Notes for a history of two decades
INNATE coordinator Rob Fairmichael looks back over twenty years
This article is not itself a ‘history’ of INNATE but ‘notes for a history’, mainly based on putting together a visual and verbal presentation for the INNATE conference in January 2008. Reflecting on recent history is a difficult task, and having been involved ‘personally’, memories telescope one way or another and what seemed significant at one time is insignificant now, and vice versa. Writing ‘a history’ would entail talking to a variety of people, a task not undertaken for this article. Anyway, here are some reflections.
In the 1980s, Northern Ireland continued in the political limbo-land of ‘No’ and violence, albeit on a lesser level than the 1970s. In the Republic, the Celtic Tiger had not yet been invented (except for the likes of Charles J Haughey who gorged on the state for all it was worth). In the Republic, particularly Dublin, there was for a while an Irish Peace Council and in the North, the Northern Ireland Peace Forum (which began in 1974) but was running out of steam by the mid-1980s. The NI Peace Forum did some useful work in meeting ‘the smaller political parties’ (i.e. those with military wings) and making representations to the British government on ‘security’ issues; however there was no interest in an organisational revamp which would have freed up people to work together in smaller, more specialist groupings than the monthly meeting. Following the Irish anti-nuclear power movement of the late 70s, the early 80s saw a flowering of CND and related activity, including a peace camp at Bishopscourt, Co Down.
‘Dawn’ magazine, which had a nonviolent base, ran as a monthly from 1974 to 1985 though there continued the occasional ‘Dawn Train’ magazine which eventually became part of INNATE for a while before ceasing. The Dawn group was a precursor of INNATE in a number of ways, including the fact that it was, like INNATE later, affiliated to both the War Resisters International (WRI) and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). The founding leaflet for what became INNATE referred back to discussions for such a network at a training run by Dawn in 1982.
Had it not been for Sarah Whelan from Dublin, who had been involved in Bishopscourt Peace Camp, the incipient network might have been called INNAT. She suggested a final ‘E’ which not only made a more rounded and appropriate name but a ‘real word’ of an appropriate nature as well as an acronym. So an Irish Network for Nonviolent Action Training and Education was born in 1987. The hope was to provide a support mechanism for those involved and committed to nonviolence and nonviolence training. With a base in Belfast, the hope was that people who had a nonviolence commitment but were primarily involved within other groups would see INNATE as a support and would participate. As so often happens in this kind of situation, reality did not match expectations and the level of active involvement of people from different groups was small. A nonviolence study group met associated with INNATE and with others.
However, thankfully, more people did participate in conferences, and receive information such as ‘Dawn Train’ or ‘Nonviolent Daily News’ which began as a duplicated sheet in 1990. It was called ‘Nonviolent Daily News’ initially because it was a newssheet produced on an Amstrad word processor with a dot matrix printer – it appeared on a rolling basis and as news got old, more news was added or it pushed out older news. The newssheet became monthly in 1994 with the realisation that to cover events and news effectively it had to be monthly, and the ‘Daily’ in the title was dropped the year later because even for us ‘Daily’ in the title of a ‘monthly’ seemed a bit quirky!
Consolidating the work
One fairly early and important piece of work which INNATE did was in pioneering monitoring or observing work in Northern Ireland. Out of connections with a local group in Portadown with a nonviolent commitment, the Drumcree Faith and Justice Group, INNATE became involved in monitoring work from 1989 and promoting it as a means of dealing with community tensions and contentious events. While there had been some monitoring work early in the Troubles, the time had come for it to blossom in Northern Ireland. While INNATE was the first to do it at this time, and tried to promote it through a conference and pamphlet, soon ‘everyone’ was doing it – a contentious parade could have near enough half a dozen different groups monitoring the event! Monitoring has played an important role in preventing escalation in contentious situations and continues to be used, more on a local and interface level. Without further research it is difficult to be categorical about the importance, or lack of it, of our role in developing it, though we were the first to do so and some prominent people in the field did it first with us.
