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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 217: March 2014

[Return to related issue on Nonviolence News]

Thinking ‘on the run’
The recent political crisis in Northern Ireland, arising from previous assurances (mainly by the Blair government, also by the current British coalition) to republicans ‘on the run’ – those suspected of troubles-related crimes but never charged for them – is the latest in a long line of crises, and will not be the last. Unionists are, understandably, aggrieved about a ‘secret’ deal between Sinn Féin and the British government – although how secret it was remains a debateable point since evidence points to it being known by some people, discussed at the Policing Board, and Denis Bradley has referred to it being in the Eames-Bradley report.

But, aside from an assurance to John Downey that he was not wanted at all in the UK, when it was only the North that didn’t want him (his alleged offence had been the Hyde Park, London, bombing of 1982), these were very substantially people where there was no evidence to proceed with criminal charges. They were therefore not given, in unionist terminology, “get out of jail free” cards but rather an admission of the inevitable.

The larger problem is thinking about ‘on the runs’ ‘on the run’, in the sense of deciding policy in relation to the latest controversial issue that arises. We need official policies for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. We need more serious analysis of the proposals in the Haass report about how to deal with some of these thorny issues, and thorny they are. Peter Robinson says he and Ian Paisley would never have agreed to go into government on the basis of something like this taking place and, if he really had no opportunity to know about it, could certainly feel aggrieved about that. These letters only applied to republicans.

But what can you do about this grievance? Topple the Stormont regime? In fact Peter Robinson’s threat to resign unless there was an enquiry was probably pushing at an open door with David Cameron, who quickly granted a judge-led enquiry.

Thinking outside the box, and thinking for the generations to come, is much more important than thinking on the run. Northern Ireland needs political stability but not at any price, and the kind of political stability which has been enjoyed has been sterile in terms of effective decision making at the level of the OFMDFM (the DUP and Sinn Féin being unable to agree of much beyond the carve up of power). There are many things which need to move on. There is the need for a comprehensive mechanism for dealing with the past. The Haass report offered one, quite well thought out, proposal. What Northern Ireland needs is as rational a discussion as can take place in a post-conflict still-divided society as to what is best for everyone.

There are anomalies, idiosyncrasies and incompatibilities in governmental and political party responses to the Troubles. Post-conflict politics is messy. This is all the more reason for a well thought out policy which contains humanity and respect for human rights and justice.

The old arguments about ‘innocent’ victims (a hierarchy of victims, some deserving, some not at all) are still around to muddy the waters. The Good Friday Agreement was built on inclusivity. Humanity requires we take account of human suffering, whatever the cause. To move on, we all have to swallow some medicine which might taste bitter but which makes us healthier.

But we have continually stated that no one in Northern Ireland has clean hands, and therefore the pointing of dirty fingers, while understandable, is pointless and unjustified. Who has clean hands? The middle classes who opted out and avoided getting involved or trying to solve matters in hand? Guilty. The ‘peace movement’ who failed to get their act together? Guilty. Politicians who pandered to sectarianism? Guilty. Peter Robinson who took a divisive approach to politics and paraded on hillsides with arms certificates and invaded the Republic? Guilty. The British government who was so slow to realise that killing people and taking away their rights was counter-productive? Guilty. And finally, the men and women on all sides (including the government’s) who supported or were involved in violence as a means of trying to get their own way? Guilty.

In such a situation to introduce a hierarchy of victims is to try to reintroduce the exclusive policies of the past. What we need is inclusivity, what we need is to acknowledge that everyone is part of the problem and everyone is part of the solution. We recognise that victims cannot be told to move on; this has to come when they are ready. But society as a whole has to recognise that moving forward is possible but with neither amnesia nor blamefulness. We cannot forget, we should remember and still find ways to move on because that is what remembering truly demands of us: a commitment that these acts will happen never again, nunca más.

The very dangerous situation which has arisen in Ukraine is illustrative of the way in which we can sleepwalk into dangers that could be foreseen. The Crimea was formerly a formal part of Russia but it was transferred in the Soviet era to Ukraine on an administrative whim – at that stage it didn’t make much odds because all was under effective Russian control in the USSR. The Russian invasion and takeover of Crimea is morally and legally wrong and not in any way helpful, in fact it is singularly unhelpful, in trying to resolve issues but is understandable if you accept that military powers have ‘spheres of influence’ – we do not accept that geopolitical reality as either moral or just but try telling that to the USA which has felt ‘threatened’ as far away from its shores as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The complex or involved ethnic and linguistic picture in Ukraine in terms of ‘east’ and ‘west’ facing is one important aspect of the situation. There are further issues, some of which we have explored before, in terms of the meaning of democracy. ‘The West’ proclaims itself all in favour of democracy so long as the result is favourable to itself but if the overthrow of ‘democracy’, and democratically elected governments, be it in Egypt or Ukraine, results in an administration which is more favourable to the West, then that is barely questioned. The EU seemed to be rooting for the rebels in Ukraine. The question was posited as either an “EU or Russia” orientation; once again choices being given as ‘either/or’ rather than ‘both’.

