and young people than men – and I think it was Goran who said, when questioned about working with young people, that he was working with the peacemakers of twenty years’ time. Knowing limitations was also something covered, in relation to two erstwhile antagonistic ethnic groups living side by side in a German city; they cooperate well together and can deal with commonalities and issues arising – but discussing the issues between their homelands is a step too far.

As stated, this is not a comprehensive coverage of the conference, just some issues that come to mind. The link to the other continental material is worth following up (given near the start of this piece)….and the European report will join those, most likely autumn 2021, before a final pulling together of experience from this very worthwhile global project.

Editorials NN 286

A bit of a coup

The events of 6th January in Washington DC, and the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, have been well analysed. However there is some learning about power and powerlessness arising from this which has been absent from mainstream media coverage.

The assault on the Capitol building by very assorted Trump followers came after Trump had insistently lied about the results of the US presidential election, and Trump and Giuliana had egged on protesters on the day. The word ‘fight’ was used frequently and Trump’s language was incendiary, while Giuliana spoke of ‘trial by combat’.. One lingering question following the election victory of Biden was when and if Trump would give the likes of the ‘Proud Boys’ the nod to wreak some havoc. On 6th January they felt they got that nod. Protesters were not told what to do but neither were they told what not to do. Some of the harder elements invading the Capitol building would certainly have kidnapped or killed if they had the opportunity (and one policeman was killed directly by an attack) while others were more tourists than terrorists.

The descriptions and analogies have included (attempted) coup, insurrection, and (to his credit Arnie Schwarzenegger talking about, though perhaps not very accurately) Kristallnacht. Another comment was that it was more like the ‘Beer hall putsch’ of 1923 when the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler attempted a coup in Munich which it was hoped could be built on to take power in Berlin; it was a complete failure. So what was the invasion of the Capitol? It was often violent chaos with some of the invaders having very definite goals and others just wandering around; to call it a ‘full blown’ coup or even insurrection elevates it to a level of organisation it does not deserve, even if part of US democracy was at some risk. While some of those involved would have used the assault on the Capitol to bring about a coup (the overthrow of the presidential election result to allow Trump to continue in power) there was no central organisation to this invasion of the seat of legislatitive government and this is one crucial point in it not being a ‘full blown’ coup..

On the other hand, the last time the Capitol had been invaded violently (apart from four Puerto Ricans firing at congressmen in 1954) had been by the British in 1814 during a war, so it was certainly serious but there was no real chance those storming in were actually going to get Trump reinstated as President, even if they killed and kidnapped. That said there was a very real attempt to get the election result overthown by Trump and Republican Party allies through devious or misplaced court cases and attempted political pressure. But even many Trump nominees and Republican Party politicians refused to declare that black was white.

The reality is that while Donald Trump would have been quite happy if intimidation, violence and lies had led to his continuation as US president, he was neither organised nor aggressive enough – and maybe too lazy – to organise this himself. The analogy might be with the Rev Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland; for most ofhis life he spewed hatred and vitriol which ‘led people on’ but when they acted, as in violent sectarian and paramilitary actions, he disavowed any responsibility. Initially it seems Trump was happy with people invading the Capitol building and even when told it could have consequences for him he was slow and half-hearted in calling for calm or condemning violence.

It should be clearly stated that there can be nonviolent changes of regime, or indeed nonviolent defence of democracy. The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 against communist rule were primarily non-violent, populist uprisings. The transfer of allegiance by republican MPs in Ireland in 1919, from the Westminster parliament to the first Dáil in Dublin was a classic nonviolent tactic. There are hundreds of other such historical examples and in Gene Sharp’s typology in “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”, around 30 out of 198 examples are specifically to do with political noncooperation (with a particular government regime). Interestingly, US activist George Lakey was one of those busy training people before the election in how to nonviolently resist a coup.

Donald Trump was one of the worst presidents the USA has ever had, though there was one point of truth in his final White House statement – that he hadn’t started any new wars. However internally he was the most divisive president in modern times – and that is saying something – and there were big increases in gun ownership during his time.

However his followers, as well as violent neo-fascists, include many of the ‘left behind’ in US American life. Again there is an analogy with Northern Ireland; in the latter case Protestants and unionists who have had to cede something like equality to Catholics and nationalists have felt discriminated against and deprived because they had been used to a superior position, and that culture was, has been, slow to change. In the USA ethnic groups including blacks and Latinos have been unwilling to submit to inequality but tend to have worse life chances. The USA is a big place with many different experiences and the decline of blue collar employment has been part of the picture, causing resentment at the powers that be; the irony here is that Donald Trump was part of the economic elite if not the political elite until he became President; to project himself as ‘a man of the people’ was an amazing propaganda coup.

The reality is also that Donald Trump and Trumpism offered many people a vision, inchoate as it was, to be part of something bigger than themselves and promising a better future. Of course this was a chimera and anyone but the richest voting for Trump was a turkey voting for Christmas, given the tax breaks and derugulation he brought in, which also threatened to severely exacerbate the dire climate heating which is taking place.

