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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 255: December 2017

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

(Unfortunately more on) Brexit and peace in Ireland

It is a subject that isn’t going to go away, you know, at least not for a very long time, even if there is ‘agreement’. And although the editorial in the last issue was on this topic, the implications of Brexit are so far reaching for Ireland as to demand more coverage and analysis.

‘Peace’ in Ireland is not going to suddenly break down if there is a ‘hard’ border on this island. But it could contribute to a gradual change which would lead to further division and even possibly violence. When a border is only signified by a change in road markings, and the unit of speed limits, if that, then the fact of different legal and fiscal jurisdictions is not the first thing on people’s minds. Of course the hardness of the border during the Troubles was largely to do with security considerations, and the Troubles are not going to return in the same way - certainly in the short term - but where there is friction there can be reaction.

Having an EU/Non-EU border on the island is a whole new departure. And if a hard border rubs people up the wrong way then disenchantment may grow and some may return to violence as a means to overcome the situation. That may be vastly assisted by smuggling which could provide cash for those who would like to use violence. But in any case we can do without more division which is not healthy in any way. And economic problems may feed into greater political unrest and even violence (on any side).

It is true that the Good Friday Agreement does not specify that the states involved should be within the EU but that is assumed. Divergence from harmonisation in hundreds of different areas of life will not make it easier for anyone, particularly on a small island like Ireland. Brexit was sold to a very small arithmetic majority of people in the UK on various simplicities – and one of those simplicities is that it would make life more simple. It is now clear that it will make life much more complex both for people in the UK and those involved in visiting and dealing or trading with it.

If the UK stayed in the single market and the customs union then a ‘hard’ border would be unnecessary, and things could continue in a relatively similar fashion to before. However Theresa May’s government, despite having only a couple of percentage points separating yeses and nos in the EU referendum, and a minority government propped up by the DUP, is going for broke on a hard Brexit. It would not seem what the majority of people in Britain want, and it is certainly not what a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for. As pigs in pokes go, it is the bees’ knees.

Of course the DUP are using their power over the British government as they see fit but whether they are actually acting in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland is another matter. Most of their objection to a divergence for Northern Ireland is ideological, while some of it is economic as it is true that east-west trade (Northern Ireland to Britain) is more important for Northern Ireland than North-South – but the latter is important to those involved. However if they sought to use the situation to the benefit of all they could actually have looked with the government of the Republic as to what might be possible. The DUP had no objection to harmonising corporation tax rates in Northern Ireland to that in the Republic, diverging from the UK norm, but Brexit is seen as a different kettle of fish.

As to having a ‘border’ in the Irish sea, the DUP has rejected that out of hand while it seems that many – a majority - of Unionist Brexit voters in Northern Ireland would seem to actually accept that as a fair price for leaving the EU as a September poll seems to have indicated There are all sorts of divergences possible and refusing to countenance anything in order to proclaim ‘Britishness’ indicates not so much ‘Britishness’ as rigid and crass inflexibility.

Many in Britain have railed against Ireland ‘holding the UK to ransom’ at the current stage of Brexit. It is of interest though to look back at the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965 where the UK was by far the larger economy and was able to determine the terms of such a deal much more than Ireland. Now, with Ireland part of the EU team, the boot is on the other foot; it is a matter determined partly by size. It is also the UK, or specifically England and Wales, which have decided, by a small majority, to leave the EU, and as a result the greater responsibility is theirs to deal with issues arising from this decision. The British emphasis on a ‘technological fix’ for trade is only a small part of any answer to avoiding a hard border.

The Irish government obviously does not welcome the British departure from the EU. On the other hand, if Brexit is happening, it would like it to happen in as seamless a manner as possible, and to be successful. It is not in the interest of anyone on the island of Ireland for Brexit to happen and it to be a disaster. The idea that the government in the Republic is using the issue to promote a united Ireland is ludicrous, as is the suggestion it is responding to pressure from Sinn Féin, when it is primarily the UK’s Brexit decision itself which has put the cat among the pigeons.

