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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Editorial 246: February 2017

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Draining the Northern Ireland political swamp

Donald Trump promised to 'drain the swamp' in Washington whereas all the evidence points to him and his acolytes getting their snouts deeper in the trough than others before them. However in the little political backwater – subject to sudden sectarian surges and flooding – of Northern Ireland, the nearest we have had to a full blown scandal is the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) which brought down the last Executive when Sinn Féin deserted the DUP. Perhaps our graphic on Stormont as a 'Hot Air Factory' was unknowingly prescient.

Whether there were vested interests involved in continuing the scheme beyond when it should have been severely curtailed, well, hopefully time and an enquiry will tell. The best picture that can emerge is of severe incompetence, on the behalf of whatever civil servants were involved but also their political masters who did not pick up on what should not have escaped them. Perhaps the lack of specialists involved in processing the matter also contributed to a monumental cock-up. The £400+ million cost to the Northern Ireland public purse is not one that can easily be sacrificed. Arlene Foster had a clear precedent, and in her own party too, in Peter Robinson standing aside for the duration of an enquiry but she refused to take this course and the government collapsed.

As we mention above, whether there was serious malfeasance remains to be seen. However the biggest 'swamp' in the land of Northern politics is sectarianism. Yes, there is now an opposition at Stormont and there is a bit more of interaction involved in political debate. But in terms of the executive, well, Sinn Féin and the DUP both came to be the largest party on their 'side' through the Troubles, and it is the sectarian division which remains the biggest swamp and obstacle to progress in the North. The refusal to deal with the issues at hand may partly have been due to intransigence by Arlene Foster but the sectarian division is a factor in even that.

If no way is found of getting beyond sectarianism to build a future with a vision, and before that a vision for a future, young people will continue to vote with their feet and leave, and thus a brain drain will strip the North of some of its economic and social entrepreneurs who would have helped to build a new society. As social and economic analysis has shown, Northern Ireland simply cannot afford sectarianism. The North is not an economic wasteland but it is extremely poor performer, and heavily dependent on British money.

Even if Sinn Féin does manage to negotiate a new deal ("A fresh, fresh start"?) with the DUP – and the DUP have indicated they will make counter-claims to Sinn Féin – that will not solve sectarian issues, even if it makes for greater equality in what is meant to be an executive office of two equals. Without moving above and beyond the demands of sectarian identity then there will always be major problems, for a variety of reasons. The first is that political party intransigence can be an obstacle to progress but when reinforced by sectarian feeling that obstacle becomes immovable. A second is that sectarianism costs, in both human and economic terms; fear, division, the economic cost of separate provision, and so on. A third is that sectarianism always threatens to break out into internecine warfare, literally or figuratively.

Patching up the governmental system in Northern Ireland may help and allow a certain amount of what passes for normality in that neck of the woods. But without an entirely new vision for the whole of society – something lacking from most political parties' views and proposals – the North will continue to limp from crisis to crisis. Opinion polls show the DUP suffering a couple of percentage points loss of votes through the RHI debacle but that may not make a big difference when votes are counted and seats allocated, particularly with fewer seats at Stormont.

Whether the largest parties can wheeler deal and cobble together a new arrangement, and how soon after the 2nd March election, remains to be seen. How long that deal will last also remains to be seen. Draining the sectarian swamp in Northern Ireland is the only answer and that is a monumental project but also an essential one. While many have been working on this project for decades at grass roots, there is no evidence that we are even at the planning stage for that project yet at a societal level.

Holding the nerve

It is now clear that "Brexit means hard Brexit", and the UK common travel area with the EU will disappear. How that leaves the older common travel area between Ireland and Britain, and the presence of customs and security on the border in Ireland, remains to be seen. But either border controls are increased very significantly, or the security involved in crossing the Irish Sea (Ireland-Britain-Ireland) is greatly increased, or more likely both of these, the latter especially as 'sealing' the border is difficult.

Ireland, North and South, east and west, will suffer financially from British EU withdrawal. That has by now been well established, and Irish trade from the Republic, particularly the food industry, has already suffered from the fall in the value of the British pound. The Republic will pick up some slack from firms and banks currently in the North or Britain who want a presence in the EU; that is a positive south of the border which is however unlikely to make up for other negative effects. For Northern Ireland there are unlikely to be any positive factors; it is highly unlikely that the British government will make up for what will be lost for Northern Ireland when the UK 'brexits'.

The disappearance of the 'seamless' border may, ironically, increase demands for unification of the two jurisdictions in Ireland. That is not to say it is going to happen in the near future and this is only one possibility. Much will depend on the relative prosperity of the UK and the EU in general, and Northern Ireland and the Republic in particular, in the years to come. If this happens it will particularly test the commitment to democracy and non-violence of Northern Ireland unionists, if an increasing number of people in the North seek a united Ireland of some kind. There may be testing times ahead.

Britain is still keen on being fully involved with NATO so while there are implications for EU military and foreign policy it is not a major change. Military interests in Europe will continue pressure on Irish neutrality, such as it currently is. However Britain, a major player in NATO, will now be outside the EU so despite attempts to standardise EU military and international policies in alignment with NATO, and equate the two, it is a matter of reconfiguring things and not a major shock to these plans. Indeed some commentators believe that with Britain 'out of the way', attempts to further converge EU military and integration policies will surge ahead.

