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Nonviolence News



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

Editorial 240: June 2016

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Building a new Europe
There are so many different aspects of the recent very slight majority for Brexit in the UK referendum on EU membership that it is difficult to know where to begin. There are economic aspects in general, and for Ireland, North and South, in particular. There are issues to do with building a peaceful Europe and EU militarism. There are issues to do with peace in Northern Ireland. There are issues to do with democracy and the nature of democracy, within the EU and within individual countries. We will look at a number of features of these different aspects, and the Brexit result is good and bad in different ways. The result has sent shockwaves through British and wider politics but the effects are not yet determined.

The first thing to say is it was a small majority, or just under 52% to just over 48% on a fairly high, 72%, turnout, or, in numerical terms, a majority of one and a third million on a turnout of thirty-three and a half million voters. This is an arithmetic majority but not a convincing one. If the electorate was an individual who was trying to ask themselves a question, say whether to go on holiday to the seaside or the mountains, and said "Well, I'm 52% in favour of going to the seaside and 48% inclined to head for the mountains" what they would actually say is "I'm totally undecided" or "I'm so undecided I'll go to the seaside this time but the mountains next time." In Northern Ireland the proportions were 55.8% to stay and 44.2% to leave, a majority for the 'stays' but a relatively small one given that the DUP was the only major party to favour 'go'. It is also clear that a considerable majority of younger people voted to stay but older people were more likely to vote to leave; in other words, a decision being taken which is not in accord with the wishes of people who will be alive a lot longer.

However, asking such a complex question with such diverse ramifications in such a simplistic manner is ridiculous and if you ask a stupid question you can get a stupid answer. Formulating a response to a complex relationship needs a more complex set of questions, as in a preferendum/de Borda poll which would more accurately indicate where voters stood and why they stood there. This would also have required more cooperation from the EU.

It is also unclear how many voters came to 'no' from a left perspective even if it is clear that it was the right that was making the running for 'no'. Undoubtedly immigration was the issue that had most traction for the no's though austerity was another factor. It is clear from the figures that in Northern Ireland most Protestants who voted probably voted for out but again it is unclear how many came to vote no to remaining in the EU from a left perspective. But it is certain there was a sectarian (Protestant and Catholic cultural and political) dimension to how many people voted.

When British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on the morning of the vote result that voters had "spoken clearly" he was speaking nonsense. Voters had not spoken clearly; they were very divided. It was not a good exercise in democracy. But then David Cameron had already rejected the possibility of fairer voting systems in the UK when, in his first term in office jointly with the Liberal Democrats, he had rejected proportional representation even going on the ballot paper and the referendum choice was either the current 'first past the post' system or the 'alternative vote' where candidates are eliminated in single member constituencies until one gets to the 'magical' figure of 50% (why this is the magical figure and not, say, 66% is a good question). This was rejected by voters. So perhaps there was an element of Cameron being hoist with his own petard.

In any case the whole exercise was not about democracy in terms of its origin but to try to settle a dispute within the Conservative Party about its stance in Europe. The debate was largely fact-free with all sorts of accusations and assertions being given free rein, on both sides. A banner trailed by a small airplane in the north of England promised "Higher wages and lower prices – Vote Leave"; this is an example of fact-free assertion. And when voters in the Republic made the 'wrong' decision in EU-related referenda – against the EU establishment – the Irish government simply asked the question again with greater threats. Democracy doesn't come into it very much and there is a severe democratic deficit in the EU and mismatch between the Parliament and Commission. So the EU getting a jolt is not necessarily a bad thing if it means it will develop more democratic mechanisms and be less in the service of ruling elites.