Northern Ireland remains a very divided society. While the system under the Good Friday Agreement (and subsequent addendums) has not been working in delivering intelligent decision making and cooperation across the board, or a worthwhile future vision for society, it had certainly helped very significantly to move beyond the violence of the Troubles. Catholics in the North have tended to be fairly happy with the general situation and, if the DUP were willing to be clever they could work to ‘kill a united Ireland with kindness’ (the equivalent of the old ‘killing Home Rule with kindness’) – with greater chance of success today than a century or more ago if there is real equality and cooperation. However the DUP seem to have ignored this opportunity from their point of view, foolishly, when ‘parity of numbers’ (Protestant and Catholic) in the North is fast approaching.

Brexit means great political and economic uncertainty for Ireland, North and South, east and west. How things will pan out is a guessing game. But being creative and reaching out to others has to be part of it. And Britain and Ireland can still sort out this matter of avoiding a ‘hard’ border given goodwill from all sides including the EU. But we can wonder whether the DUP in the longer term will regret opening up so much change and uncertainty through Brexit, and going with their heart rather than their head, given where it may lead. That may not be positive for anyone on the island of Ireland in the shorter term - and in the longer term it may be all change again.

Being neutral isn’t

Being ‘neutral’ is often defied as not taking sides. But it is important to point out that refusing to take sides in a conflict or on an issue is definitely taking a stand, it is not ‘nothing’, whether that stand be good or bad. In the case of Irish neutrality it is a commitment to peace, justice and humanity and refusal to back the militarism of the big (and sometimes smaller) states and their often divisive politics and cruel and horrendous military escapades.

Irish neutrality is now in hot water. We do not in any way defend cruelty to animals (nor indeed does the writer of this eat shellfish) and it is also a myth that cooking lobsters starting off in cold water minimises the pain they suffer – this is untrue. But the image or metaphor applies to Irish neutrality. When (the Republic of) Ireland joined what was the EEC in 1972 ‘we’ were told by the powers that be that it would not affect Irish neutrality. But gradually, gradually, the heat has been turned up, and Irish neutrality is in pain and risks death; Nice and Lisbon treaties, NATO’s so-called ‘Partnership for Peace’, EU battle groups, and now PESCO – which includes a European Defence Fund which will be a shot in the arm to the EU’s arms industries (a shot in the arm to support the ability to shoot people in the head?).

The implication for Ireland of PESCO is to increase military spending. This is a nonsense in a world which is already over-armed and where peaceful approaches to solving problems are under-funded. The increasing militarisation of the EU is also reprehensible and an ironic tragedy for a body which grew out of cooperation between states in the aftermath of war. The implication of increasing militarisation of western Europe is that war becomes more likely outside Europe altogether (and there has been no shortage of wars that EU powers have supported elsewhere) or even increased tension and conflict with Russia.

For further information on PESCO see e.g. Joe Murray of Afri’s letter in The Irish Times of 29/11/17 or the Church and Peace statement on PESCO at

The official document from the Irish government in January 1972, “The Accession of Ireland to the European Communities”, contained the following couple of paragraphs under “Constitutional and Legal Implications of Membership of the European Communities”:

1. Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.

2. Ireland affirms its adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination.” (page 26)

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1972. Does Ireland still affirm these values? Or does ‘friendly co-operation’ only extend to other members of the EU club? If we are to be citizens of the world first then we cannot simply cooperate and seek harmonious relationships with other members of the EU - which has many valuable features but is also a rich man’s club (sic). We have to be thinking of peace in a global perspective and avoiding the EU becoming simply another military power and empire acting in its own interests, even if it does entail cooperation among nations. If we follow the logic of the quotation above then PESCO should be rejected.


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column–

We have never been modern

The word ‘modern’ peppers the speeches of politicians and commenters and is likely one of the most used adjectives in political and social discourse. The word implies personal and cultural sophistication, the prevalence of advanced technology and techniques, the use of reason, the rule of law and the exercise of compassion. In addition modern implies that a given thing or state of affairs is in sync with the dominant norms and standards of society.

By way of contrast things which are thought not to be modern are considered undesirable, even detestable, and described in negative terms such as out-of-date, obsolete and primitive. ‘Modern’ in the sense of present or recent times was first recorded in 1585 and as Stuart Hall in ‘Modernity, An Introduction to Modern Societies’, (1996) writes “modern societies … gradually emerged with the Reformation, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the Englightenment of the eighteenth century.”

