Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
Ah, ‘summer’ in Norn Iron, and the fifth season of the year, the Marching Season (as Colum Sands so admirably marked in song). A few days ago I was passing along a small back street in East Belfast, now it is a modern back street, with loyalist flags. And I saw a sight which made me think “No, they wouldn’t, they couldn’t be……” and they weren’t. A workman was placing a ladder against a lamp post which had on it an illegal paramilitary flag….was it just, incredibly, possible he had been delegated – and been willing to risk his safety – to take down this illegal flag? Two out of the three flags there were paramilitary ones. But of course he and his workmate weren’t taking the flags down, they were fixing the lights or replacing the bulbs. It is nobody’s responsibility, you see, to deal with such violent and sectarian branding which can be (and probably is) against the wishes of most residents.
The population of the island of Ireland is now 7 million – 5.1 million in the Republic and 1.9 million in Northern Ireland with both showing increases, though at a higher rate in the Republic. At the current rate of increase it will take another couple of decades to reach the 8 million that was the pre-Famine/An Gorta Mór population, a particularly symbolic total given that the population of area of the Republic continued to decline from that time until the 1960s – it reached a minimum of only 2.8 million in 1961. Emigration was, of course, the main scourge. If trends continue the Republic’s 1961 population will have doubled by 2040 or not long after that. If the population of the 1840s had continued to grow, to be half the population of Britain (as it stood then) it would be over 30 million now.
Northern Ireland has moved from a population of around 1.25 million in 1921 to 1.9 million now. Because Northern Ireland’s population grew more steadily, if variably, since partition compared to the Republic’s more recent rapid increase, the proportion of the population of the whole island living in Northern Ireland has only declined from around 29% to around 27% in a century, so it stands at slightly over a quarter.
Is there such a thing as an ‘optimum’ population? That is very debatable and can be used (e.g. Britain) as a poor excuse for throwing people out who are seeking refuge and a new life. Ireland is relatively underpopulated by many international standards. Of course there are questions about sustainability and food sovereignty which are important but these are much more questions of policy – as is the provision of reasonably priced housing in Dublin which is a total disgrace and indictment of Irish government policies. Net immigration has been a major factor in population increases, particularly in the Republic, and that, as we have oft stated, has been a positive factor in Irish life in numerous ways over the last few decades.
Deaths in the family
It may not actually be true in a very meaningful sense but I tend to think of peace movement people around the world as ‘family’ – hopefully not in the manner of the mafia!. I have been to enough international peace events, and worked with others in other ways, to have made some great friends and learnt many things from them – not least that, through learning about their work and coming to highly respect them, even or particularly where there approach is different to my own, that ‘different strokes for different folks’ is important. I try to carry that through to work at home; obviously I believe in my own approach but one size doesn’t fit all, and what someone else does or says may communicate to others in a way that my own work does not. And peace is a jigsaw, made up of many different shaped bits.
So I am sad when I learn of an activist’s death that I know or know by name. Most have never been in the media spotlight, certainly outside the peace movement, but have been people of stature and impact – I think of someone like Tess Ramiro of the Philippines. Some are known widely internationally in peace circles, someone like Richard Deats from the USA who died in April 2021 (a web search will give you details of his life). Tess Ramiro and Richard Deats actually appear in the one photo on the INNATE photo site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/50679396881/ even if it is not a particularly brilliant photo of either of them as they are in the background. Others are known internationally and in different circles, someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who died in January 2022; a profound peace activist, he was a ‘founder’ of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and of mindfulness, and again there is plenty available on his life and teaching.
A more recent death, on 8th June 2022,was Bruce Kent, perhaps the best known peace activist on the island of Britain, and no stranger to Ireland, visiting and speaking a number of times at CND events both in the North https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/3337020641/in/photolist-65T6V8-65T6YD and the Republic https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/14890287515/in/album-72157614961149810/ For his life see e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/09/bruce-kent-obituary Bruce Kent is of course most associated with CND but had strong involvements with other organisations such as Pax Christi and the Movement for the Abolition of War (MAW).
I am not into nonviolent sainthood. Few of any of us are saints and we all have our failings and faults which we may or may not know about ourselves. But family is family and I mourn all their deaths and am thankful for their lives and the dedication of peace and nonviolent activists around the world, many of who have difficulty to survive because of repression, ridicule, or basic questions of survival, and in all cases face difficult questions of direction.
