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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Editorial 248: April 2017

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Parity of steam

To be optimistic about Northern Ireland feels at times more like a duty than a pragmatic response. Of course things have changed dramatically from the height of the Troubles, but the lack of vision and political resolve to make things significantly different again makes for a strong dose of cold water on dreams of progress. But then something remarkable happens, something symbolic which may not be a game changer but signifies humanity and hope. Such a moment was the recent time when the last First Minister, Arlene Foster, was warmly applauded as she arrived for the funeral of the former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Derry. When someone across a divide makes a gesture, even one which might be assumed in a more normal society, it can be deeply appreciated – and symbolic.

While this may have been a moment to remember, it did not affect negotiations to bring about a new powersharing government or executive in Northern Ireland, with Sinn Féin and the DUP accusing each other of being the culprits when talks got nowhere and the three week deadline to form an executive passed. The DUP had been on the back foot since before the elections on 2nd March when comments and policies of theirs caused Sinn Féin to walk away from the joint executive government, leading the system to collapse and new elections to be held. The Executive was meant to be a joint venture and Sinn Féin – correctly as it happens – judged that they had been treated as a much more junior partner one time too many.

It is generally reckoned that for every person Arlene Foster got out to vote by her approach (e.g. refusal to stand aside over the Renewable Heat Initiative until it was resolved despite the precedent of First Minister Peter Robinson doing so previously over economic dealings) and comment on republicans being 'crocodiles' always wanting more, she achieved two people to vote for Sinn Féin. Politics in Northern Ireland is like that. Only 1,200 votes separated the DUP from Sinn Féin in the March election. The Unionist Party in 1921 got 40 seats, and unionists (DUP, UUP, TUV, independent) 40 in 2017: but in 1921 this was 40 out of 52 seats, and in 2017 40 seats out of 90. However one factor which is not always remembered is the stand of the moderate, centre, and pragmatic unionist party, Alliance. Alliance is not always labelled as 'unionist' and could be open to persuasion otherwise but the fact that it is de facto unionist (the 'u' is certainly a small one) was well illustrated by the furore when former MLA Anna Lo declared she was in favour of a united Ireland.

Until the election this March, the nationalist share of the vote had been static or declining in recent elections, despite the shifting demographics. Arlene Foster and the DUP have changed all that. A Catholic majority in Northern Ireland will certainly change politics and – where possible given Brexit – lead to closer relations with the Republic. But whether it will lead eventually to a united Ireland, well, the jury is going to be out for a very long time. The first factor, as mentioned above, is the Alliance Party (and its supporters) who received 9% of the vote this time and retained the same number of seats (8) when all constituencies shrunk from 6 to 5 seats each. The second is the economic situation in Northern Ireland which has a deficit only a bit under 30% - i.e. the rest of the UK subvents Northern Ireland by around 28%. Northern Ireland was once an economic powerhouse which made an argument for the UK union because that was where most of the business was; now it is the fact it is close to being an economic basket case which makes the same argument.

Of course there are other economic arguments, such as that in the long run Irish economic policies would suit Northern Ireland better and lead to much greater economic development, and the belief it would become a bigger player in the all-Ireland economy rather than remaining a peripheral part of a rather disunited United Kingdom. There is much to support this thinking. But to jump into bed with a state with currently 4.6 million people (though increasing rapidly) in the Republic as opposed to upwards of 60 million in the rest of the UK is a major ask. How could the Republic afford the North, in the short term at least? Economic issues would have to be sorted clearly if people were to make the jump. In the mean time a majority for a united Ireland of a conventionally-thought kind is unlikely.

How Brexit will affect all this remains to be seen and crystal ball gazing is unlikely to get it right. The economic implications for the UK are unlikely to be good but whether they will be middling, bad or atrocious no one knows. The implications are different, but equally negative, for the Republic which, like Greece, will now be 'separated' from the EU in that the nearest country or countries will not be part of the bloc. If the economic implications are bad for Britain that would begin to argue more strongly for a united Ireland, both 'pull' and 'push'; the pull if the economy in the Republic is doing relatively well compared to Britain, the push if Britain tends less and less to the North's economic wellbeing.

