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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 264: November 2018

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Fiddling while the world burns

The budget in the Republic was presented to the Dáil and the people of the Republic the day after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was launched in Korea which highlighted the very significant dangers in the world going over 1.5° above pre-industrial levels – that is less than the 2° previously being talked about as the threshold to great danger.

The two events should have been intimately connected but it was like the two things were happening in different universes, or at least in separate galaxies on opposite sides of the universe. The Irish budget had no new measures to deal with climate change and Irish emissions, which are already well behind where they should be. In the words of Friends of the Earth Ireland, “It was a staggering failure of political leadership that put us all at risk of devastating climate impact.” Ireland is the third most polluting country in Europe and needs a massive initiative, in increasing carbon taxes and supporting energy conservation and green energy, and got nothing. The recent resignation of the responsible minister, Denis Naughten, over an unrelated matter (national broadband provision) is not an excuse.

This was incredible, literally. What part of “We are all in climate change together” does the Irish government not get? How could it increase Irish aid overseas to poor countries while standing idly by on a matter which will far outweigh any possible financial assistance? No, Irish people may not die like flies in incredibly unbearable heat, like some people elsewhere, but their coastlines will recede, their homes be flooded, people killed by trees or building debris in wild winds, in a way that would not happen without the kind of global warming we are currently seeing. But on a global scale we will have contributed to destruction, devastation and dislocation on a truly global scale.

The ridiculous thing about Irish inaction is that we are well placed to benefit from a range of green energy methodologies, including being superbly placed for wind power and for tidal power (and wave power when that source of energy production gets cracked) as well as biomass; even solar energy is a viable option in Ireland. And the resultant forthcoming fines from the EU for inaction are a total waste of money. We have to convert as fully as possible to sustainability sooner or later so why not sooner and reap the financial benefits as well as doing something positive (as opposed to something destructive) for the world.

Of course nothing prevents individuals doing as much as they can for developing a green and sustainable future. But, as Larry Speight wrote in his column in the last issue of Nonviolent News (No.263) on the issue of individual versus societal change: “it is a serious mistake to think that placing the resolution of environmental problems in the hands of individuals through their life-style choices is the way to resolve them. The individual salvation approach to environmental problems ignores the fact that most if not all our environmental problems are at root structural.”

Leo Varadkar and his government have made suitable noises at home and abroad about the changes necessary but have done nothing. Every aspect of the budget, government business and infrastructure planning should be informed by the imperative of avoiding further global warming. The emperor Nero did not in fact fiddle while Rome burnt. The Irish government, however, is fiddling about while the world burns. Shame.

Brexit, stalemate and the future in Northern Ireland

If you wanted an excellent example of a contradiction in terms in relation to Northern Ireland, you would have to look no further than Theresa May’s keynote speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference at the start of October. In this she stressed her unionist credentials, and the need to “protect our precious Union” but at the end of her speech finished with “Together, let's build a better Britain” where the term ‘Britain’ (unlike ‘the UK’ or ‘the United Kingdom’) does not include Northern Ireland.

Whether Northern Ireland was anywhere in the picture by the end of her speech or not, her terminology, in not including Northern Ireland, showed that it had been forgotten about by her and her speechwriters. They were so unaware of Northern Ireland that they were clearly unaware of their use of terminology leaving it out. May might protest that of course she meant ‘Britain’ to include all of the UK (which terminologically it does not) – but that is not what she said. And right wing Brexiteers in Britain are happy to throw Northern Ireland under a Brexit bus which promises a mythical £350 million a week extra to the NHS from money ‘saved’ from paying the EU.

However it is not just British Conservatives or Northern Ireland unionists who can be illogical or contradictory. During the Troubles military republicans, in the shape of the IRA and others, made a great effort to ‘unite’ Ireland by dividing it – that is, attacking transport links between North and the Republic, particularly the Belfast-Dublin railway line which was an easy target. Of course an attempt was made to justify this in terms of ‘bringing home the seriousness of the war situation’ etc but what they were actually doing was dividing the people they supposedly sought to unite (as did their whole military strategy). If politics in Northern Ireland is the continuation of war by other means, then this tendency to play only to party supporters, and not engage properly with others or have any regard for them, lives on.

Northern Ireland peculiarities, and opportunities
This brings us on to what is needed today. Uniting the people of Northern Ireland, or this as well as the people of the whole island if you are a nationalist, is necessary. The Good Friday Agreement posits 50% +1 as what is needed in terms of a vote on a united Ireland to bring it about but in the absence of other measures to deal with a whole raft of issues, that could be disastrous. However the risk of a train crash at the moment is wrought by Brexit and how Brexit is being brought about.