Our involvement in Portadown had been with the Drumcree/Garvaghy Road situation, in the period from 1989. The joke might be that our involvement was so successful that no one ever heard the words ‘Drumcree’ or ‘Garvaghy Road’ ever again! However it was in 1995 that all hell began to break loose there and the Rev Ian Paisley declared it a battle not just for Drumcree but for Ulster. It was an interesting illustration of the way in which a simmering local situation – which had been causing tension for many years – can escalate when the powers that be (of the state and police) refused to deal with it properly. One year we wrote a letter to the Belfast ‘News Letter’ on behalf of the monitoring team, clearly headed (and underlined) ‘This letter is not for publication,’ about their dangerous labelling of all the people of the Garvaghy Road area who watched the parade as ‘republican supporters’ thus making these people potential targets. The newspaper published the letter and we had to go as far as the Press Council before receiving an exceedingly grudging apology; it did however lead to another published letter in reply which referred to the ‘Inane’ organisation, a pun on INNATE!
We continued to do some training and other networking. We facilitated the setting up of a group to reflect on the relevance of the South African peace process for Northern Ireland – the resultant pamphlet went to politicians among others. The most common training workshop was assisting campaigning groups, on one kind or another, to look at how they could be effective. A training ‘map’ is available (in paper and on the website) detailing some of the training areas where we are happy to work. While individual members have been very involved in issues to do with ‘dealing with the past’ in Northern Ireland, INNATE has also tried to contribute in this area. Thankfully Northern Ireland has largely moved beyond the political killing, and fear, which existed in 1987 when INNATE began. But the divisions or fault lines in Northern Irish society remain. And the Republic has many challenges in moving to multiculturalism and beyond greed, private opulence and public squalor.
Conferences brought together a variety of different people to consider a variety of different issues pertinent to nonviolence. What is a seminar, a conference or a meeting is sometimes open to debate, and, fortunately or unfortunately, while training and other meetings have taken place in a whole variety of locations, our conferences have tended to be in Belfast. One planned conference in Derry, on nonviolent resistance to a proposed incinerator there in 1992 (and largely organised by the late Jerry Tyrrell) was called off after Du Pont cancelled their plans for the incinerator plant before the conference took place – how inconsiderate could they be! Often our conferences use as a resource knowledgeable and experienced people who are ‘passing through’ as we have not had the money to pay for long distance travel.
Weaving our web
Our monthly newssheet, ‘Nonviolent News’, went on the web in 1998 and gradually developed into an online magazine with additional news, editorials, green comment from Larry Speight, and workshop material or ‘Readings in nonviolence’, as well as a serious-cum-satirical column from our correspondent Billy King (whose alter ego still adorns some of Norn Iron’s gable walls), and often other material. ‘Nonviolent News’ now appears in paper, e-mail and web editions; the content of the web and e-mail editions is the same but the paper one is restricted to two sides of ‘news’. The website has substantial other material including nonviolence training (the material on consensus tops the Google charts – though that in itself is not necessarily a recommendation). It was good 9for us) to hear one prominent peace activist from the Republic, at the January 2008 ‘open space’ on nonviolence, comment that the only way he heard about some groups, e.g. Meath Peace Group, was through ‘Nonviolent News’. The editorial policy has been to include information on green, human rights and solidarity groups where possible, as well as news of peace, nonviolence and reconciliation. The website gets considerable usage around the world as well as in Ireland. Our thanks go to our webmaster, Mark McCann, for taking (great) care of the website.
Coalitions and working with others
INNATE, as a small group in terms of people actively involved (as opposed to the wider network), takes the opportunity to cooperate with others and promote and develop the work of others. Indeed, coverage of the work of others in the pages of Nonviolent News is our contribution to promoting what they are doing, and cooperation where possible. At times we have done more, either through training or, in the case of the Alternatives to Violence Project, actively working to get it established in Northern Ireland (not yet successfully). We would work together with others from groups such as Pax Christi, the Peace People, other groups, and individuals on joint projects and coalitions. A case in point was the setting up of the Justice Not Terror Coalition in Belfast at the start of the Afghan war (ongoing) which we facilitated; this was then well placed to campaign against the Iraq war (ongoing) almost a year before it happened.
