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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Editorial 228: April 2015

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

1916 and all that

The purchase by the Irish state of a building at No. 16 Moore Street, Dublin, which was the last headquarters of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion or Rising is not necessarily a negative step. The Irish state, while still tangled up in all sorts of violence – not least that perpetrated in and through Shannon Airport by the US military – has long since moved beyond abject but ambiguous obeisance to the ideology of the 1916 Rising. And, as we have explored before, it is quite possible to be committed to many of the ideals expressed in the associated Proclamation (cherishing all the children of the nation equally would be a very good start after a hundred years) but to strongly disagree with the path which these military rebels took. This is where Francis Sheehy Skeffington is an important figure.

Foundational myths are important to many people. History is written by the victorious and, in the case of the 1916 Rising, it was (and could only be) a disastrous failure but led to a sea change in Irish history, the War of Independence and, directly or indirectly, to partition. It should be said, of course, that the seeds of partition were sown first in the plantation of Ireland by Britain but the military struggle against the British did not assist the cause of all-Ireland nationalism.

The obvious problem with 1916 is the fact that they chose to shoot first and go to the ballot box later. In this case it 'worked', in a peculiar kind of way; it was the British reaction to the Rising, and the execution of the leaders, that caused Irish Catholic and nationalist opinion to move from constitutionalism to military republicanism. We would argue that nonviolent resistance would have been another path which was only partly utilised by the republican movement of the time.

How can you remember the 1916 Rising and not contribute to the military ideology of shooting first and asking questions later? The IRA of the troubles, and other military republican groups then and now, have justified their actions in all sorts of ways, including a very autocratic response of 'we have the right analysis', but one avenue has been appeal to 1916. Just one response, particularly associated with John Bruton, is to reject any 'hierarchy of victims' of 1916; to remember soldiers in British uniforms (some of them Irish) and civilians as much as the military republicans who were killed.

This is where we also get into the hypothetical and the 'what ifs' of history. From a nonviolent point of view we can, of course, add our 'what if' resistance to the British had been conducted nonviolently, as it was with the nationalist members of the first Dáil switching their allegiance from Westminster. Would the history of Ireland in the twentieth century have been more benign? Would partition still have happened? The answer to the latter question, given legitimate unionist fears but also scaremongering, is likely to be 'yes', but it might have happened in a way which did not fossilize politics north and south for much of the century.

Turning the Moore Street building into a 1916 commemorative centre will be an interesting process (and it will not be complete in time for the 100th anniversary of the Rising). We cannot ignore the 1916 Rising; this is not just because of its historical importance in the foundation of the Irish Free State but also because of its symbolism which has resonated right through to today. We can commemorate and remember things which we do not agree with but it is a difficult tightrope walk; we should not ignore the facts of history but at the same time we need to be able to have an understanding of other factors and also a commitment to nonviolence and democracy.

Welfare and warfare
The ongoing spat in Northern Ireland between political parties over welfare reform, particularly between Sinn Féin and the DUP, reveals the fragility of the whole system and the difficulty which it has in making decisions. Sinn Féin and the DUP make up OFMDFM, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, a lynchpin of the 'power-sharing' system of government and yet they are also the two parties most likely to be publicly at odds with each other. It certainly makes for interesting times.

Welfare reform looked like it was 'sorted' before Christmas with the Stormont House Agreement. Sinn Féin signed up to a deal which they thought was going to protect all benefit claimants, keeping their payments at current levels for some years. Subsequently, in early March, they pulled out from the agreement, accusing the DUP of undermining the deal and saying that only some claimants were going to be protected. Did Sinn Féin not do their sums at the start? Did they feel – because of political pressure - they could no longer stand over the deal they had agreed to before Christmas because of upcoming elections in the North (Westminster, May) and subsequently in the Republic (not later than April 2016)?

While Sinn Féin issued a document about how they had been deceived, including by civil service figures, who you believe in the matter is a very difficult one and we would not presume to make a judgement. Sometimes there can be genuine misunderstandings where no particular party is trying to deceive anyone; however in a party political system like that in the North, and most others, attempting to pull the wool over other parties' eyes is probably par for the course – in other words, there may have been no deceit, but equally there could have been (and who would have been doing the deceiving is open to interpretation as well). If you do not know the intimate details then the best things is probably to suspend judgement beyond deciding that the whole thing is a mess – and one not yet fully sorted, despite positive soundings from some talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

It is, of course, a good thing to try to protect claimants' payments but it does come at a cost to other parts of the Northern Ireland budget where cuts are only now making a big impression with community and voluntary, environmental and arts organisations being badly hit, and a large number of people having had their jobs terminated at the end of the Northern financial year on 31st March. The North is where the Republic was half a dozen years ago; big, swingeing cuts creating havoc which will get worse, but with a state which is more important in almost all sectors.