The DUP – who currently hold considerable power in propping up the Tory government - are insisting on Northern Ireland being treated exactly the same as the rest of the UK when it is manifestly different in many ways. It is the only substantial part of the UK separated by water from the island of Britain. It is the only part of the UK to share a land border with another jurisdiction, with that border being a haphazard creation with hundreds of crossing points. It is the only part of the UK with some separate veterinary and other checks (the evolution of which were partly facilitated by Ian Paisley). It was the only part of the UK to have had devolved government from the relatively early part of the 20th century (1921 and partition) and the only part of the UK to be ruled by the one political party for fifty years, until the Stormont parliament was prorogued in 1972; during direct rule from Westminster, it is the only part of the UK to have had virtually no ministers from within its boundaries.

In addition, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to have had an, admittedly small, civil or guerrilla war, in the recent past but with an exceedingly rancorous aftermath which has not yet been dealt with. It is the only part of the UK with clear ethnic division being the main political marker. It is the only part of the UK where a substantial minority, with the possibility of becoming a majority within decades, wants political unification with another state. Some people in the North, especially the DUP, are happy for Northern Ireland to have substantially different social and other legislation to Britain. And along with Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by a larger arithmetic majority than voted to leave in the whole UK. So to say Northern Ireland should necessarily be treated exactly the same as the rest of the UK in Brexit is not a logical or rights-based statement.

The DUP has fundamentally misread the situation both practically and strategically. On the latter, their backing of Brexit (along with other intransigence) has helped put major question marks down about Northern Ireland’s status which had been looking relatively secure in the medium term after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. While the Irish government might not be adverse to any Brexit settlement advancing the cause of a united Ireland (financial headache though that might be for politicians south of the border) this is, fundamentally, not what Irish government and EU demands have been about and is not a factor. Despite DUP interjections, neither Irish nor EU demands are trying to ‘break up’ the UK; the possibility of this happening has, however, been considerably increased by Brexit itself.

In rejecting looking at the possibilities of what the EU, and the UK parliament, might countenance in divergence for Northern Ireland, the DUP have been cutting off their nose to spite their face. If there is the possibility of Northern Ireland getting ‘the best of both worlds’, from both Brexit UK and the EU, then this could have a game-changing effect on the Northern Ireland economy which is in a very poor state. Unemployment in Northern Ireland may be low but there are a high number of people who are ‘economically inactive’ and thus not counted in the unemployment figures; wages and skill levels are also very low, and poverty high. It is very possible to argue that a more prosperous Northern Ireland would be more secure about the link with Britain.

Of course the DUP is right to question whether new measures might be barriers to trade with Britain (their policy is to see no new customs or regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, or vice versa) but if the new possibilities were beneficial overall, why should they be opposed? Business has been backing the ‘best of both worlds’ approach, and the backstop, and has no great problem with additional checks if done efficiently, e.g. as part of the supply chain.
Instead of looking at positive possibilities the DUP have become fixated on ideological symbolism and the risk that the relationship with the island of Britain could change. But it is changing anyway in the context of Brexit, which they were partly instrumental in bringing about. Their course of action is, it can be strongly argued, totally contrary to what their goals are in retaining a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They are that inured to other factors, and seemingly that fixated on supporting a narrow ideological stand, that it is unlikely they can change their game at this stage. This is a great pity because the EU is very sympathetic to Northern Ireland (and the EU does not get sympathetic easily) with it being sufficiently small, having 1.8 million people, to have got a special deal which could have been an economic and social game changer locally.

Violence and Brexit
On the issue of the likelihood of violence after Brexit, Leo Varadkar and Sammy Wilson have had dramatically different takes on the matter. The more visible the border is, and the more there is a physical security or armed presence on or near it, the greater the danger, and this is a danger which the Chief Constable of the PSNI has spoken about. Only ongoing military-thinking republicans, usually labelled dissidents, would welcome the prospect of pot shot targets like this. Of course technology can do a certain amount but the ‘harder’ the border, and the greater the difference between the EU regime in the Republic and the UK regime in the North, the greater the chance of violence because the greater will be the perceived need for an on-and-about border presence along that porous, illogical and ill-defined line in the clay.

Where republican violence goes, then loyalist violence is likely to follow – not necessarily in the same location but in the situation of increased republican violence it risks a return to a loyalist ‘any Taig will do’ strategy, and that risks once more a downward spiral of tit for tat attacks and killings. Of course we do not know what will happen. We cannot say with certainty that in any situation there will definitely be a return to substantial violence. But what we can safely say is that there is a significant risk of this, and that risk cannot and should not be simply dismissed.

