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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 183: October 2010

Culture and counter-culture

We are used in Western parliamentary democracies to the switch from government to government that elections bring, sometimes a swing this way, sometimes a swing that way. Ireland, North and South, has had swings but perhaps you could say it has had more roundabouts; in the North, the evolution of Sinn FÈin and Democratic Unionist Party as the largest parties in the Catholic/Nationalist and Protestant/Unionist sides respectively, and, in the Republic, the move to coalitions of various parties including either Fianna F·il or Fine Gael, both conservative parties, but not both.

The move from left to right has not been pronounced from election to election in Ireland as other factors have been at work, North and South. In the North it has been the outworking of sectarian and tribal politics, most recently in the peace process, and moves from left to right have been relatively unimportant, notwithstanding Sinn FÈin overtaking the SDLP. Sinn FÈin is however more leftward in many of its policies than the SDLP, which it overtook as the majority party within the Catholic/Nationalist community, but its origins still show - as in the Minister for Education this year hacking away around two-thirds of the funding for community relations work with young people. The DUP is a populist conservative party, something which makes it on a par with Fianna F·il. 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement was probably the first time that the bulk of people in Northern Ireland supported a peace settlement even if the working out of that proved problematic for many, however a general commitment to peace continues.

The big change recently, of course, has been the showing which the Labour party has been making in the Republic, pushing Fianna F·il into third place and in some polls even overtaking Fine Gael. It is far too early to say whether the Republic is at last going to emulate most of the rest of western Europe in having a choice between left and right - previously it has only had a choice between 'right with others, some of them further right' (e.g. Progressive Democrats) and 'right with others' (the Labour party possibly as a junior partner with the conservative Fine Gael). The move to more of a choice in politics would be very welcome, and Fianna F·il's monumental and tragic mishandling of the Irish economy may at last receive the response at the polls which it deserves.

But a choice between right and somewhat left is not in itself an answer to the problems which the country faces, though it might help. And the lapse from left to right can bring much pain for many people, as the UK is currently in the process of discovering. The end of the 'sixties - forty years ago - was the last time there was a strong radical drift in Europe, and much of that dissipated and disappeared.

So, in this political culture, what should we aim for?

In both jurisdictions, we need to aim for a society which cares for people irrespective of whether they have money or not. The National Health Service in the North at least has some claim to universality, deficient as it may be in a number of respects and declining as the services may be. The Republic, if it is to cherish the children and adults of the nation equally, has to move to a one-tier health and social care system, perhaps paid for by state insurance as in many European countries. Long term unemployment is another issue which has to be effectively dealt with. 'Respect' is sometimes used in the sense of 'do what your elders and politicians say' but real respect, for each individual, whoever they are, is at the heart of a peaceful society.

In the North, we should aim for a culture of peace which emphasises living together and cooperating together and also one which rejects British warmongering around the world. Equality is not enough (and the OFMDFM's 'Cohesion, Sharing and Integration policy proposals are not enough). If Northern Ireland fails to move beyond benign apartheid then there is the real and present danger that the fault lines which exist, marked by religious identity, will cause further violent earthquakes in the future. We need to move to interaction and shared living as a matter of priority. And we should not accept arriving at 'peace' at home while tolerating the British state going to war abroad.

In the Republic, we should aim for a culture of peace which extends the principle of military neutrality into one of neutrality for peace. The idea of a 'neutral' state providing the greatest power in the world (the USA) with exactly what it wants - the use of Shannon airport - for its wars and military escapades is just sickeningly craven behaviour. The EU's increasing militarisation, and attempt to build stronger links with NATO, is of great worry here.

The idea that we live in a perfected democracy and no changes are possible is a ridiculous one, but one which is both common and dangerous. Parliamentary democracy is certainly as good as it goes but you could say, in the context of the Republic, the cosy alliance of government with speculators, developers and bankers permitted the financial crisis currently afflicting the Republic. It is a prime case of a democratically elected government not being accountable or responsible. 'The people' may have elected them but they made a complete mess of managing the economy - though who would have done better is of course a good question to ask also.

Another part of a vibrant democracy is, of course, an active civil society which can press the government on issues of concern, and mobilise people for this purpose. But listening on the part of government is also key - just look at the total fiasco which has been Shell's high pressure gas pipeline in Co Mayo, an issue which could and should have been settled to almost universal satisfaction a number of years ago if those who had the power were prepared to listen.

While proportional representation (PR-STV - single transferrable vote) is in place in elections in the Republic, and for most purposes in the North (not for Westminster elections), further advances are possible in electoral systems which can help avoid lurches to left or right and provide the appropriate representation for the number of votes cast in a way which means those seeking to be elected have to work to appeal to voters outside their normal quarters (see e.g. Quota Borda System at It is not a question of being unwilling to change but of ensuring that change which happens is sustainable. The Thatcherite right wing revolution in the UK, with effects in Ireland and further afield, was achieved on a minority vote, and another move to the right is happening there now.

Building a culture of peace is a complex process but, when broken down into its parts, it is not that difficult to analyse what is needed. The political will to build such a culture is another matter. What we are looking for is a culture built on firm foundations which will stand the test of time, adapting to new circumstances, and building on the deep desire of people in Ireland for peace. Sustainability may mean that we have to redefine the meaning of prosperity but if it provides a stable economy with emigration then it can work.


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column -

Environmental Education

In the last week of September BBC2 broadcast a two part series called The Classroom Experiment in which Professor Williams put his education theory into practice with a Year 8 class in a large comprehensive school. The crux of his theory can be expressed in one word, engagement.