Moving on to the position of Northern Ireland, the whole result has far-reaching implications if Scotland now votes to leave the UK. Without Scottish seats there could be a semi-permanent Conservative or right-wing government at Westminster. And where will Northern loyalists look for solidarity when currently they look more to Scotland than England? The Sinn Féin request after Brexit for a border poll in Ireland on political unity on the island may have been a flag-waving exercise but it came across as silly when it is known that there is no way currently the result would be 'yes'. Economic reasons for partition are a prominent factor in Northern Ireland but what will happen if Scotland leaves? The question then would be how would Northern Ireland fare in a rump 'UK' where England may have even less cause to thinks of other countries within its borders.

Crystal ball gazing for Northern Ireland can be a pointless exercise. Irrespective of outcomes regarding membership of the EU for the UK, the same old things as heretofore are needed. These include bedding down the peace through overcoming binary opposites, working for a united community across divides (and including new migrants), getting party politics to 'work' within its field, establishing nonviolent means of struggle on issues of importance, the application of human rights standards, and ensuring a fair and sustainable economy so there are no economic reasons for going back to war. It is possible that Brexit could cause some, or even major, problems in a few of these areas but it is impossible to say at this stage.

It is also just possible that a general election, before the UK is out, will bring a clear majority for staying 'in' which could be taken by the new government as a mandate for not leaving. While the referendum result is seen as indicative and a 'moral' victory for the leavers, it is the government that makes the decisions. What would happen in terms of popular opinion if the UK did not leave after all would be another day's politics, and how chopping and changing would go down with the powers that be within the EU is another matter – it is clear they want British membership settled sooner rather than later to prevent confusion and possible contagion within other member states.

It is too early to say much in terms of predictions for the economic future. It is all still to be played for in terms of UK-EU economic and trade relations. It is difficult to see how not being part of the same economic union as its neighbours would be good for the UK economy but at this stage it is impossible to tell and the economic markets have fluctuated wildly on the result. What is bad for the UK, however, is certain to be bad for Northern Ireland economically and also bad for the whole island. But whereas the Republic felt it had no choice in 1973 except to join the EEC (as it then was) when the UK was joining, the situation is different today and it is highly unlikely that the Republic would follow the UK out unless there was a general falling apart of the EU and its structures. The economy in the Republic is on a rather stronger and more independent footing now.

On leaving the EU, the UK might be free of some of the EU regulations which support privatisation of utilities and services but given that the move to leave came from primarily the right wing, the possibilities for building and rebuilding a not-for-profit utilities and services sector, and other progressive social and economic measures, is non-existent at the moment. There is also the danger that some of the positive protections for workers that exist under current EU regulations will be removed. Adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, written into the Good Friday Agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a separate matter but given the direction the UK is heading it is quite possible that this safeguarding of human rights will be removed. What happens to its position in Northern Ireland is a more difficult matter since its application there is a matter of an international treaty.

The departure of the UK from the EU would also be a jolt to the growing convergence between the EU and NATO, and that certainly would be no bad thing. If the jolt to the EU system leads to greater democratisation and a halt to growing EU militarisation and development of a common military 'security' policy then Brexit could yet do something for peace. But there is no indication that there might be a change in 'Fortress Europe' and this does not augur well for peaceful tomorrows. However after this seminal event the EU may also be more inclined to listen to people and their desires, and despite all the departures from neutrality in the Republic (Shannon, EU battle groups, and belonging to NATO's so-called 'Partnership for Peace') the policy of neutrality is widely supported by the public. Perhaps, just perhaps, Brexit might give more space for the development of a positive neutrality and a departure from the militaristic direction the EU was been heading in and supporting.

We have commented often enough on the '1984'-style language used in referring to the EU as 'Europe'. Ireland has always been a part of Europe. The EU is a particular political and economic manifestation of countries or states coming together; it has many limitations, positive and negative, and should not become an empire in its own right (or wrong). We do not accept that it is the EU, as such, which has meant peace in Western Europe since the Second World War (and some EU states have been involved in very significant war-making outside the EU/EEC since it was founded which gives the lie to the myth about the EU and peace), but it has certainly had some positive as well as negative effects. Whether it can be transformed into a positive model of cooperation between peoples remains to be seen. But one thing of which we can be certain is political and economic uncertainty, in Ireland as well as Britain, in the near future.