Northern Ireland is in a very difficult situation financially; heavy dependency on the British state and a relatively small, and not high paying, private sector. The idea that a corporation tax decrease will automatically lead to new jobs is wishful thinking and unproven. Even if it does create jobs there is no real research which indicates how many, what kind, and over what time period. Political parties and others seem to have suspended their critical facilities in wanting 'it' to work. Many other things need to happen for sustainable economic development; one is to persuade young people, and young people with business or social entrepreneurial skills, that they should stay in the North, and increasing educational opportunities and employment paths are a couple of obvious ways forward. At the moment it is clear from surveys that most young people would prefer to leave Northern Ireland. This is sad but unless sectarianism is overcome then many young people will vote with their feet, leave and stay away.

Sectarianism of course costs massively, not just in very obvious terms of policing division and the results of division, but in providing dual facilities of all kinds. In addition it drives people away. There are also costs arising from the Troubles, not least mental health costs (as mentioned in the news section of this issue). The North cannot afford division, now at a time of austerity more than anything. The further cut in the block grant to Northern Ireland from Westminster which a corporation tax cut will bring will mean more swingeing cuts and no guarantee of increased jobs as opposed to increased profits. There are no indications that the existing political system, particularly OFMDFM, has any meaningful plans for overcoming division as opposed to tinkering at the edges – this is clearly all they are interested in doing because to do more would threaten their power bases.

There are difficult times ahead for the people of Northern Ireland. And expect more political fallout between political parties as many things, particularly economic and those dependent economically on the state, go from bad to worse.


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Creating a Culture of Respect for the Biosphere

We are probably more aware than any time in history of the impact our consumer life-style is having on the biosphere. Like a chronically ill patient the health of the biosphere is monitored round the clock and data about its condition diligently recorded. This is done by satellites, drones, weather stations, underwater laboratories, motion sensitive cameras and by scientists and trained volunteers working in bioregions across the world. Much of the information and analysis is presented to the public in journals, magazines, newspapers and books. The most alarming findings are aired on radio and television news programmes.

Evidence-based solutions are regularly presented to governments on how we can address our environmental problems. An example is the Stern review on climate change published in 2006. This recommended that 1% of global GDP be spent on the reduction of greenhouse gasses. In 2008 Stern announced that his report had underestimated the impact of climate change on the biosphere and recommended that 2% of global GDP be spent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Ignoring research findings on the state of the biosphere and recommendations on how to reduce the harm we are causing is having serious consequences for humankind and the Earth community. James Gustave Seth, dean of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, spelt out the implications of our ecologically unsustainable way of living in a talk he delivered at the university in January 2015.

"All we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world for our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels – they are accelerating dramatically."
An intriguing question is why we ignore what science is telling us about the state of the biosphere and live as if we are in a magic world where behaviour has no consequences? A credible explanation is that we are embedded in social circumstances that favour particular types of behaviour. We also live largely on auto pilot – are set in our ways - and give little thought as to how we actually live. Philip Zimbardo in his book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (2007) explains as follows.
"A large body of evidence in social psychology supports the concept that situational power triumphs over individual power in given contexts." (p. x)

Zimbardo quotes the Harvard psychologist, Mahrzarin Banaji:

"What social psychology has given to an understanding of human nature is the discovery that forces larger than ourselves determine our mental life and our actions – chief among them (is) the power of the social situation" (p. 296)

We are social animals and seek the approval of others. We want to be accepted by our peers, colleagues and the groups and tribe we feel we belong to. This involves, often unconsciously, aligning our values and behaviour with the values and behaviour of those we feel affinity with. We also observe and listen to others in order to get guidance about appropriate behaviour and what are acceptable views to hold. Big business knows this, which is why huge sums of money are spent on advertisements, packaging and shop displays and celebrities are contracted to endorse products. Political parties know about the influence of situational power which accounts for why at election time they spend substantial sums of money on persuasion, their messages designed by psychologists to appeal to the emotional rather than the rational side of the brain. Joel Achenbach in an article in National Geographic, March 2015, titled The War on Science writes:

"Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers. "We're all in high school. We've never left high school," says Marcia McNutt. People still have a need to fit in and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science."

Given that our desire to belong determines much of our behaviour, substantial change in how we interact with the biosphere is unlikely to happen until there is an attitudinal change towards it by opinion leaders in every sector of society including religion, politics, the arts, education, entertainment and commerce. Governments and corporations have a critically important role to play in the formation of values and beliefs as they construct the broad parameters in which we live our lives. Laws are more than a set of rules we are compelled to obey, they are value statements about what is acceptable behaviour. The law about where one can smoke radically changed society's attitude towards smoking. Road safety laws, and education about them, have led to the consensus that road users have a responsibility of care towards others. Injuries and deaths on the roads are no longer considered accidents but events that could have been avoided.

If laws protected the biosphere on the basis that it has intrinsic value and opinion leaders showed that they regard harming the biosphere as shameful this would go a considerable way towards creating a cultural of respect and care for it. Green parties across the world seek a cultural change supported by legislation in how the biosphere is perceived and valued. A document and its promotion that seeks such a change is The Earth Charter, endorsed by the Earth Charter Commission on the 29 June 2000 .It is available online at We can all be part of the cultural change that is needed by being good eco-citizens.

Copyright INNATE 2021