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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 220: June 2014

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]


Colum Sands' song "Whatever you say, say nothing" depicts brilliantly how people can communicate in a divided society like Northern Ireland. People may talk using code, and context is everything. Communication thus reinforces group identity while implicitly defining an 'out' group – or it may even be talking directly about the other group. This does not just apply in Northern Ireland, it applies to many kinds of divisions, and it certainly applies to relations between different faiths, or between faiths and secularists. But even where societies have been thought to be monocultural in the past there have always been differences and divisions, if hidden. However the perception of monoculturalism in Ireland, North or South, is now well in the past, but we do not always understand what multiculturalism might mean.

The comments by Pastor James McConnell in Belfast about Muslims and Islam have been endlessly quoted in Northern Ireland and further afield. In a sermon, also broadcast on the internet, McConnell described Islam as heathen and satanic, and said he did not trust Muslims; "Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell." He went on to say "Today a new evil has arisen. There are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain..." having just mentioned the presence of IRA 'cells' in Britain fifteen years ago, thus equating being Muslim and mosques with the IRA. McConnell was subsequently backed up by an attender at his church, First Minister Peter Robinson, who said among other things that he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or those devoted to Sharia law, but that he would "trust them to go to the shops" for him.

Robinson later apologised, before and during a visit to the Belfast Islamic Centre. The condescending 'trust them to go to the shops' comment is particularly ironic in speaking of the Muslim community which in Ireland has a high proportion of 'professional' people such as doctors and engineers.

This editorial will to try to draw some lessons from this incident or issue. While 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' may seem true at a shallow level, it is unfortunately true that words can encourage and incite people to take up sticks and stones, or other weapons and missiles, that will indeed break bones or worse. Pastor McConnell's language in this instance was reminiscent of Ian Paisley in his terrible heyday; lambasting Catholicism and republicanism, and thereby individual Catholics and nationalists, in such a way as would encourage his listeners or followers to think that they are less than human, and therefore vile beings open to attack. A small community like the Muslim one in Northern Ireland is indeed vulnerable to attack (and 'religions other than Christianity' make up just under 1% of those living in the North). Muslims have been physically attacked racially or religiously and the Islamic Centre in Belfast has also been attacked.

We all think we are right. Well, we all think we are right until somebody persuades us we are wrong and then we are right again and we forget that we were previously wrong. But language which attacks, which vilifies, which portrays people as less than fully human or civilised human beings, does not usually communicate to the target who is attacked; they are more likely to feel reinforced in their stand because someone is attacking them so vehemently. The attentive audience for these words is actually supporters of the speaker who feel vindicated and who may indeed be incited to take drastic and violent action as a result.

If we all think we are right, how then do we communicate? There are ways and means, and methods (such as Marshall Rosenberg's 'Nonviolent communication' and similar approaches). There are ways of expressing viewpoints which do not vilify. 'Heathen' is an old-fashioned term which can mean different things but in some contexts may not even be an exclusively Christian term but taken to apply to whoever is not of the religion of the speaker. In the context Pastor McConnell could simply have said "Muslims are obviously not Christians"; this would have communicated the same point but without the bitter and corrosive connotation of using the term 'heathen', which implies almost being sub-human (and we know where that thinking can lead). To say Islam is a doctrine 'spawned in hell' shows the pastor actually knows little or nothing about the origin of Islam – this is speaking practically and historically rather than metaphysically – and the links and parallels between the 'Abrahamic faiths' of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To say this also implies that Muslims, the followers of the way of Islam, are, literally, "the devil's disciples", and we also know where this kind of language or thinking can lead.

If we speak our truth positively, without hatred or violent language, then we can do different and more positive things. We may communicate better because more people will listen. We will not communicate division but possibly contribute to dialogue because it leaves the opportunity for 'the other' to respond, if they feel respected but disagreed with. We will also not have added to further misunderstanding and division, even if we are dealing with issues where there are strong divisions.

But we also need to know what we are talking about and who we are talking about. McConnell and Robinson clearly had not been talking to local Muslims about their faith but made judgements based on the antipathy for some people of one faith for another. There are criticisms which can be made of all faiths. While there was widespread condemnation of the remarks made, some of those who felt McConnell and Robinson's comments were not unreasonable were thinking of how Christians and others can be treated in Muslim countries. But if it came to a judgement as to who has mistreated who more in historical terms then the 'Christian' West would have to account for the Crusades, colonialism and, most recently and indeed currently, the Afghan and Iraq wars and current situations.