Closer links with the Republic, in whatever way, will also be a considerable test for both unionists and nationalists. Northern Ireland was created in 1921 on a sectarian headcount as the largest area of the historical province of Ulster which would deliver a Unionist majority in perpetuity; 6 counties went into Northern Ireland, 3 counties into the Irish Free State. The democratic unit for unionists has, since 1921, been Northern Ireland, not 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' – which is why Ian Paisley could tell then Prime Minister Harold Wilson – and many others – to get their hands off Northern Ireland. What will unionists – and loyalist paramilitaries – do when there is no longer a Protestant or 'unionist' majority? Fight, flight, or cooperate? This will test their commitment to democracy.

This is where magnanimity on behalf of nationalists – and a search for creative solutions – comes in. Would a 'united Ireland' have to be a unitary state? The SDLP is looking towards joint sovereignty. Such questions may be a long way away in terms of reality but all sides need to think ahead and plan ahead regarding different scenarios. We are opposed to a simple majoritarian concept of democracy anyway – that 50% + 1 can decide whatever they want - so it will also be a test of democracy for nationalists.

On a side note, it is amazing that the 'Chuckle Brothers' of 2007, only ten years ago, leaders of the first relatively stable powersharing government in Northern Ireland - Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness – are both now dead, Martin McGuinness recently at the age of 66. Much energy has been expended on how to judge Martin McGuinness, the man who was an IRA leader, or the man who helped bring Sinn Féin into the Northern Ireland political fold (to the joy of some and disgust of others, in both loyalism and republicanism). Ian Paisley was not directly involved in violence but led many up that garden path. Martin McGuinness was directly involved in the killing of others. However one difference is that Martin McGuinness suffered clear discrimination in his early life as a Catholic in Derry. There is no way that we support anyone turning to violence but it is clear that many on all sides – republican, loyalist, and government – saw no alternative to violence. Until people become aware of the possibilities of nonviolent struggle it is difficult – and in some cases counterproductive - to simply condemn those without power who see no alternative to violence. But we certainly disagree strongly with their choice to use violence.

'Parity of esteem' has been a watchword for many in terms of recognising the validity of unionist and nationalist traditions in Northern Ireland. This is always a juggling act because, while some 'parity' is easy to bring about, in other cases certain 'rights' are mutually exclusive (e.g. loyalist 'rights' to march certain places as opposed to the right of people living there not to feel intimidated or threatened). There is not an easy answer but, as always, internationally recognised human rights law is the way to proceed. What we often have in Northern Ireland, however, is not parity of esteem but 'parity of steam' – lots of clouds obscuring the view with hot air and moisture – and the risk of being burnt.

One of the ironies of the Northern Ireland situation in the recent past has been that 'human rights' has been seen as more of a Catholic and nationalist watchword than a Protestant and unionist one. We have stated here before that sensible unionists should be insisting on all the human rights law they can get – and a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights – given the demographic change which is taking place towards a majority Catholic population in the North. Perhaps the recent Stormont election with its near nationalist/unionist parity in voting and seats will focus minds on this and bring about a change in attitude. The highest standards of human rights are for everyone's protection and this needs to be recognised by everyone.

Presumably we will see a return to a powersharing executive at Stormont sometime, measured in months; talks sponsored by the British and Irish governments began on 3rd April and even if that does not lead directly to a new agreement it may be a step in the right direction. Unionists need to play a more clever game to position themselves well for the longer haul, and that requires a more cooperative spirit; it looks like a DUP proposal of a 'Culture Act' as a response to nationalist demands for an Irish Language Act is deviousness when a) it equates Ulster Scots, a dialect, with Irish, a language, and b) it includes commitment to a British Army Covenant. The latter is expecting commitment to both Britishness and militarism and on the latter point should immediately be thrown out the window but whether it is being introduced into the equation so nationalists cannot say 'yes' is a strong possibility.

The old cartoon of two donkeys pulling at each other and unable to reach the piles of hay either side of them has long been associated with Quakers and with approaches to conflict in general. But it remains a simple truth. When we go together we can get first one pile of hay (reward) and then another. It may be easier said than done but it is still a truth worth repeating again and again. When we work together things become possible. The tug-of-politics-as-war continues in the North however.


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Why bother caring for the environment?

Given the enormity of the environmental problems we face I cannot but ask if it is actually possible to desist from harming the biosphere and create a society that has a symbiotic relationship with it. If this is not likely or even possible then why bother trying to realise the unachievable? These questions are prompted by two recent studies which illustrate the degree to which what would be considered benign aspects of how we live cause significant harm to nonhuman nature. A summary of one published in New Scientist, 4th March 2017, informs us that eating bread, a nutritional and cultural stable, contributes to global warming. We are informed that:

"The equivalent of half a kilogram of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere for every loaf of bread produced in the UK, according to the best study on the subject yet.

