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Nonviolence News



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

Number 254: November 2017

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Brexit, Ireland, the EU – and peace
Life is complex. And life in the modern world can be exceedingly complex. It is not that there are no simplicities but they can be wrapped up in so much packaging that they also seem complex. Brexit is a phenomenon which was partially sold to the people of the United Kingdom as a way to make things simpler but it has done the opposite, with severe implications for Ireland. This editorial is an attempt to unpick some of the issues regarding peace and wellbeing, for Northern Ireland, Ireland as a whole, and on a wider level.

Brexit and Northern Ireland
Starting with peace in Ireland, the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland are deep but uncertain. It is clear that the UK government has had no bright ideas on how to deal with border issues, and some ideas which might have simplified things are unacceptable to them or to the DUP who hold a pivotal position in the UK parliament. So some sort of 'harder' border is probably inevitable, unless a remarkable U-turn takes place and the UK either stays in the EU or the single market. How visible this harder border will be remains to be seen.

If matters of dispute are not dealt with they can, at some point, explode in a frightening way. This was the case with 'Drumcree' and the Orange march down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown in 1995; there were few people willing to work to move the issue on, and when it became a big issue then resolution and compromise became impossible. But the issue of the border in Ireland has been more subtle. Because of the ceasefires and Good Friday Agreement, as well as both the Republic and UK being in the EU, an invisible border became possible. The big issue – the border as 'The Border' – faded from being such a bone of contention when it no longer existed in such an obvious way. Of course, north of the border was still part of the UK and south and west was the Republic but there could be seamless movement between the two, despite the two jurisdictions.

All that is now up in the air. It is unlikely that it is suddenly going to mean guns and barricaded checkpoints, but there will presumably be something, and although – or indeed because – the hundreds of miles of the border will remain porous, it remains to be seen how much of a security presence builds up over time. That is unwelcome for all people living on the border. Unionists have been quite happy with an 'open' border when the constitutional situation was not at risk. Now, many things are on the table.

'The border as the border' is not the largest issue but it is an important one, and it does affect other aspects of what will change. Freedom of movement, of people, is guaranteed but freedom of goods is not. This is likely to be to the economic detriment of people on both sides and the only people likely to benefit are smugglers.

The disruption of the general situation in Northern Ireland is a bigger issue. This is mainly a reflection of changing demographics with 'Catholics' (in the broad cultural sense of the term) likely to become a larger number than 'Protestants' in the not so distant future. This certainly does not mean a united Ireland in the foreseeable future (see figures in the Billy King column in this issue) but it does mean a major change in relationships within Northern Ireland itself and between North and 'South'.

However unlikely constitutional change for Northern Ireland is in the short to medium term, Brexit has put up many different question marks which add to uncertainties. It is clear that the DUP acted for narrow reasons of identity and aspiration in relation to its support for Brexit, and has continued to do so, refusing to countenance anything which might deviate from the UK norm even when it might be advantageous for the North and all its people. If the UK economy goes downwards because of Brexit, as it is likely to do, Northern Ireland, being heavily dependent on the UK exchequer, is going to get a quare dose in terms of worsening poverty and deprivation. And that will feed into disenchantment with the existing institutions and possibly, in that context, to violence.

The general political uncertainty which Brexit has stirred up is another issue. Unionists – and even nationalists and republicans – like certainty in their own respective ways, a clear and certain view of how things are. Brexit has put a spanner in the works. This is both problem and opportunity. A positive spin is that this can give impetus to sort out the current impasses but there is no indication, in the DUP-Sinn Féin nexus, that this is happening. Loyalist paramilitaries have tended to thrive when uncertainty has been interpreted as threat; there is no indication yet of them flexing their muscles more but they certainly haven't gone away, you know.

Concepts of democracy are another aspect of the situation. A very small arithmetic majority of those who voted in the UK voted to leave the EU while a larger majority in Northern Ireland voted to stay. It is clear the majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland voted leave, and a majority of Catholics voted to stay. But in the simple terms of majoritarian democracy, Northern Ireland is not getting what it voted for. Unionists are happy to be bound by a UK wide decision when it suits but generally, and despite their British identity, the democratic unit for them is usually seen as Northern Ireland, not the UK as a whole.

It is impossible to see how it will all work out but the economic issues, and those to do with negative political instability, are not good for the North. There has been some recent discussion on what would constitute a sufficient majority in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland. "50% +1" is of course a nonsense. Pushing through Irish unification in such a circumstance would be disastrous. The issue should not be held back by loyalist threats but there is a serious question of how loyalist paramilitaries would organise resistance to a majoritarian democratic decision however happy they were with majoritarian democracy when they were in the majority.