As with all questions of division, contact and dialogue are key. Peter Robinson did go to the Belfast Islamic Centre to apologise and discuss the issue, and that was good. Pastor McConnell has not retracted what he said but ,condemned racism, and visited and offered to pay for damage done to the house of a couple of Muslims in north Belfast attacked subsequent to the furore emerging.

'Good relations' is the term in Northern Ireland which extends beyond 'community relations' (which mainly implies Catholic and Protestant relations) to how all groups get on together. Sectarianism (in the Northern Ireland context) and racism are evil siblings or cousins, both descended from ignorance, fear and even hatred of 'the other'. Seeing diversity and difference as enrichment rather than threat is a big step for us all to take but it is a necessary one.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?*

* Who will guard/watch the guards/watchmen themselves?

The above quote, usually attributed to Juvenal, is often used in the context of policing. And policing has recently been a big issue in the Republic (leading to the departure of Alan Shatter as Minister for justice) and 'always has been' an issue in the North. It is important to understand that policing is not just about the police; it is about how society and state relate to different groups and how the state tolerates, or not, a range of activities including both legal and illegal activities. Policing issues are some of the most important in ensuring a properly functioning democracy and policing is often a touchstone for the wellbeing of society.

But the police, as an organised body on which the state depends in a very real sense, may not be accountable in a way that is acceptable to ordinary citizens and to those who receive their attention, whether lawbreakers or not. The search for just policing is a constant struggle in all countries, it is certainly not just a question for Ireland. The PSNI, in transmogrifying from the RUC and the period of the Troubles, underwent some massive changes which certainly made it more accountable and culturally adjusted to policing a divided society, but there are still a big number of issues around. The Garda Síochána have never been through a process like the Patten reforms to the RUC.

Speaking from a peace movement point of view, one issue in the overall scheme of things is whether peace activists are considered subversives and therefore worthy of tracking. While it would not be the norm, there are numerous examples from both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland which would suggest that yes, sometimes they have been or are considered 'subversives', certainly in the past of the Troubles and in certain contexts in the Republic – see the Shannon news item in this issue.

But on a wider framework in both Northern Ireland and the Republic there are a very considerable number of other issues about policing. In the North the issues which have been around include the level of cooperation with, or co-option of, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and cooperation with the Police Ombudsman. On the ground policing in Omagh, and a disconnect between police evidence and CCTV footage (Spotlight programme on BBC NI, 3rd June 2014), has raised serious questions about police responses and evidence given to court. The use and abuse of informers is subject to different kinds of distortions, and lack of effective oversight. Covert policing can be out of sight and out of mind but having tangible effects which are negative (see information on CAJ/TJI conference in News section).

In the Republic, Garda responses to public order situations have not been at all good, including at Corrib Gas protests in Erris, and dealing with peace events and activists at Shannon Airport. More recently a number of different issues have emerged especially through and after the Guerin report into actions by the Garda Síochána following allegations by whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe about improper practice. The Morris Tribunal report on policing in Donegal also raised major questions about Garda practice. Whether the Department of Justice commission of enquiry, following the Guerin report, manages to hit all the nails on the head that it needs to remains to be seen.

As Northern Ireland has learnt, police accountability depends not just on the police but the proper functioning of ancillary bodies such as that of the Police Ombudsman. Ensuring appropriate and accountable policing is not a once-and-for-all action but an ongoing process which requires vigilance by police, government, politicians, human rights and civil society groups, and the public at large. Guarding the guards is a difficult task because of the secrecy surrounding some police operations, and the attempt by them to sometimes deny information for 'operational reasons' when the main, or a significant, reason may be back-covering. It can also be difficult for the police to get it right in a culturally divided society like the North which is why appropriate oversight is so essential as well as utilising international human rights standards; cue policing the flags protests in Belfast (which also led to a lot of injured police officers). And in the Republic the Gardaí have for too long been given a long leash.