The term is a personal and societal identity tag commonly used to distinguish between ‘us’ the superior from ‘them’ the inferior. Most teenagers, acutely sensitive about how they are perceived and attuned to what is thought to be modern, would not hang-out with people of their own age who wear clothes, style their hair, listen to music, or use terms of expression and technology from a bygone age. Many people who live in an industrialised capitalist economy would think of Papua New Guinea as an example of a country that is pre-modern in that 85 percent of its population live in rural areas, are dependent on small scale agriculture, hunting and gathering, and walk and canoe to get to their destination.

I suspect that an in-depth ecological and sociological evaluation of so-called modern societies would reveal that the idea that they are based on the application of fairness and reason and function for the common good is more aspiration than reality. The evaluation would likely reveal as stated in the title of the 1991 book by the French anthropologist Bruno Latour that ‘We Have Never Been Modern’. An historical perspective supports this view.

The people who lived in Greece and Rome 2,000 years ago are called ancient. They were, as modernists might think befitting of the time, agents of serious ecological destruction which included widespread deforestation, soil erosion and the extinction of flora and fauna.

Their societies were also unequal and highly stratified. The relative few at the top of the economic and political pyramid lived in luxury while the great mass of people earned their living by the sweat of their brow. Both societies kept large standing armies and waged war for territorial and economic gain using scorched-earth tactics and not uncommonly tortured their foes. (An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome, Luke Thommen, 2012, Cambridge University Press.) Without doubt the Ancient Greeks and Romans thought they were the epitome of human development, superior in every way to the societies that lived beyond their borders.

Contemporary industrialised societies mirror Ancient Greece, Rome and other defunct civilizations in critical ways. As Pompeii, Herculaneum and other archaeological sites testify the middle and upper strata of these societies pursued a life of grandiose consumption at the expense of the ecosystems within their reach of exploitation. An example was the regular mass slaughter of wild animals in public arenas for entertainment.

The same ethos of using nonhuman nature as an expendable resource applies today. The difference is in scale and the effectiveness of contemporary technology. According to the US Census Bureau the population of the world in 2000 BC was 7 million. Today it is 7.6 billion most of whom have probably internalised the consumer ethos.

Advances in technology have enabled us to use up resources, poison, pollute and utterly disfigure every ecosystem on the planet at a rate that has caused the Sixth Extinction and threatens the survival of our species. Our treatment of the oceans is an example of how we have treated the entire web of life. The renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle who describes the ocean as “the blue heart of the planet” is quoted in an interview with Graeme Gourlay in Geographical, December 2017, as saying:

“Since the middle of the 20th century, we have put a lot of things in the ocean. Our sewage, our garbage, our industrial waste, the chemicals from our fields washed down into the ocean.”

Earle points out that we have not only put our waste and poisons into the oceans but we have taken from them:

“We thought it could just keep on giving and giving and giving. So we built bigger boats and developed more sophisticated fishing techniques, bigger trawls, bigger long-lines with ever more baited hooks, and we have seen the consequences. We are killing the oceans.”

Society in general applauds ‘modern’. What is there to applaud in our destruction and desecration of the fragile biosphere? What good is a modernity that is the cause of gross economic inequalities, enables nuclear war and, as the recent Paradise Papers reveal corruption by the global economic elite on a colossal scale through schemes that route money into private holdings and bank accounts which ethically, and often legally, should go into the public purse? (The Guardian, 6 November 2017)

Perhaps the belief that best encapsulates modern is that there can be unlimited economic growth in a finite world. This belief, which is a classic example of magical thinking, can only but lead to a world of dust, poison, sterility and unbearably high temperatures. Modernity is based on an economic model and view of nonhuman nature that is creating a world in which no right thinking person would want to live.

Given this trajectory the idea of what is modern should be reconfigured to mean a society based on intrinsic values, equitable and eco-sustainable ways of living and in which education for critical, confident and compassionate citizenship is regarded as important as education to get a job. Until this is realised Bruno Latour’s contention that “we have never been modern” holds true.

Copyright INNATE 2021