The Midas militarist touch
Midas got more than he bargained for in everything that he touched turning to gold; you can’t eat gold (and with modern dentistry having moved beyond using it, gold is not a particularly useful metal). If you are involved in the arms trade, well, maybe everything you touch does turn to gold in your pocket. But as someone into peace and nonviolence I am amazed at what militarism touches and makes totally unpalatable for me.
I am not into royalty and that whole scene but if you take the recent Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, a whole day seemed to be devoted to military pageantry – and the members of the British royal family were groaning under their chestfuls (double meaning intended) of military medals. The Orange Order, and other loyal orders in Northern Ireland plus the bands that accompany them, are into military style marching, symbolism and regalia, and as I have already stated now is the Marching Season in Norn Iron. A fairly recent innovation is an ‘Armed Forces Day’ in the UK which is also celebrated in the North, which attempts to portray militarism as simply kind-hearted, family-friendly culture.
The standard welcome for a foreign dignitary is a military ‘guard of honour’ (what I would usually consider a guard of dishonour). The Republic has a commission on the future of the defence forces but not one of peace and neutrality. And who represented the President of Ireland at the funeral of Ciaran McKeown of the Peace People in Belfast in September 2019 – why, a military aide-de-camp in uniform….how appropriate was that for the funeral of a well known believer in nonviolence but it was certainly a fascinating juxtaposition.
And if you scratch the Christian churches, particularly the Protestant ones in Northern Ireland but the Catholic Church in Ireland a different way, well, militarism is part of the whole ideology. Some Protestant churches have got rid of military or military related flags in some of their buildings but the likes of St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Belfast has a military chapel. Has no one told them, these professed and sometimes professional Christians, that in the first couple of centuries after Jesus it was considered impossible to be a Christian and a soldier???????? [You are going to add to a world shortage of question marks – Ed] The lack of connection there is absolutely stunning.
Of course the decline and fall of Christianity as a default belief system in Ireland opens up new possibilities, and there have always been some Christians who stood against militarism but they have tended to be a small minority ever since the time of Constantine turning the Christian church into an adjunct of the state.
We have a huge task to liberate whole cultures from the militarist death wish. And unfortunately the Russian war on Ukraine seems to be reinforcing the view of many that militarism is the only way to go when it is the path to armageddon.
The Republic came in as third most peaceful country in the Global Peace Index (GPI) for 2022. See https://reliefweb.int/report/world/global-peace-index-2022 for summary and link to full report. Overall peacefulness was judged to have declined considerably. “Iceland remains the most peaceful country, a position it has held since 2008. It is joined at the top of the Index by New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark and Austria. For the fifth consecutive year, Afghanistan is the least peaceful country, followed by Yemen, Syria, Russia and South Sudan. Seven of the ten countries at the top of the GPI are in Europe, and Turkey is the only country in this region to be ranked outside the top half of the Index. “
Of course it all depends on what your criteria are. They say the GPI “uses 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators from highly respected sources to compile the index. These indicators are grouped into three key domains: Ongoing Conflict, Safety and Security, and Militarisation.” And while there might be some correlation between peacefulness and happiness there can be other factors not included which impinge on quality of life.
“The cost of violence to the global economy was $16.5 trillion, or 10.9% of global GDP, which is the equivalent to $2,117 per person. For the ten countries most affected by violence, the average economic impact was equivalent to 34% of GDP, compared to 3.6% in the countries least affected.” This is only the economic effect that they measure and you cannot put a cost on trauma and injury. Not all the news was bad (war in Ukraine etc): “There were substantial improvements for several indicators, including terrorism impact, nuclear and heavy weapons, deaths from internal conflict, military expenditure, incarceration rates and perceptions of criminality. Terrorism impact is at its lowest level since the inception of the GPI. “
However it looks like the Irish government is trying its damnedest to join NATO and EU militarism to the full – and that would be sad in so many different ways. One of the things which Ireland (Republic of) can be proud of historically as an independent state is some of its international dealings, from de Valera and the League of Nations through work on nuclear issues, landmines and cluster munitions, and being previously somewhat non-aligned. That risks all going down the drain. The Irish government believes in cutting peacefulness into pieces.
‘Well’, as the water sprite said spritely, summer is here and I hope you are able to get a break in the routine and some holliers to enjoy. I often quote Christy Moore here and his definition of holidays (in ‘Lisdoonvarna’) – “When summer comes around each year / They come here and we go there”, though with Covid over the last couple of years there wasn’t too much of people going here or there. Make hay while the sun shines cos September will be here in a flash, and I’ll see you again then, meanwhile take care of yourself and some others, Billy.