Talking and planning
How we muddle through this total mess remains to be seen. A harder Brexit increases the likelihood of a united Ireland sooner rather than later. It is not just Northern Catholics who have been reassessing their position in relation to a united Ireland on the back of Brexit but some Northern Protestants too. However a soft Brexit is unlikely to change the demographic trajectory towards a Catholic majority in the near future, a ‘nationalist’ majority some time after that, and a majority for a united Ireland in the not too distant future after that.

So there are a whole stack of things which need to be talked about and worked upon. If Northern Ireland is to remain ‘Northern Ireland’ and part of the UK there is a need to sort out a way to be able to make effective decisions at Stormont where in the past decision making has been pathetic. In relation to this we would support consensus methodologies advanced by the de Borda Institute which have their own built in minority-protection. And we also need to be aware that the current ‘majority’ is likely to be soon the ‘minority’, so human rights considerations need to be worked on – for everyone, and for whatever the situation might be. But there is also a need to bring together people of all sorts – Catholic, Protestants, and relative newcomers from elsewhere – though integrated education, integrated living, and integrated recreation.

Irrespective of what the constitutional future may be, a vision is needed for the future, of building a society which cares for all its people, and building one community rather than 2+ communities. Where there is no vision then the people may not perish but they are likely to vote with their feet and move elsewhere, as many have been doing, and that leads to slow perishing by instalments. Where there is no vision then the economy suffers because the people who might help to develop it will quite possibly have moved elsewhere. A vibrant vision is needed for the future, and that requires moving out of orange and green stereotypes and out of orange and green political patterns.

However, if the North was to be united with the Republic, what would this union be like? This question needs urgent work, not in the sense of deciding on definite plans (which cannot be decided at this stage) but on probabilities, possibilities, and balances which need to be brought about. There are a million and one questions (or perhaps 1.8 million questions given the population of Northern Ireland) which need to be answered. Would the possibility of a united Ireland actually depend on a gradually decreasing subsidy from Britain over some years, to make it economically viable while the Northern economy develops? Would the EU chip in and in what way? How would, or could, the economy in the North be developed? How would the country be governed? Would there still be any regional assembly for the North? What guarantees of fair treatment would Protestants and loyalists have in the North? What human rights guarantees would there be for everyone? How would health services be paid for? These are just some of the biggest questions, and they should be explored by the Dublin government in alliance with anyone who wishes to be involved from anywhere.

So there could be a ‘New Ireland’ forum to discuss such matters in an open way (once Brexit issues start to be resolved). While some unionists might dismiss such an initiative as a trap to drag them into a united Ireland, it would be open to all and some unionists or unionist-thinkers would contribute, as would business people and many aspects of civil society. Holding such a forum could not assume that a ‘united Ireland’ would come about even if current demographic and polling trends in the North indicate its likelihood. But it would explore what such an entity could be like and what would be required to make it a possibility and a success. It would therefore give people a basis on which to decide its desirability.

The more we know about possibilities the better, so that people can choose, and choose actively and with a certain amount of wisdom if they choose to do so. The problem with Brexit is that people in the UK exercised a vague choice without options and costs being spelt out so they were, in other and old fashioned words, buying a pig in a poke. This is not what democracy looks like or should look like. People should be free to choose from a range of well thought out and articulated options, with the repercussions of each having been examined. A ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote on an undefined united Ireland is totally inadequate and dangerous. We cannot afford for the same mistake that was made with Brexit to be made in relation to the possibility of a united Ireland because it has to be able to substantially transcend sectarianism in ‘the North’ or we could again be catapulted into sectarian conflict of one kind or another, whatever option is being arrived at.

- - - - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Learning from the anger of Saint Faber?

At the bottom of the lane leading to my house in County Fermanagh runs the River Sillees. It rises in Lough Ahork, a few miles away, flows through Correl Glen, an area of special scientific interest, the plantation village of Derrygonnelly, through fields and along ancient hedgerows to Boho, ending its journey in Lower Lough Erne. Aside from the distinction of having a species of brachiopod named after it, Rugosochonetes silleesi and 69 species of bryozoan, which are about 0.5 millimetres in length, the river is famous for the myth that Saint Faber, who is reputed to have established a nunnery or monastery in Boho in the early 9th century, placed a curse on it. The curse is two-fold. One is that the river will be good for drowning and bad for fishing.

The second part of the curse is that the river will flow backwards. Many locals believe that the latter is in fact the case. Saint Faber placed the curse because the deer that carried her books leaped into the river when escaping from hunting hounds with the consequence that her books were destroyed.