We do support the nonviolent overthrow of autocratic and unjust regimes. We do believe in the possibilities of people power being exercised to build a more just and peaceful society and world. But we are also aware of the way in which situations can be manipulated in favour of the continuation of the power of elites (e.g. the army leadership in Egypt) and of the dangers of ethnic division, as well as ethnic and religious divisions being exploited and stoked by other powers (e.g. the situation in Syria) leaving everyone very much worse off, with terrible escalations of violence.

Power blocs judge situations not on issues of human rights, freedom, peace and justice but on their own perceived interests. The EU is now, effectively, a power bloc if a fairly loose one which is also allied with NATO. The rhetoric of human rights and freedom may be used when it is convenient to do so, and genuinely held by many, but these concepts are swept under the carpet when it is not advantageous.

The best hope in the situation is that Russia is using its military might simply as a ‘guarantee’ of order for the pro-Russian people of Ukraine, and will withdraw when ‘stability’ returns. Ousted President Yanukovych had sent a written request to Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide troops. However ‘facts on the ground’ could lead to a redrawing of boundaries – again – and pro-Russian areas becoming part of Russia, de facto if not de iure. There is, however, the danger of war, not necessarily intentional, but possibly through high tension triggering an event which escalates. The world could do without another Crimean war.

- - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Alchemy of Words

This winter has seen extreme weather conditions across the globe. The centre of coastal towns and cities in the Republic of Ireland were flooded and as reported in The Irish Times, 22nd February 2014 up to 100 publicly owned piers, harbours and slipways have been damaged. Although Northern Ireland suffered from strong winds and heavy rain which flooded roads and fields this was nothing compared to the prolonged flooding in Devon and Somerset. Australia had its hottest year on record with serious wildfires in many parts of the country. Argentina had one of its worst heat waves in late December. There were heavy snow falls in the normally mild southern states of the USA, and Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall anywhere in the world, killed more than 5,700 people in the Philippines. Brazil suffered from unusually heavy rains. California is suffering a serious and prolonged drought.

The question discussed in home, office, and pub, in parliaments, on radio and television is can these extreme weather conditions be attributed to global warming or are they simply freak unrelated events? In answer to this Julia Slingo, the chief scientist at the UK Met Office informed the public that “all the evidence suggests that climate change has a role to play in it.” In response Seumas Milne in The Guardian, 20th February wrote: “With 4% more moisture over the oceans than in the 1970s and sea levels rising, how could it be otherwise?”

Fearful of losing the next general election because of the floods and associated issues Prime Minister David Cameron announced on the 11th February that “money is no object” when it came to dealing with the floods. In an age of budget cuts this was a bold statement and signalled to the public that the government is taking the atrocious weather seriously. Given the link the Met Office made between this winter’s weather and climate change David Cameron is dealing with symptoms rather than causes, and for those who have suffered his intervention has come too late.

We all should ask why our minds are closed to the stress signals the biosphere is sending about its general health. Many of these are documented by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014). Kolbert writes: “One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” She goes on to say that “the losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific, in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and in the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.” The idea that human prosperity and wellbeing can be realised in a poisoned, disfigured, denuded Earth is insane. Yet this is the orthodoxy supported by almost every politician and public body in the land. The school system for instance, with exceptions such as the Green Flags scheme, does nothing to prepare generations of children to live in a world wrecked by the earth’s temperature rising above two degrees Celsius, which it is on a trajectory to reach before mid-century. Most schools act as if climate change were a fable.

For those looking for causation in regard to our acts of self-harm, which our destruction of the environment is, I suggest that there is a link between how we treat ourselves, others and the Earth. As Klaatu, the alien in the classic 2008 science-fiction film ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ says:

“You treat the world as you treat your selves.”

How we treat each other is illustrated in the edition of The Guardian that carries the striking front page headline “Climate change is here now”. On page 18 an article informs us that “7% of women ... and 4% of men have been victims of some kind of domestic abuse in the past year, official crime figures reveal.” (14th February 2014) It is not only that the level of violence to those closest to us is shockingly high but we often take those we live and work with for granted, our antenna numb to their moods and needs. Wars, and preparation for war, which speaks about our willingness to harm, consume a significant percentage of the budget of most countries with little objection from tax payers.

Unless we become more mindful of our emotional ecology, find meaning and purpose in our personal life and are sensitised to our interdependencies we will not be able to act with love and compassion towards others and the biosphere we are a part of. We will not care enough to make positive and radical structural changes in how we organise our societal affairs.

The ironic thing is that equitable, non-violent ways of relating can start with a single word. In Genesis God created the world with words. Words can heal, encourage cooperation, and motivate us to act for the good of others, including the Earth and future generations. We all can be the word seeds of positive change. As Vicky Beeching said in her BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day reflection we have “the power to create worlds with our words.” (20th February 2014) Positive change in how we consider ourselves, relate to each other and treat nonhuman life-forms lies with ourselves.

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