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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Editorial 223: October 2014

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Northern Ireland: Time to move on

It is beyond time for Northern Ireland to move on, beyond the bickering, infighting and lack of decision making which characterises the current situation, and beyond the carve up of power which characterises the reins of OFMDFM (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister) under the DUP and Sinn Féin. To be able to move on requires structural/procedural changes which will permit decision making. It is not that we are against taking decisions by consensus or the maximum agreement possible, it is that the current situation allows both parties to blame each other while doing nothing.

Of course this democratic deficit is not unique to Northern Ireland, it is manifest in the Republic and other jurisdictions as well. Politicians, North and South, have not exactly covered themselves with glory, and this is reflected in voting figures and lack of trust. However the political situation in the post-Good Friday Agreement, post-St Andrew’s Agreement Northern Ireland has demonstrated an incapacity to arrive at positive policies in most decision making areas. The failure of the Haass talks (on the past, emblems and parading) at the end of last year is just one illustration of this; others incapacities include education and welfare reform. On the last, we are certainly not saying that Conservative welfare reform plans should be nodded through (they should not) but that the system has not permitted decision making one way or another, and holding politicians accountable for how they treat the poorest in society.

There are current attempts to move things on which will involve British, Irish and US governments at some level. How seriously these moves are being taken remains to be seen. If safeguards were put there because of the sectarian situation, how can the North move beyond them? How can it permit decision making while also guaranteeing fair play? At the moment the safeguards and balances prevent, or are used to prevent, decision making.

We have pointed towards an answer on previous occasions, and this would require bravery on the part of politicians and people to try something innovative and creative in the field of decision making. But it is also a simplification because the proposed system itself bears within it the guarantee of fair treatment. We are talking about using the Modified Borda Count (MBC) or similar mechanism in decision making and elections. This encourages consensus, requires politicians wanting to maximise their support to reach out to others, and shows clearly the level of support existing for different policy options. Further information is available at

Switching to such consensus-emphasising decision making mechanisms would not wave a magic wand but could free up a currently moribund decision making structure. Where there is no clear consensus it can show the strength of different opinions and point towards what might make acceptable compromises all around.

It is time for the North to move on. We have had seven years of continuous Stormont Assembly government and uncertainties have been growing rather than diminishing over the last couple of years. In the wake of the Scottish referendum on independence, which put the wind up the establishment in Britain, there will be moves for further decentralisation of power within the UK. But Northern Ireland and its political system have not shown that it is ready to handle additional responsibilities despite the control of the Department of Justice becoming devolved in 2010, into the hands of David Ford of the cross-community Alliance Party.

Young people in particular are either voting with their feet to leave the North or indicating that they want to; that is a catastrophic situation for any society to find itself in and does not bode well. The Republic had generations of people leave, especially after the Great Famine of 1846 so that the population of the 26 counties only began to grow around 1960. Emigration is still periodically a major issue in the Republic but the North’s economy, apart from the major debt issues which exist for the Republic, is actually in a rather worse state.

If the bright and young continue to leave Northern Ireland that does not set the North up for the kind of sustainable economic development which is required. A corporation tax decrease in the North would come at a very large cost in the block grant from Westminster and, as currently envisaged, without any guarantee of job creation. Having Northern Ireland as a basket case is in no one’s interests because it will foment or contribute to sectarian conflict of one kind or another in the future, as well as continuing to leave many, many people trapped in poverty and despair.

Bombing IS admitting defeat
The bombing of Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria and Iraq is an admission of the total failure of previous strategies in the region, including the war on Iraq of 2003. It also risks making more enemies for the future and more military jihadists who will seek to attack ‘the West’. The nature of the threat from Islamic State in the region to the lives and well being of so many different minority groups, and relative freedom for Sunnis as well, illustrates just how disastrous Western policies have been in the region. This is because, as we have said before, without Western military intervention there would have been no IS.

There are self-fulfilling prophecies and there are self-fulfilling prophecies with terrible consequences. The region is an amazing example of a truly terrible self-fulfilling prophecy. Iraq, which was no longer a threat to anyone outside its borders but was projected as a threat in order to justify the 2003 war, is now a threat, especially locally, in the shape of IS in some of the country. And the state in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad had a strategic advantage in terms of weapons as well as some very loyal followers, was almost the target of Western military attacks and many military rebels felt encouraged by the West if not supported with logistics until recently. Now Assad is considered, effectively, the lesser of two evils.

If war was traditionally the pursuit of politics by other means, bombing is now the Western preferred method of engaging in brutal but limited war. It is asymmetrical warfare because, controlling the skies as they do, they can bomb enemies - and civilians – to their heart’s content without any substantial risk to their own military personnel. The West has no longer a stomach for putting their own soldiers at risk by engaging militarily at ground level. Local civilians who are killed as ‘collateral damage’ in bombing are considered expendable.

There is a strong parallel between the two sides, the Islamist world within Islamic countries and belligerents within the Christian or post-Christian West. It is arguable what George W Bush meant when he used the term ‘crusade’ at the time of the 9/11 (11th September 2001) attacks on the USA; he said "this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while” – he may or may not have had a religio-military construct in his mind. However the original crusades were an unbaked medieval idea to ‘rescue’ people, Christians, in the Middle East who did not need rescuing. Whether George Bush’s use of the term had any religious connotations or not, it is clear that his plan in Iraq was an unbaked modern idea to engage in a military ‘rescue’ of people whose condition he, and his allies, made far worse.

