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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 219: May 2014

[Return to the related issue of Nonviolence News]

The Northern Ireland peace stall
Talking about the stalled nature of the Northern Ireland peace process is nothing new in these pages, in fact some readers may be bored with the regularity with which this theme appears. However the latest ‘Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report’, published by the Community Relations Council, author Paul Nolan, has this theme in a big way; “The moral basis of the 1998 peace accord has evaporated’, ‘The absence of trust has resulted in an absence of progress’, ‘There has been some increase in polarisation’, and ‘A culture war is being talked into existence’ are the first four out of ten summary points. There are a couple of positives in the summary: Derry City of Culture “was able to model a post-conflict society”, and “At grassroots level the reconciliation impulse remains strong.”

The aspect of the report which received most attention in the media was the significant underachievement in education of working class Protestant males and, as the author indicated in media interviews, this is storing up problems for the future. However this is again a weighty tome in its coverage at 188 pages of A4 with more statistics and analysis than anyone can easily digest in a casual way. But that is its strength. We do not agree with every conclusion, and some figures can be taken as flexible or open to different interpretations, but the detail is all here: background, people’s safety and sense of safety, equality, cohesion and sharing, and political progress.

All areas of low level conflict, like that in Northern Ireland, may have similarities but they certainly have differences also. Northern Ireland records about twice as many hate crimes with a sectarian motive as a racist one – but despite many (perhaps 60%) of hate crimes going unreported, it does not seem that the North has more hate crimes than elsewhere in the UK. You might expect it to be otherwise. However between July 2012 and August 2013 there were 689 PSNI officers injured in civil disturbances – around 10% of the total police officers which is a pretty stark reminder of some of the realities of life on the ground, certainly regarding summer volatilities and the flags protests.

The asymmetry in terms of paramilitarism is well covered. Dissident republicans are fractured and weak, capable of continuing a low level military campaign but nothing wider. However the two main loyalist organisations from the Troubles are still very much in existence and, as the report says (p.42) “The flags protest changed the dynamic in quite a remarkable way. The ethnic solidarity by the unionist community allowed for a new tolerance of paramilitary structures by the DUP and the UUP.” So far as policing is concerned, one major issue raised in the report is in the area of covert policing: past mistakes may be repeated, for example in concentrating on dissident republicans while considering loyalist dissidents as a lesser threat. 0 a United Community’ strategy from the DUP and Sinn Féin “assumes the permanence of the two blocs” (p.107) – but the fact that other parties were excluded from the promulgation of the policy is also illustrative of the carve up of power by the two largest parties. Their previous ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ effort was rubbished almost universally (Bernadette McAliskey branded it as being ‘in negative equity’) but their current attempt is light on definitions and not very imaginative. Sharing facilities in education is an aim rather than educating all children together. The report is, however, correct in saying that North-South cooperation is now considered normal and that the level “now resembles the norm between neighbouring European states.” (page 151) which is certainly one gain from the peace process.

The report does challenge the sense of cultural besiegement by working class Protestants and loyal orders, pointing out that the number of parades and loyalist bands are at their highest. The problem has a number of aspects to it. One is perhaps that old superiorities die hard, and the existence of the zero sum idea that a gain for ‘them’ is automatically a loss for ‘us’; in fact a gain for ‘them’, if it makes ‘them’ happier and more contented, can also be a gain for ‘us’. The lack of representation of working class Protestants or loyalists at Stormont is of course a major aspect of the problem. More flags and emblems are seen by some loyalists as a partial answer, a response which, in trying to proclaim Britishness, simply demonstrates how different the situation in Northern Ireland is from Britain where such use of the flag and identity (sometimes with associated violence) would generally be frowned upon.

The report lists the logjam at Stormont; welfare reform, Education and Skills authority, Irish Language Act, Maze/Long Kesh, the Housing Executive, and academic selection (p.144). Together it represents a litany of failure. We previously recorded the August 2013 Belfast Telegraph opinion poll which showed that only 9.4% of those expressing an opinion rated the performance of Stormont as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’; Scottish devolution, by contrast received a positive reading of +12% but the report concludes “one thing held in common by the NI political parties is a lack of ambition for the assembly as a devolved government.” (p.146)

Each of the three Peace Monitoring Reports have had quotable quotes. One in relation to dealing – or not dealing - with the past says “If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means then Northern Ireland’s post-conflict journey can be seen to be the reverse of that: politics as the conflict continued by other means.” The report goes on to deal with the Haass-O’Sullivan talks, and finishes off with reference to the statement by Richard Haass that “The passage of time will not by itself heal Northern Ireland’s society or make it more normal or bring it together. To the contrary, absent political progress, the passage of time will only create an environment in which social division intensifies, violence increases, investment is scared off, alienation grows, and the best and brightest leave to make their futures elsewhere.”