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Failure of Winning

A news headline in The Guardian, 17th June 2016, reads:

"Shattered records show climate change is an emergency today, scientists warn: Unprecedented temperature levels mean heatwaves, flooding, wildfires and hurricanes as experts say global warming is here and affecting us now."

A few days earlier, 14th June, a headline in the same newspaper announced:

"Revealed: first mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change: Exclusive: scientists find no trace of the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that was the only mammal endemic to Great Barrier Reef."

The scientific community is doing an excellent job in establishing an evidence based understanding of the state of the biosphere. The schools, some sections of the major religions, the mass media, and many charities have to be commended in presenting these understandings to the public in a digestible form. Climate change is on the GCSE curriculum and in primary schools children learn through active engagement about the deteriorating state of the biosphere and the necessity to do something about it.

Children, who are endowed with an enormous capacity for compassion and appreciate wholeness, integrity and beauty see caring for nonhuman nature as something people should do as a matter of course. Their inclination to care is such that their question is why one would do otherwise. Anyone who has observed young children, or can recall their own childhood, will be aware that one reason they cry when they break something is not so much that they are liable to be scolded by a parent or carer but because the integrity of the thing has been shattered. Their inclination is to fix, heal and make well.

By the time many young children reach adulthood this regard for integrity is lost, replaced by expediency. This might be because of the endless tests children take during their time at school when they learn as they morph into young adults that what matters in life is winning as in achieving narrowly defined outcomes. Society wants winners, people who can enrich the coffers of corporations and Treasuries, who can win medals at international sport competitions feeding the illusion of national glory, which is the idea that the citizens of one's country are intrinsically better and more accomplished than those of other countries.

Winning is so highly valued by adults that many consider it legitimate to break the rules, in other words be uncivil and harm others in order to win. This was most recently expressed by the captain of the Irish team playing in the 2016 Euro football tournament. He told the international media that fouling by his team in order to win is acceptable. Although his ethos was criticised in the BBC Radio Ulster phone-in program Talk Back, 21st June, it was widely endorsed. The attitude of winning at all costs, which is the endeavour to attain existential transcendence, underpins corruption, cruelty and violence in all areas of life. It justifies the damming of rivers, the felling of forests, the pollution of the seas, the demise of biodiversity, and the extermination of people. The genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas was rooted in the sense of entitlement Europeans had of their right to win control over the land in which others lived.

The irrationality and destructive consequences of the desire to win was famously encapsulated by a US official during the country's war against the Vietnamese people when he said they had to "destroy the town in order to save it." (Wikipedia) We see the articulation of this mindset of winning, controlling and 'having' at the cost of enormous suffering, death, and destruction in Syria today. If we are to ever heal the environmental harm we cause, restoring integrity and beauty to the planet we need to explore a question at the heart of the human character, why do people place such a high value on winning? Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death (1973), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, holds that our desire to win at all costs, to slavishly follow fashion, obey the will of authoritarian figures, submerge our individuality in the herd is based on fear of death. Becker argues that fear of death is at the root of the belief that humans live forever, for time beyond imagination, for time beyond counting - for eternity. This sense of transcendence and invincibility coupled with the view than nonhuman life has no intrinsic value helps account for our unsustainable ecological behaviour and our ill-treatment of those we consider different from us.

The technological and organisational means of living in an ecologically sustainable, just and nonviolent way exist. What seemingly prevents us from doing so is our inability to accept a basic fact of our existence, which is we die. Love, community, creativity and empathy are ways by which we can accept our finitude, live well with others, do no harm while healing the damage we have done to the Earth. Is this utopian thinking? Although challenging it has greater prospects of realisation and causes less misery in the effort than the endeavour of trying to convince ourselves we are immortal through winning, having, and thinking that our tribe, as Donald Trump might say about the United States, 'is greater and better' than others.

Copyright INNATE 2021