Policing as an issue hasn't gone away, you know. And it is not going to be going away as an issue in the near future. Building a democratic and participative society depends not just on effective policing but also on effective limits being put on police powers. We have certainly not reached that point yet in either jurisdiction and even if we did it would require constant vigilance to maintain.

- - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Miracle of Eco-Consciousness

The following highlights the challenges that face environmentalists in our global economy at this point in history. In a short profile of me as a Green Party candidate in the 22nd May Local Council Election, Rodney Edward wrote in The Impartial Reporter that I travel up to 1,500 miles a month in my job as an environmental education officer and eat margarine although I said in a press release "that tropical forests are felled so that we can eat margarine." It would seem from this profile that there is a significant disconnect between the espoused philosophy of environmentalists such as myself and our everyday behaviour. I, however, think that the aforementioned does not violate the integrity of environmentalism.

People in the industrialised world were not born into a Garden of Eden. Transformation is transitional, which means change starts from where we are at. We are socialised to live in a society which over the course of 250 years has become depend on fossil fuels for almost every aspect of living. This includes agriculture, manufacturing, transport, temperature control, bureaucracy, medicine and healing, education, religious worship, socialising, commerce and communication. Further, most of what we use has to some degree caused air and water pollution, material waste and the degradation of ecosystems. Even the biro pen has a negative impact on the environment. (The period of 250 years is since the invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 which marked the start of the industrial revolution.)

Unless we have the skills and means to live in an ecologically sustainable idyll the most committed, compassionate and innovative environmentalist is going to degrade the biosphere and destroy life to some extent in order to sustain themselves and their loved ones. That said, if we have a moral responsibility to each other and to the biosphere, and I believe we have, it is incumbent on us to make a sincere effort to live in an ecologically sustainable and economically equitable way. The importance of this is underlined by Mary Robinson, president and founder of Climate Justice, who is quoted in The Irish Times, 27th May 2014 as saying that we have "at most two decades to save the world."

Effort is the operative word not only because our routine of daily living is based on the convenience of fossil fuels but because of the deeply imbedded notion that ecocide is ethically neutral enabling us to destroy the environment without a second thought. A further reason effort is required is because many things that are environmentally destructive and based on economic inequity are considered cool. As cool has hallo status and is beyond criticism in common discourse it is an oxymoron for many to think that it could be harmful. Cool is ascribed to clothes, cosmetics, cars, electronic devices, recreational activities, types of food, travel, material extravagance and indifference. As a herd-belonging species few feel comfortable being on the other side of the fence from cool which makes it difficult to challenge what is considered cool if it is environmentally destructive. Effort is also required to bring the hidden environmental consequences of our economy to public attention.

The task of the environmentalist is three-fold. 1) Make the personal transition to live in an environmentally sustainable way. As with maintaining good health, eco-friendly behaviour is sustained by habits. 2) Raise public awareness about the relationship between economy and ecology. Both words share the same Greek origin, oikos, which means 'household'. 3) Engage with the political process to change the structures and policies that support our environmentally destructive way of living.

In the short story The Miracle by the Cameroon author Ba'Bila Mutia the main character, a boy with a lame leg called Ba'mia, goes with his mother to see the pope who is visiting a near-by town in the hope of a miracle. Ba'mia meets the pope, asks for a miracle cure and leaves with his lame leg. The author writes that on the bus journey home:

"A kind of glow came over the boy's face. His thoughtful, reflective gaze had disappeared. It was replaced by a knowing one. He was radiating a strange aura that stunned his mother. 'I know who I am,' he continued."

(Contemporary African Short Stories, Edited by Chinua Achebe & C.L. Innes, 1992.)

Ba'mia's 'miracle' is a dramatic increase in his level of self-awareness. The 'miracle' of widespread eco-awareness, is needed for society to have the resolution to change the local and global economy from one reliant on ecocide and economic injustice to one based on environmental sustainability and compassion. Judging from the recent election results across these islands the 'miracle' of eco-awareness has yet to occur. The 'miracle' is an educational process.

Although we may depend on fossil fuels and harm the environment through what we buy we should consider our environmental ethos intact if we are ever improving our eco-audit, working to change regressive economic structures and policy and educating for the realisation of the 'miracle' of widespread eco-consciousness.

Copyright INNATE 2021