The myth is reflective of our own relationship with nonhuman nature on a number of accounts. It was unwarranted and unfair for Saint Faber to place a curse on the Sillees River and therein corrupt its primordial character, deprive it of biodiversity and make it feared and loathed by the human community when it is the innocent party in the saga. The river did not invite the deer to seek refuge in it, or command it to, and therefore did not wilfully harm the books. Saint Faber’s books were destroyed as she did not abide by the precautionary principal, which would have been to wrap the books in water-proof material to protect them from getting wet. In regard to our relationship with nonhuman nature, it is the innocent party upon whom we impose harm in manifold ways including loss of biodiversity, climate disruption and pollution of all kinds. Our reason for causing it harm is not irate, as it was with Saint Faber but greed, apathy and lack of empathy.

Like Saint Faber we fail to apply the precautionary principle in regard to our relationship with nonhuman nature. It is not because we are unfamiliar with the principle, we apply it as a matter of course to a host of everyday activities. Many liquid containers for instance have child-safe tops, food packaging carry allergy warnings, and motor vehicle drivers must abide by rules concerning speed, use of mobile phones and driving when under the influence of intoxicants. When we wash our hands before we eat we are applying the precautionary principle.

Yet, when it comes to our relationship with the most vulnerable and voiceless of all, nonhuman nature, the precautionary principal is rarely applied and great harm is done to it through what we euphemistically call development projects. In this we are doing what Saint Faber did, which was not only make the river suffer but through willing it to drown people imposed suffering and death on the human community. We harm and kill people, vis-a-vis nonhuman nature, through air pollution and human enhanced ‘natural disasters’ such as prolonged droughts, flooding and exceedingly powerful hurricanes such as Michael which recently swept through the south-eastern coast of the United States. There is a tendency to view the 40,000 people in the EU and the estimated six to seven million people world-wide who die prematurely every year through air pollution in the same way we view drowning, which is accidental. Death and ill-health caused by air pollution is not accidental but a result of collective wilful behaviour. (The Guardian, 19 October 2018)

As well as the horror we find in torture, genocide and sexual abuse there is a sense of bewilderment when we learn that these have been committed by people who claim to be following in the footsteps of Christ. A figure who role-modelled caring behaviour and love of others without exception and is regarded by Christians as God incarnate. Likewise Saint Faber harming nonhuman nature is a cause for bewilderment as the Book of Genesis, which she would have considered the word of God, says it is good. (Genesis: 1.31)
Given Saint Faber’s malice, and apparent lack of empathy for both humankind and nonhuman nature, we must ask if she deserves the title of saint and the accompanying spiritual privileges. This bestowed status is not so different from the situation today, and throughout the centuries, when people who have done great harm to their fellows as well as nonhuman nature are honoured with a medal, a title and in some cases a statue.

In recent years we have witnessed the demand for the removal of statues of slave owners and colonial overlords from public places most notably in the United States, the UK and South Africa. If Saint Faber did in fact place the said curse on the River Sillees should her title of saint be removed? More to the point we should learn from her mythical folly and not impose suffering on innocents in order to satisfy an urge that has environmentally destructive consequences such as to take an unnecessary long-distant air-flight, a car journey that could be easily done by bicycle, or eat meat. We have a lot to learn from saints but not in the way conventionally imagined.

- - - - -

The detention of migrants in the UK and the Northern Ireland connection

By Stefania Gualberti

In the UK nearly 30,000 migrants enter detention every year while they await permission to enter, or prior to deportation or removal from the country. People are held in custody indefinitely: without a time limit, for months, sometimes even years. Although detention is not a criminal process, detention centres are like prisons.

There are nine detention centres in the UK, several short-term holding facilities, one centre for detaining families with children, other holding rooms (including at ports and airport) in addition to the many migrants who are held under immigration powers in prisons. These detention centres are geographically and physically hard to access. They are usually a long way out of the town or city nearest to them, and a rigorous security check is needed to go inside, with many restrictions placed on visitors.

There are widespread reports of abuse inside the centres and high risk of self-harm. It is harmful, it robs people of their dignity, spirit and lives. Where as a prisoner convicted of a crime will usually have a known date for release, detainees are effectively in “limbo”, never knowing if they will be released tomorrow or next year.

It is an expensive process with a cost of over £125,000,000 a year for 3,000 people detained at any given time in the UK. Inmates can be employed within the centres for £1 per hour. (*1)

“The detained may be asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their claim, or pending enforced removal from the country having had their asylum claim refused. They may be migrants facing removal, or foreign nationals who have served a custodial sentence in the UK and are facing deportation. While nearly half of them are detained for around two months, it is common for detention to become prolonged.” (*2) 50% of the detained are released with their time imprisoned having no purpose whatsoever.