We have talked about the stalling of the Northern Ireland peace process. But we can also set out a stall for the continuation and development of the peace process. There have been substantial achievements in the peace process, in the political, military, and policing spheres, in positive coexistence and cooperation between the North and the Republic, and in making life somewhat more normal for ordinary citizens. But without significant further work, and changes, decision making at government level will be difficult, which in turn makes it problematic taking cohesion further in everyday life. All systems tend towards institutionalisation and even atrophy; it would be a tragedy, possibly leading to greater tragedies in the future, if our current situation was as far as Northern Ireland travelled. A road has already been travelled. Not to take it further could lead to a substantial unravelling of gains.

Young people in Northern Ireland are not optimistic. A Belfast Telegraph poll of 16 – 24 year olds (7th April 2014) showed 67% preferred to leave Northern Ireland, while 70% felt politicians are incapable of agreeing a joint vision of the future, and 65% don’t feel there is peace. This shows a shocking level of pessimism but who can say that such pessimism is unrealistic?

One question, then, is what civil society can do beyond what it is already doing to try to shift things forward. Whatever this might be, it is a hard task in an environment where funding has got much tighter, and will continue to do so significantly after the current recession is a bad memory (and that itself will be some time). The other question is what can be done to make political parties shift, and the main answer to that is how people vote. Unfortunately there is no indication currently that people in sufficient numbers will use their votes in a progressive and non-tribal way to ensure the political party role in the logjam is removed. Getting a change in system, perhaps including something like the Modified Borda Count for decision making and appointments at Stormont, might be sensible but will be resisted by those in power. We’re in for a long slog.

See here.

Ukraine crisis continues
Unfortunately the Ukrainian situation remains at crisis level with a number of deaths and risks of major violence, beyond the sometimes deathly skirmishes which have been taking place between the pro-Western Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian elements and militia. It is also difficult to be well and accurately informed because of the disparity between the propaganda emanating from both sides, with Western media generally taking a line very much in favour of the current (not democratically elected) Ukrainian government.

There is also a mistaken tendency in situations like this to want to take sides, as if all the right was on one side and all the wrong was on the other. The situation is very much more complex than this. While there are undoubtedly rights and wrongs, of which we should be aware, these rights and wrongs are often asymmetrical and of different kinds and degrees. And, as the old adage goes, two wrongs do not make one right.

Strategically speaking, the EU and NATO have clearly been at fault in pursuing their agenda in Ukraine in a way which helped destabilise the situation, allowed pro-Russian activists to act in the way they have done, and allowed Russia to act as it has been doing. Putting the genie back into the ethnic conflict bottle, in a divided society like Ukraine, is extremely difficult, a bit like trying to put a sparkling wine or champagne cork back in the bottle; you might be able to do it if you have much determination, patience and ingenuity but when feelings and tempers are running deep, do people have those qualities? Unlikely. Russia, which was given informal assurances at the time of the ending of the Cold War that NATO would not expand to the east has seen just that happen and is understandably anxious, which is a not unreasonable response given the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. US hypocrisy is startling in criticising Russian interventionism when it itself was intervening on the pro-western side, apart from US military interventions elsewhere.

But it looks like Russia has also been playing a double game. While being willing to engage constructively with the issues at a certain level (the Geneva agreement of mid-April) it has also been playing nationalist and militarist cards. While it is understandable that Russia should see itself as the guarantor of the treatment of Russian-oriented Ukrainian citizens, it is in Putin’s interests to play a strong nationalist game. If Ukraine should break up, or further territory like Crimea be annexed, that may have repercussions for Russia’s dealings and reputation worldwide but it is likely to go down well internally as Russian pride at an expanding Russia is burnished. Narrow nationalism may win out over reasoned understandings of repercussions.

The situation needs to be demilitarised. While pro-Russian elements in Ukraine have not been too keen on the Geneva agreement, in the longer term this, or its general import, has represented the best hope for the situation stabilising. But expecting pro-Russian militia in the east of the country to stand down in the short term was probably unreasonable and the Ukrainian government should have saved its attempt to take back ground, even at the risk of ‘facts on the ground’ being established, which it looks like they are. Meanwhile Russia, and Vladimir Putin, should refrain from making bellicose and general threats of ‘repercussions’ which can only inflame the situation and encourage pro-Russian militia.