The lack of engagement by pupils is the most probable reason why one in five in the UK leaves school without having mastered the basics of English and Maths. This is in spite of the huge resources spent on primary and secondary education inclusive of research, teacher training, school buildings, learning resources, playgrounds, subsidised meals, after school activities, school buses and the salaries and pensions of all involved from high ranking civil servants in the Department of Education to hard working school caretakers and cleaners.

The two one-hour programmes looked at the challenges and outcomes of different teaching techniques aimed at involving every pupil in the class. The techniques took time to find their place in the educational culture but by the time the 12-week experiment had finished the consensus shared by teachers, pupils and parents, supported by academic results, is that the engagement techniques were a success.

The findings of this experiment could be applied to the effort to bring our trashing of the Earth to a close. The trashing includes global warming, loss of arable land, death of the seas, depletion of fresh water, the invasion of alien species which wreck havoc on ecosystems, pollution of all kinds and loss of bio-diversity. With regards the latter, a study published by IUCN, 29th September, reports that one in five of the world's plant species is at risk of extinction. The significance of this figure is that plants are the basis of life on Earth, providing us with oxygen, food, water, medicines, building materials and clothing.

Knowledge about how to prevent environmental destruction is widely known. Yet, we are effectively doing nothing to stop it. Biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate. The 2009 Copenhagen climate talks failed and the climate summit in Mexico this December is also expected to fail. Without an international agreement on the emission of greenhouse gases it is almost certain that the Earth will overheat spelling disaster for all species including humankind.

The reason why we have so far failed to address environmental issues effectively may well be the same one that accounts for why so many children in the UK leave school without mastering the basics of English and Maths: lack of engagement.

Two essentials are necessary to enable us to live a dignified and meaningful life. We need a healthy bio-rich environment, and every family or independently living adult needs a reasonable income. The challenge for our education and communication agencies, including the various religions, is to devise techniques that enable every able citizen to engage with the environmental / economic question of how to realise these essentials.

As with a class of pupils the techniques of engagement should allow everyone to contribute. And just like classroom learning, some people will find aspects of this educational challenge and following through with the requisite environmental and equity life-style changes difficult. But with perseverance and a grasp of the consequences of failure the essentials can be achieved: everyone's life will be enriched in the process and a legacy of eco-health and bounty left for future generations.

There is a precedent for this. Two centuries ago the British economy was highly dependent on the slave trade: jobs and revenue depended on it. The slave economy came to an end when public opinion became sensitised to the issue. And this extraordinary change took place without the help of radio, television or the internet!

Cartoonists show futility of Palestinian-Israeli conflict

An international group of acclaimed cartoonists demonstrated the destructive absurdity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for an exhibition held in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. The event was hosted by Community Dialogue under the auspices of its Steps into Dialogue programme which is funded under the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation.

Featuring some 35 cartoonists from more than 20 countries, the exhibition is the idea of The Parents' Circle, a group of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families who wanted to highlight the futility of violence in the region. Artists who have contributed work to Cartooning in Conflict include Pulitzer Prize winners Pat Oliphant and Jim Morin; Polish-born satirist Andrzej Krauze; Britain's David Bromley, and Japan's Norio Yamanoi.


Many of the cartoons feature two sides locked in conflict despite pleas for peace from innocent people caught up in the violence. A battered dove of peace appears prominently in many.

"Cartoons by their very nature can be abusive and extreme, funny and painful. The truth comes out with just a few strokes of the brush," says Robi Damelin, a member of the Parents Circle - Families Forum, who came up with the idea for the exhibition.

"These works illustrate the destructive absurdity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, more importantly serve as a catalyst for hope by allowing the audience to imagine a path to reconciliation and peace."

The Parents Circle-Families Forum was founded in 1995 and consists of 500 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families who work together to promote peace through reconciliation and understanding by aiming to use their own painful experiences to promote reconciliation.

Robi's son David, 28, a student at Tel Aviv University, was serving as a reservist in the Israeli army when he was killed by a Palestinian sniper. She now travels the world with Palestinian members of the group to promote the message that there will only be peace in the Middle East with reconciliation.

She was joined at the opening events by Seham Ikhlayel-Abu-Awwad, whose brother was killed by an Israeli soldier. Seham's whole childhood and life have been affected by the conflict. She grew up in Beit Ummar where her mother was often imprisoned for her political activities.

The programme of activities was as follows:

Monday 16th August

Launch of exhibition at Farset International Belfast (25 participants)

Dialogue session (19 participants)

Key questions:

  • Is there a cartoon that really struck you?
  • Are there any parallels for you between these cartoons and our conflict?
  • Interview on Arts Extra Radio Ulster

Tuesday 17th August

Visit to 2 community based victims groups

Exhibition (14 participants)

Dialogue session (13 participants)

Dinner with community relations practitioners from Derry (20 participants) Initial introductions and explanation of various projects participants were involved in followed by meal and traditional music

Wednesday 18th August

Interview Radio Foyle

Launch of exhibition (20 participants)

Dialogue session (13 participants)

Dinner with community relations practitioners Belfast (10 participants)

Publicity from the event was enormously successful. These included

Arts Extra

Write up in the Slugger O'Toole web site

Interview on Radio Foyle

Photograph in Derry Journal

Parents Circle kindly donated the cartoons to Community Dialogue which can now be used as a tool for dialogue and discussion.

Community Dialogue is made up of people from diverse communities within Northern Ireland. As a group they take no position on party-political issues and believe that if we want a better future we need to take time to listen to each other and to question ourselves.

Community Dialogue, LINC Resource Centre, 218 York Street, Belfast BT15 1GY, ph 028 90351450 and web

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