Larne House visitor group
Larne House is a short term holding facility near Belfast, Northern Ireland. In this centre people are kept for a maximum of 7 days before they are moved to an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) either in Scotland or England.

Larne House Visitors Group is a volunteer-run group which is helping reducing the isolation faced by the detainees. The group started visiting men and women being held at the Larne House in 2014. Their committed volunteers hold no official positions, they are offering support, practical advice and friendship to people held in the centre on a weekly basis. They offer a listening presence and witness the experiences the people held in the centre had in UK or in other countries. They organise a rota and are able to visit the centre weekly. They need to communicate to the centre the day and time of the visit and name of the people who will be visiting. When they arrive they are asked to present an ID to the staff. They then ask if anyone held wants to speak to them. They always go two volunteers at each given time and report their experience to the wider group afterward via email to keep record, debrief and ask for support or information if follow up is necessary.

“Volunteer support can make a big difference in the lives of the detainees. Some of these migrants do not have friends or family in the UK and speak little English. A visitor could well be the only person that a detainee sees who is not an official. Listening and providing solidarity can thus serve to reduce isolation and ease the trauma of detention.
Moreover, visitors can help the detainees in accessing legal advice and medical assistance, for example. On a practical level, they can provide clothes, top up phones and collect detainees’ belongings, as needs be. Visitors can also inform the staff at the detention centre and at appropriate outside organisations about any problems that may be detected, such as trafficking or evident mental health problems.” (*3)

The Larne House Visitor Group also work closely with the Northern Ireland Law Centre to raise awareness locally about issues around detention, migration and asylum.

They organise events to raise awareness on the issue of migrants’ detention and lobby towards an end to indefinite detention. UK is the only country of the European Union to have no time limit in migrants’ detention. They organise social and enjoyable events like walks or documentary showing as well as having a regular monthly meeting.
They hold regular training for new volunteers. If you are interested in getting involved to either become a visitor or help out the group you can contact them here:

The following are a few testimonials from volunteers of the Larne House visitors group.

“Our volunteer group are frequently the only faces people see who are not connected to the immigration service. It is therefore a vital source of reassurance, comfort and help,” a volunteer of the group says.

 “It was quite intense. I met him (the detainee), and we smiled. That smile was my point of reference, a point of connection, a moment in which we shared our sense of humanity. Despite his history of difficulties, we could still smile together.”

“I was feeling and still feel very disempowered in relation to the current refugee crisis and wanted to do something to help. Also, I have family and friends who were interned and imprisoned during the conflict here and I know from listening to them how important a visit from a friendly face was to their well-being. It meant that they were not alone and that the outside world knew that they were there. (…) As a visitor I often feel utterly useless, but I remind myself of friends who have told me that a conversation with a friendly face was very important. I think as a visitor it is really important to listen without interrupting, not raise expectations and not try to ‘fix’ things.”

“I was told by a detainee that a policeman injured his leg. I was confronted by the staff when leaving the centre. They told me not to believe in anything the detainee say. It seems they were listening to private conversation. I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Nevertheless, I sought legal representation for the man on my way back to Belfast on the train. I heard a few weeks later that the policeman responsible was reprimanded for his abusive actions.”

AVID and Refugee tales
Larne House Visitor Group are connected with AVID (*4), the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, which was founded in 1994 in response to the increase in numbers of people being held in immigration detention, and the local community reaction to this. They provide advice, support and information for the 16 visiting groups around the UK.

“Refugee tales” (*5) was presented as part of the Belfast Book Festival in June 2018. The book is rooted in the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (one of the groups supported by AVID). Written by poets and novelists “Refugee tales” tells 14 tales of people who have experienced the detention (migrant, asylum seeker, unaccompanied minor, refugee) or have been involved as support of them (volunteer visitor, interpreter, lawyer). Beautifully written and very moving, it tells some real stories of what AVID defines as one of the UK’s most hidden Human Rights scandals, migrants’ indefinite detention.


  1. 1. ‘Working illegally’ (2015), a production by Standoff Films. Based on testimonies of detainees and research by Corporate Watch, it offers a critical insight into the immigrant labour that maintains detention centres in the UK.
  2. ‘Hidden Stories’ - AVID 2014 - the experiences of former detainees and volunteer visitors that support thousands of immigrants in detention.
  3. Larne House Visitor Group document.
  5. ‘Refugee tales’, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, 2016, Comma Press.
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