Unfortunately the crisis in Ukraine has a long way to run yet, and it is not looking good. The situation in Syria shows how opposing sides can dig themselves into a mighty big hole. The hole in Ukraine is also getting bigger. The answer, of course, is for all sides to stop digging down and look for a way out for everyone. But that is proving a very intractable problem. Sometimes, with passions inflamed, people prefer to continue digging down rather than look up, or are incapable of seeing the light above them.

- - - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

An essential we take for granted

There are many things people on these islands take for granted. Among them is the National Health Service (in Northern Ireland), water fit for human consumption, free schooling until the age of eighteen, and a relatively nonviolent society in which the rates of physical assault, theft and robbery are low compared to many other countries. Our road fatalities are comparatively low and we can be fairly confident that the goods we purchase are genuine and meet health and safety standards. One thing we take for granted, consume three times a day, every day of our lives and has an enormous impact on the nonhuman world and concerns economic justice, is food.

Given that agriculture emits more greenhouse gasses “than all our cars, trucks, trains and airplanes combined” we should give it our attention. (National Geographic, May 2014, p.35) Agriculture, as National Geographic informs us, uses more fresh water than any other sector of the economy, is a major polluter of rivers, lakes and coastal ecosystems through runoff of fertilizers and manure. It also has a negative impact on biodiversity making it “a major driver of wildlife extinction.” This is hard to reconcile with the storybook image of farms as wholesome places containing a variety of creatures in a bio-rich, crop-diverse environment. This type of farming, which involved hard physical labour, started to come to an end in Britain in 1939 when the government realized that in the World War that was about to break out it would be vulnerable to food shortages and encouraged the adoption of the US farm model, which was large-scale, single-crop, single animal, mechanical and chemically dependent. The Republic of Ireland followed suit. This is the model that banks, governments, food processing, agro-chemical, crop-engineering and industrial-plant companies promote across the globe.

Modern farming methods kill the land and every living thing on it that has no economic value. Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott give us a frightening picture of such in their book Farmageddon (2014). After describing the enormous bountifulness of Central Valley in California, they write.

“It sounds like the Garden of Eden. It isn’t. It turned out to be a deeply disturbing place where not a blade of grass, no tree or hedgerow grows. ... By remorselessly dousing the parched soil with fertilisers, insecticides, herbicides and fumigants, as well as diverting natural waterways, farmers have been able to pull off a multi-billion-dollar conjuring trick, extracting harvests from soil that is so depilated of natural matter it might as well be brown polystyrene.” (p. 13)

Given the worldwide rate of soil erosion, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, depletion of fresh water supplies, the predicted rises in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns it is unlikely that intensive farming will be able to feed the predicted 9 billion human population of less than 40-years time. A population that may aspire to eat as much meat, eggs and dairy as Europeans and Americans do today.

As things stand the United Nations Food Programme puts the number of people who don’t have enough to eat at 750 million. The number unable to eat three nutritious meals a day is probably much higher and includes many in what we call the rich world. In 2013 Food Share, which provides food to local charities in the UK, provided food for 1 million meals a month.

As Lymbery and Oakeshott illustrate, intensive farming is an ecological catastrophe, something Rachel Carson brought to the world’s attention in her 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’. Two things that are within the capacity of every adult and maturing child that will reduce the emission of green house gases, loss of biodiversity and conserve fresh water are, a) change our diet, and b) don’t waste food. As National Geographic, May 2014, states “only 55 percent of the world’s crops feed people directly; the rest are fed to livestock (about 36 percent) or turned into biofuels and industrial products (roughly 9 percent).” In regard to waste, National Geographic point out that: “An estimated 25 percent of the world’s food calories and up to 50 percent of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed.” (p. 45)

A radical change is needed in our values and thought processes if we are to ensure that the Earth is able to feed the ever growing human population with non-contaminated nutritious tasty food in the years ahead, and do so in a way that does not rely on ecocide, animal suffering and underpaid labour. As a society we need to learn to make connections, and as Madeline Bunting writes in the Holy Saturday edition of The Guardian “understand how sacrifice can be a force for good.” Change that benefits the environment, and by definition humankind, will inevitably mean some kind of sacrifice.

Readers might be interested in taking part in this year’s Afri Famine Walk from Louisburg to Delphi Lodge in County Mayo. It takes place on the 17th May and was first held in 1988 and linked with the Great Famine of the 1840. It is 17km long, through hauntingly beautiful peat and mountain landscape.


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