For peace activists, in Ireland or elsewhere, it is a matter of holding our nerve and continuing the struggle. Ireland may be a vassal of the USA when it comes to something like their military use of Shannon Airport but there is also a proud record of Irish action for peace and international cooperation. Thwarting the warmongers is not an easy task and translating Irish public opinion's strong support for a positive neutrality into effective governmental policies and actions across the board is a difficult one with political parties who are afraid to say 'boo' to the USA or militarist supporters in the EU. But there are opportunities ahead as well as dangers and we have to hold our nerve to be able to take those opportunities and run with them during the many uncertainties ahead.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Through The Prism of Narratives

We are living in a time when we don't have the latitude to make major political mistakes. This is underscored by the most recent publication of global temperatures. An article on the front page of The Guardian, 19th January 2017 informs us that:

"The final data for 2016 … showed that global temperatures had already soared to 1.1C since preindustrial times, more than halfway to the 2C considered a crucial ceiling by the Paris global agreement."

Most climatologists think that to maintain healthy ecosystems the rise in the average global temperature should not exceed 1.5C. In spite of the significant advances made in the provision of renewable energy this figure is likely to be reached within a few years. The 2C figure is what governments think is politically achievable rather that what will prevent the catastrophic warming of the planet and the collapse of its ecosystems.

The mainstream media, prominent politicians and commenters regard the warming of the planet as if it were the only serious environmental problem. There are others that say it will have devastating consequences if not urgently addressed. A critical one is the worldwide loss of soil and the depletion of its fertility. Hiroko Tabuchi informs us in The New York Times, 28 January 2017, that in the United States: "Almost 1.7 billion tons of topsoil are blown away or washed off cropland a year." Deforestation, desertification, the mass extinction of species and the ever increasing demand for fresh water are critical problems. An issue that receives scant media attention is the decrease in the effectiveness of antibiotics. It is worth recalling that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed between 50 and 100 million people. International travel, the invention of factory farms and increased urbanization have made the transmission of deadly viruses and bacteria all the easier. The Irish Times, Weekend Review, 10th December 2016, informs us that 700,000 people die every year and 10 million will die a year by 2050 because of ineffective antibiotics.

What makes the time in which we live particularly dangerous is that in spite of our in-depth knowledge of environmental problems we have to date failed to comprehensively address them. This applies to economic and social justice. Oxfam released a report on the 18 January 2017 stating that "62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world's population." Although the validity of this figure is questioned it usefully provides a sense of the degree of economic inequality in the world. The remedy to gross economic inequality is the redistribution of wealth through taxation. Applying remedies is anything but simple. An important reason is because of the stories we tell ourselves about how we should live our lives.

According to George Lakoff in The Political Mind (2008) we live our lives according to narratives. These narratives are imbedded through socialisation in our brains, our neuron circuits, beyond the reflective mind. Lakoff's thesis is that we are not aware of 98 percent of thinking our brain does and are thus not conscious of the narratives we use in making sense of and interacting with the world. This helps account for why facts and robust scientific theories do not have the effect that the Enlightenment theory of the mind presumes they should have. The theory holds that reason determines our behaviour and that it is:

"conscious, literal, unemotional, disembodied, universal, and functions to serve our interests. (p.3)

Lakoff argues that if the Enlightenment theory were correct then people on becoming aware of the facts and figures, and likely consequences of particular policies and forms of behaviour, would at election time vote for candidates who would further their self-interests. This would inevitably include candidates who have an abiding concern about environmental issues. As we saw with the election of President George Bush in 2000, who was running against the environmentalist Al Gore, and more recently the election of President Donald Trump this does not happen. Likewise in Ireland and the UK where very few Green Party candidates are elected.

In Northern Ireland the constant complaint is that the politicians have let them down and that nothing will ever change as there are no alternatives. In the 2016 Assembly Election only 54 percent of the electorate cast their vote. There are alternatives to the main Northern Ireland parties, namely The Green Party and the People Before Profit Party. These parties, however, are not part of the narrative the majority of the electorate use in plotting their place in the political cosmos. The world view of the alternative parties, their narrative, is not imbedded in the neuron circuits of most of the electorate.

Lakoff is not the only political theorist who examines political issues through the lens of how humans actually live their lives as based on how the brain works. Shaoni Bhattacharya in New Scientist, 16th August 2016, reviewed two books which support Lakoff's thesis. One is tellingly titled 'Denying To The Grave: Why we ignore the facts that will save us', by Sara Gorman and Jack Gorman, Oxford University Press.

In the light of the environmental problems we face we should become aware of our life-orientating narratives. The narrative that enabled Donal Trump to become the 45th president of the United States, winning 43 million votes, 42% of which were cast by women in spite of his denigration of them, was the ever appealing nationalistic narrative. In this case "Make America Great Again".

We need to lay down compassionate eco-centric narratives in our neuron circuits. One such narrative, which is a bulwark against despair, is that positive change takes time and plodding. In Medieval Europe it took hundreds of years to build a cathedral. This effort of generations was sustained by a narrative. We may not live to enjoy the realization of a compassionate, equitable, eco-sensitive world but we can play our part in bringing it about by living a new story.

Copyright INNATE 2021