The game therefore needs to be shifted, not to deny the possibility of change but to ensure that anything that happens is a positive move which takes people with it. Of course if the British economy stalls and money from that direction declines, while the Republic's economy continues to boom, then there could be a different take on the current financial arithmetic which says the North is far better off in current terms with the UK. Whose policies (UK or Republic) will ensure suitable economic development for the North is another question.
Brexit is thus tied up with wider questions of the future for Northern Ireland which remains a very peripheral region of the UK. Its peripherality is likely to be emphasised further by Brexit. Another problem has been added to Northern Ireland's long list - and the signs for a happy ending are not great.

The Republic and Brexit
The Republic is, of course, the jurisdiction most at economic risk from Brexit, some estimates say even more so than the UK itself. But this analysis will generally ignore the economic aspect and consider some of the issues to do with peace. The issue of the North and Brexit is considered above but there will be a 'security' issue, and cost, for the Republic too as it becomes a border frontline state of the EU. And added uncertainty in the North may have considerable repercussions south of the border, not perhaps to the extent of the period of the Troubles but with the possibility of the situation being much less pacific than it has been.

The Republic has a formal position of neutrality in the international arena and has played an often positive role over the years in various enterprises for peace and disarmament. This is summarised here. The record is not unblemished but it is certainly there.

The EU has been important in a number of ways for the Republic both in economic and structural development and in terms of self-esteem. In 1972 there were still elements of Ireland being "l'île derrière l'île" ("the island behind the island") in European terms. It is no longer. A corollary is that it is also no longer fixated with its previous relationship with (and exploitation by) its neighbouring island, which in turn has led to better relationships, and this has contributed in some small way to a cessation of major violence in the North, as well as to Ireland's being more outward looking.

But there have been costs for Ireland as well, and the risks could be seen from the time of joining what was then the EEC or 'Common Market' in 1972. These relate, for example, to foreign policy and neutrality. While the departure of the UK from the EU actually represents a greater fracture between NATO and the EU, it also entails an increased danger in another way. Britain was quite happy to let NATO be the focus for its military and 'security' policies and it wanted a brake on moving the EU forward in harmonising policies on a broader scale, including military. With the UK no longer a member of the EU, presuming that this takes place in some form within a couple of years, there is the strong possibility that France and Germany will push harder in trying to create more of a United States of Europe.

The EU has tended to be a very centralised body with a definite agenda, and without great democratic control. When the Republic voted 'no' in referendums on the Nice and Lisbon treaties, the question was asked again with greater, and subtle, threats about what it would mean if Ireland really put a spanner in the works. And those works include not only considerable support for neo-liberal/conservative policies such as privatisation and reregulation but also for increased military cooperation. EU military policy might become not just a European wing of NATO but even a western European/EU imperial army. We have seen the portents of this danger in the 'Fortress Europe' approach to migration over the last few years. The news item, and report referred to, in this issue about EU backing for the arms industry and military research ("Arms and the EU") is very shocking.

Further 'harmonisation' of military policies in an EU framework bodes ill for Europe and the world. Instead of dealing with the migration influx of recent years on a human rights basis, by tackling the source (wars, instability and unfair economic systems in the countries people have fled from), the EU has tried to batten down the hatches of Fortress Europe. If resource wars break out later this century, not impossible the way the world and its ecology are going, there is the danger that an EU army will be in the thick of it, not fighting for human rights or justice – although it will invoke such terms as empires always do – but for the EU's own narrow economic and 'security' interests. This is not a fantasy. This is a real danger.

Remaining in the EU in the light of Brexit is as near as you can get to a consensual decision in the Republic, those who would even thinking of looking at leaving are in a small minority. It is of course quite reasonable to want to leave the EU in the context of what has been explored above, and to do so to forge a more just and peaceful society and world. But when the 'leave' agenda in the UK is pushed by right wing xenophobes then the dangers are massive. The Republic could once more become West Britain and very dependent on UK largesse.

The struggle inside the EU to make society more equitable and just, and to oppose military cooperation, will be a hard one. The political elite in the Republic is quite happy to hand in the towel – as with US military use of Shannon – and become part of a greater European military and economic empire. What it has going against it is that the Plain People of Ireland, the ordinary citizens of the Republic, are greatly in favour of Irish neutrality. Not only can neutrality be a real contribution to world peace, it is also a symbol of people having learnt from the past anti-imperial struggle; empires do not liberate, they grind people down, at home and abroad.

We should not underestimate the role and the potential of Irish neutrality on the European and EU stage. At a time when NATO has fostered confrontation with Russia (in Ukraine), the possibility of Irish neutrality challenging EU militarism should be understood (as previously spelt out, we are of course also highly critical of Russia). What we need are politicians who have peace at heart and a bit of backbone – something singularly lacking in Irish governments when it has come to issues regarding international peace in recent years.