There is no way the problems of the USA have gone away with the election of Biden. Divisions, inequality, Trumpists, militia and right wing conspiracy theorists are still just as present. The US system of democracy is antiquated and inadequate and while at a micro level there can be vibrant and progressive people and movements, at other levels its political system is woefully in thrall to big money and corporate lobbyists.

While Biden’s regime represents a very significant step up from the last incumbent, we have to see what it means, though on the global climate emergency it is certainly on the positive side. And no, Mr Biden, we do not want the USA to resume leadership of the ‘free world’; we will pass on that one. ‘Normal service’ can mean more misplaced military interventions internationally. The USA may see itself as the world’s policeman; the reality is that it approximates to the greatest bully in the world, and certainly the best armed one.

Brexit goes North

Be careful what you wish for’ is an adage which should be heeded but not paramount. It should not be an argument against working for change but it should be a strong argument for careful analysis and planning, and taking others’ views into account. The possibility of unintended consequences is not something which was really analysed by the DUP before they bought in completely to both Brexit and later Boris Johnson’s false promises, resultantly changing political realities in Northern Ireland less in unionism’s favour. The DUP thought that Brexit would make Northern Ireland more ‘British’; the reverse has been the case (though at this point it cannot be said it has made the North more ‘Irish’).

In the 19th century, economic interests in the North, with industrialisation and dependency on a British market, contributed to the growth and development of staunch unionist feeling. The realities of the current economic and trading situation is very different, and Northern ireland is far from being an economic powerhouse, but it is possible that now, in the 21st century, economic interests will pull the North more towards unification with the Republic. But this is neither a certain nor a speedy process, and issues of health and social security may determine the result.

The outworking of the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and EU has been causing a certain amount of pain and anger, in the political sphere particularly among loyalists, and there have been threats to port inspection staff at Larne. There may be no tariffs but some trade, including GB-NI trade, is disrupted by a knotted bundle of red tape. Some unionists and loyalists have been calling for Article 16, an emergency measure to derogate from the Protocol, to be invoked – and then foolishly it looked like it was the EU Commission which was going to invoke this article, over the vaccines dispute with AstraZeneca, before they pulled back following expressions of horror from all sides in Ireland. A new opinion poll shows the DUP suffering a haemorrhage of support to Jim Allister’s TUV; this does not bode well for cooperation in the North (though conversely Alliance is shown to continue to do well).

While some issues to do with the Northern Ireland Protocol will be resolved by mutual agreement with the EU, there are many that will not, and in any case considerable bureaucracy is likely to remain.

Be careful what you wish for’ also applies to those working for a united Ireland, and those, such as Sinn Féin, who want a border poll or one to take place within a few years. Fortunately or unfortunately (through what is written in the Good Friday Agreement) a united Ireland can be brought about by a “50% + 1” vote in favour in a referendum in Northern Ireland. While on the one hand it would seems unfair that if “50% + 1” in favour of remaining in the UK means the North does just that, “50% + 1” should not mean a united Ireland. But how does this happen? How soon does this happen? And what guarantees of fair treatment would unionists and Protestants receive? A ‘yes/no’, binary referendum can be very divisive, even destructive, as the de Borda Institute frequently points out.

If nationalists feel the fair wind at the moment is in their direction, they would do well do take it easy and not rush anything. Loyalist commitment to any form of democracy in relation to a united Ireland is far from certain, despite their majoritarian views in the past, and a ‘united Ireland’ which has not gone through a fair process of engagement with everyone is going to be a failure for a long time. Things have to be worked out. While many unionists and loyalists may refuse to engage in such a process, and therefore make it difficult, a referendum delivering an arithmetic majority in favour of a united ireland should not mean a united Ireland the next day. But it might mean that unionists and loyalists who had previously been reluctant to engage with any process would see the writing on the wall and decide that it was in their interests to do so.

In other words, if a referendum does give a majority for unification, it should not be seen as the end of a process but the start or continuation of another. Nothing is written in stone and much more needs to be spelt out by those who favour a united Ireland so that people can make an informed judgement.

Jude Collins in the ‘Andersonstown News’ of 30/1/21 states that ‘the south’ needs a health service that matches or surpasses the NHS in the north before any border poll. He emphasises that unfication means an entirely new state – “we need to be open to radical, maybe uncomfortable change: a new national anthem, a new flag, Stormont as a regional Assembly, a guaranteed number of unionist places in the Dáil.” This is starting to think creatively. Unionists need to think creatively too about the future, either for NI-in-UK or how a united Ireland could give them the protection they would seek in such a circumstance.

The best hope Northern Ireland has is that people break away from the strait-jacketed and polarised views of past divisions and look at opportunities for the future anew. This is not impossible but it is a big ask and needs a huge amount of work and goodwill to take place.