This suggests that making the bread eaten in the UK leads to greenhouse gas production equal to half a per cent of the nation's carbon emissions. …
While it might seem the way to reduce fertiliser emissions is to switch to organic farming, other studies have found that organic wheat is just as bad if not worse for greenhouse gas emissions."

The second study is by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, extracts of which were published in the 'i', 17th March 2017:
"As much as 30 per cent of the 9.5m tons of plastic released into the oceans annually comes from tiny "microplastics". …
These particles of nylon, acrylic, spandex, polyester or other synthetic fibres can kill thousands of sea creatures that ingest them every year. …
The sources of these particles are diverse, including the minuscule microbeads in personal care products such as toothpaste, as well as dust from cities and "wear" from car tyres and even shoes."

Given the size of the human population, which Nature, 16th March 2017, informs us is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, the resolute commitment of governments to economic growth at the expense of the biosphere, and the cultural imperative for people to consume environmentally harmful products, what realistic chance have we of bringing a halt to the warming of the planet, ending the destruction of bio-rich forests, the death of coral reefs, the acidification of the seas, soil erosion and the loss of its fertility?

Achievable ecological goals such as the loss of biodiversity and protection of fresh water supplies have not been met, while economic injustice, the degradation of women and the 'you and us' mentality prevails in spite of legislation and the work of innumerable charities, campaigning groups and educational projects. Although progress has been made in various areas over the last 40-years in improving the lot of humankind and nonhuman nature the prevailing and deep rooted attitude is one that regards the biosphere as a thing to be used for the vanity of humankind rather than having intrinsic value whose good health is essential to our wellbeing and that of other species.

Tolstoy observed: "Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing themselves."

Most people recognise the truth of this. Yet, how many Europeans and Americans, people in Arabia, Africa and Asia would on becoming aware of the problem of microplastics give up using tooth paste, shampoo, soap, wearing footwear and clothes made of oil-based materials? In spite of widespread awareness of the contribution of air-flight to global warming how many people have rationed or given up flying? The fact that the island of Ireland with a population a little short of 6 million people has 12 airports, one of which, Dublin Airport, hosted 25 million passengers in 2016, tells us that awareness of ecologically harmful behaviour does not of itself lead to a change in that behaviour. This can be seen to be the case in regard to healthy living.

Although many may think otherwise it is possible to live without synthetic materials. In Papua New Guinea, where I once had the privilege of living, almost everyone outside urban areas uses a small stick to brush their teeth, walk bare foot and the vast majority of the population never use motorised transport. In remote areas people make their clothes from materials growing in the forest. This is how our species has lived for most of its history. How many people will give up eating wheat-based food, eat less meat or stop using any of the 2,000 or so products which contain palm oil whose mass plantations have caused ecocide? I suspect that the number is statistically insignificant.

Brian Cox, informed us in The Irish Times, 3rd December 2016, that Stephen Hawking, the renowned Cambridge scientist, has said that humanity has only 1,000 years left on Earth. If this is correct, and given our dependency and near complete immersion in modernity, why bother making what appear to be futile life changes for the benefit of the doomed biosphere?

An important reason is that living in an eco-sensitive way enhances our physical and emotional wellbeing which increases our likelihood of living a long life. As we live in community our wellbeing has a positive effect on the wellness of others. Another important reason as Rebecca Solnit points out in 'Don't Stop Protesting', The Guardian, 14th March 2017, is we simply don't know the long term outcome of an idea or form of behaviour. To quote:
"You do what you can. … You plant a seed and a tree grows from it; will there be fruit, shade habitat for birds, more seeds, a forest, wood to build a cradle or a house? So will an idea, and sometimes the changes that result from accepting that new idea about what is true, right, or just remake the world."

Some ideas catch on, they become the orthodoxy. Rather that live a life ascribed by our culture, we can chose to live an intentional life based on eco-sensitivity and compassion. Whether or not our eco-sensitive way of life becomes common practice a generation from now we will have lived a life of unfolding and enrichment whilst causing minimum harm to the biosphere. When we draw our last breath we can do so with a sigh of satisfaction knowing that we respected the intrinsic value of the community of life-forms of which we are a part.

Copyright INNATE 2021