And Irish politicians are unlikely to develop any backbone on this issue unless people pressure them. This requires a major mobilisation of popular opinion in favour of Irish neutrality as a contribution to European and world peace. We have our work cut out, but success on this would be a major achievement – for Ireland, the EU, and on a wider plane. Brexit may increase the urgency of dealing with all this.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Don't Cure the Disease

If you are going to cure something, then it shouldn't be the disease, but its cause. If you remove the main cause … then there won't be any disease. - The House with the Mezzanine, April 1896 Anton Chekhov, Oxford World Classics, 2004, p.118

A case can be made that the overwhelming disease that afflicts humankind is our insatiable appetite to have ever more things. The genesis of this is avarice, covetousness and greed. It is our desire to have more things including experiences that is the cause of the warming of the planet, the loss of biodiversity, death of the seas as well as economic injustice. The collective inability to recognise the nature of our disease helps account for the feeble national and international effort to address the global ecological crisis. Even the most celebrated attempts such as the December 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, signed by 195 countries, is unlikely to prevent the planet from warming beyond 2 Celsius within the coming few years. (Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, 30 October 2017) Climatologists say that if the earth warms beyond this figure the integrity of the biosphere and human society will rapidly unravel.

The aspiration to satiate ourselves with things to the point of nausea is widely accorded the status of a human right and underpins the religious-like belief in continual economic growth. This perceived right overrides the need to breathe clean air and drink uncontaminated water. This is verified not only by the failure of governments almost everywhere to safeguard air and water quality but also by the amount of 'waste' disposed of each year. Take the case of food. Rebecca Smithers in The Guardian, 10 January 2017, informs us that in 2015 UK households binned 7.3 million tonnes of food that could have been eaten. An amount worth £13 billion. This means that in 2015 the average UK household wasted £470 worth of food.

Another example of avarice is our mountainous disposal of unwanted electronic goods such as home computers, tablets, game stations and televisions. Hannah Devlin in The Guardian, 29 March 2017, informs us that on average we change our phone every six months. Unwanted phones are part of the world's electronic waste worth nearly $19 billion (£12 Billion) that is traded or dumped every year. Ninety percent of this trade and waste is illegal, which means it is unregulated. (Will Nichols, The Guardian, 12 May 2015) Another major indulgence is the purchase of clothes, most of which are swiftly disposed of when deemed out of fashion. Norah Campbell in Village, September 2017,informs us that "In 1996 the average 20-year old in Ireland owned 4 pairs of shoes, in 2016, it was 12" and the "average Western consumer owns 103 clothing items." This is more than enough for a regular change of clothes. The latter figure does not include clothing recently given to charity shops or dumped.

If we accept that the main cause of our laying ruin to the biosphere and creating and sustaining systems of injustice is avarice, often reconfigured as need, then it has to be addressed. Historic studies show that avarice is an integral part of the human condition. The tombs of the Pharaohs and the opulent life-style of the elite of other ancient civilizations is evidence of this. St. Paul called avarice - the love of money as "the root of all evil." (Timothy: 6:10, The Holy Bible, Authorised King James Version) If avarice is an integral part of our nature is humankind and the biosphere doomed?

The collective and fervent desire to address avarice is as old as history. On this the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which led to the formation of the Soviet Union, the jury of public and academic opinion is that Communism based on the credo "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was a ghastly failure. (Karl Marx, 1875). The major religions, not least Christianity with its compassionate and equalitarian infused Sermon on the Mount have failed to dampen the desire to acquire things regardless of consequences. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Third Way (May 1997 – June 2007) which aimed to address basic needs in the UK and serve as a model for other countries was also a failure. Likewise Compassionate Conservatism advocated by US President Bush (2001 – 2009) and UK Prime Minister David Cameron (2010 - 2016) failed to address wellbeing issues such as economic inequality and environmental destruction. As all attempts to address our propensity for destructiveness have failed what, if any, are our options?

Although avarice is a part of our nature, and no doubt aided our survival as a species, it is only one of our many qualities and does not have to be the dynamo that propels and gives meaning to our lives. Our nature is multi-dimensional and as a society we can nurture the qualities that enable us to live a meaningful life in ways that do not undermine the health of the biosphere and the wellbeing of our fellows, even those we think of as competitors.

We can, and should, educate people to practice the art of critical self-reflection, asking ourselves is what I want really necessary? We should educate people to know about the environmental and human consequences integral to the life-history of the things we buy. We should nurture awareness of the ontological fact that we are custodians of the biosphere rather than owners. Ownership carries the implicit assumption that we can harm and destroy what we own. We could educate people to have a sense of meaning, purpose and identity based on service, sharing, and creating a way of life based on the ethos of causing no unnecessary harm. As George Monbiot writes, "We can mobilise our remarkable nature for our own good and the good of our neighbours." (Resurgence & Ecologist, November / December 2017)

We can do these things and more but as time is not in our favour we need to act with haste in becoming apostles, "the chief champions" of a new eco-sensitive, justice-based, society. (Apostle, Collins' Senior Etymological Dictionary, 1934)

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