‘Jihad’ in Islam can be understood in different ways – as spiritual struggle or military struggle. Christians and the post-Christian west have never really got to grips with even the Just War theory which was formulated by Saint Augustine and then, most importantly, Thomas Aquinas. But the ‘original’ Christian church, of the first couple of hundred years, was actually nonviolent in its approach to the world. However a book like Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” quite clearly shows the way that developments in the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam mirrored each other. We can extend this thinking to the relationship between Islamists and the Christian and post-Christian West. The Bush-Blair war on Iraq (and Afghanistan) has indeed proved to many Muslims that the way to do things is with the bomb and the bullet.

From a nonviolent point of view, the question is how we can ‘break into’ history and the evolution of historical facts to bring about a radically different situation and relationships. There is no indication that ‘the West’ has any concept of how to do this. It would not be easy. But in the long term it is the only approach which will bring peace.

- - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The UN Climate Summit in New York City

The UN climate change summit that took place in New York City last month was attended by 120 world leaders. Their attendance suggests that governments are willing to engage meaningfully with the issue of global warming.

The call by 340 institutional investors last month for governments to take action to mitigate global warming might suggest that the international business community is prepared to cooperate with governments in addressing global warming. These institutions are responsible for managing £15 trillion worth of assets. (The Guardian, 18th September 2014)

The 2,000 or so well attended public events held around the world on the Sunday before the UN summit demanding that governments and big business take action to address global warming might suggest that there is widespread support across the world for governments and business to act together in taking effective action to address global warming.

These colourful, joyous, thoughtful and seemingly demographically inclusive events might give credence to the idea that a catalytic moment in the history of our relationship with the biosphere has arrived. We won’t know if this is the case until the outcome of the December 2015 UN conference on climate change in Paris. Even then pledges made by governments to radically reduce global warming emissions might not be kept.

A number of observations can be made about the above demands for action on global warming. The most pertinent is the human trait to blame others for undesired outcomes. Politicians often blame their failure to commit to radical measures to reduce the level of their country’s global warming emissions by saying that the body politic would not stand for it. Most politicians, whether elected or not, are cautious about imposing what are perceived as hardship measures on the governed as they fear mass public disorder as well as losing office.

Big business is fixated on profits at the expense of economic justice and protecting the biosphere. Their standard rebuff is that their primary obligation is to their share holders, and if their prices are perceived as too high they will lose customers and no longer be able to trade. Profit is the name of the game and as in war costs to others aren’t counted. The public is inclined to the view that global warming and other environmental problems are the responsibility of government and big business to sort out without any surrender of comfort and convenience on their part.

This sketch of divisiveness highlights the absence of a shared paradigm concerning our relationship with nonhuman nature. This might be a cultural failing and could well prove to be the flaw in our makeup that leads to our extinction. Before the adverse intervention of humankind, species became extinct because they were unable to adapt quickly enough to changing environmental circumstances. The question is can we, the seven plus billion members of our species, develop empathy and compassion for other life forms and competitor societies quickly enough to take meaningful action to reduce our global warming emissions before it is too late - if it is not too late already.

Bryan Walsh in Time, 6th October 2014, writes that “the months of June, July and August – was the hottest on record for the globe, and 2014 is on pace to become the hottest year over-all. We’re losing the fight.” The World Meteorological Organisation informs us that “Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the major cause of global warming, increased at their fastest rate for 30 years in 2013, despite warnings from the world’s scientists of the need to cut emissions to halt temperature raises.” Ominously the article (The Guardian, 9th September 2014) states that: “Experts warned that the world was “running out of time” to tackle global warming.

A dispassionate view of human behaviour suggests there are grounds to believe that we have run out of time to develop empathy for nonhuman others to ensure our survival as a civilisation. The following local examples are evidence of this. Although thousands of people take part in picking up litter during Northern Ireland’s annual Big Spring Clean hundreds of thousands more throw litter out of their vehicle windows or as they walk along woodland paths and city streets. Farmers regularly burn felled trees that cause great wafts of smoke to ascend to the sky. Mass fish kills in rivers is a regular occurrence. On sunny days families have picnics on beaches and in spite of litter bins and anti-litter signs leave rubbish behind that kills creatures that live but metres away in the sea.

The increase in awareness of environmental issues over the past 40 years has not resulted in us successfully addressing the most pressing environmental and justice issues of our time. This is not because we don’t have the managerial and technological ability but because we have failed to exercise our empathic imagination as well as being trapped in destructive myths about it means to live a meaningful life.

Frank McDonald in an article in The Irish Times on the UN summit quotes Yu de Boer, a former UN climate chief as saying: “The problem is, the US is vocal and very demanding in international negotiations and then slips out the door when it is time to sign on the dotted line.” (24th September 2014) Might this approach to global warming and other environmental problems apply to all of us? We can act otherwise. We are not an irrelevance. As herd animals we affect each other’s behaviour, how we live makes a difference.

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