INNATE has a policy (which is written up on the website) of welcoming people’s involvement from all religious and secular beliefs. Members include Christians of various denominations, atheists, agnostics, people of other faiths and belief systems and so on. So we would be as happy to organise a conference, if the opportunity arose, on ‘Humanism and nonviolence’ or ‘Buddhism and nonviolence’ as on ‘Christianity and nonviolence’. Part of this is ‘respect’, and I would personally take my orientation to this word from Hildegard Goss-Mayr; respect for all others as human beings (and not, I hasten to add, in the Blairite sense which feels like ‘respect for your elders and betters’).
Working away today
INNATE functions though a monthly networking meeting in Belfast which plans and sets priorities. This is open and anyone interested can attend; we try to avoid the ‘first meeting and you’re secretary’ syndrome so that individuals can set their own level of involvement. We are a volunteer organisation; this has its plus and minus points. A negative is that there is no one who can be told ‘do this’, even if ever so politely, even when we are stretched, though if someone has already indicated a desire to contribute then they can be asked to do a particular task. The number of ‘person hours’ available is obviously smaller than organisations with paid staff, as is the ability to travel around the island. On the other hand, and this is a big plus in Northern Ireland at the moment when the funding environment is getting tougher and tougher, we are lean, but not mean, and therefore able to be almost self-sufficient in funding. In words which I have been known to utter (I hasten to say in an attempt at humour) – “No one can sack me – I’m a volunteer!” My thanks go to all those who have been involved over the two decades.
Day to day expenses are met by subscriptions and donations, which is why these are so important, though for occasional items of equipment or special events we depend on grants. INNATE is an extremely (and I use that term carefully) low cost organisation; being voluntary means a little money goes a long way. Where payment is made for training provided then this is shared between INNATE and those doing the work.
While INNATE’s strongest geographical base is in the North and particularly Belfast, it can mean that other parts of the island are relatively neglected. This is certainly not our intention and we will offer any help we can give, and any coverage in Nonviolent News, anywhere on the island. We also, through visiting our website, get queries from different parts of the world, and, while we can offer assistance ‘at long range’ through the internet, we are not usually in a position to go there, though, as appropriate, we may refer someone to another organisation who may be able to help (the same applies ‘at home’ when something is outside our expertise). We always welcome contact and the provision of information.
INNATE’s international affiliations with WRI and FOR are important, as well as more informal relations with others such as Pax Christi International. As INNATE we have had the opportunity to attend some international events but in 2002 a big international event, the War Resisters International Triennial, came to Dublin, with a couple of hundred activists from around the world. This was a challenge of various kinds but I think INNATE, as the main Irish partner, did its bit in contributing to a successful event.
We done well for a small group of people active in running the show, beavering away. There is always more we could have done, or different things which in hindsight might have been more fruitful, but we can hold our heads up high enough. I ended the visual presentation I made on INNATE’s history at the ‘open space’ conference on nonviolence (January 2008) with a Len Munnik cartoon which shows a circle of men and women protecting a small, growing plant, and I used the caption “New challenges await us”. The ecological crisis is looking like the greatest issue of our time and the nonviolent movement should have something to contribute regarding ways of campaigning and defending the rights of poorer people and social projects who, assuredly, will be the ones to suffer from changes in a social and political environment, North and South, which is essentially conservative. This is, of course, as well as campaigning for progressive changes at home and abroad. This is a ‘domestic’ contribution.
But many governments still look to war as a way of resolving issues in their favour, and in a tougher international environment with ecological and resource crises looming, war and threats of war are likely to become more, rather than less, frequent. This is a sobering if not alarming thought. But if we look at the strength and effort which has gone into social and peace movements in Ireland – say the anti-nuclear power movement of the late 1970s or the anti-Iraq war movement (despite the latter being unsuccessful, even on Shannon) there is hope that we can build a movement to help forge a more peaceful and harmonious future. It won’t be easy – but neither is getting out of bed on a dark and cold winter’s morning and yet we do it, and most of the time think nothing of it. I suppose I remain somewhat of an optimist, even after considering all the stark facts. And I believe that INNATE will be there to assist with the struggles to come.
- As this article reflects on twenty years of INNATE, we are not producing an annual report as we usually would with the February issue.