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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 272: September 2019

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]


Identity theft is not a new phenomenon though modern technology has given it new impetus. It can be used for various nefarious purposes including spying of all sorts and financial fraud. Our identity is precious to us; it is hopefully a projection of who we are though it may also be a projection of what we wish to be seen as, or an image which others hold that may or may not be accurate.

Respect by others for our identity, in all its aspects, is likely to be important to us. It is usually something highly valued. In an information age like today, information about ourselves is a valuable commodity, just ask Google. But there are many dangers involved and ways in which information can be abused. And in the Republic, for the moment at least, the Public Services Card, which some of the powers that be aimed to contain a life in a chip, has been curtailed through a decision by the Data Protection Commission. The work of ICCL and others on this issue has been vindicated though it is possible for the state to at least attempt to strike back.

But there is a broader and deeper aspect of identity, beyond what the state does or does not need to know about you. That is the ability to define Who We Are as we wish to be, at least in accord with laws pertaining to fraud or misrepresentation. I may not try to project myself as a multimillionaire when I am not in order to mislead people financially. But I should be able to say that I am of such-and-such a nationality, ethnicity, or broader definition, and self-define that and other aspects of my identity.
In the past in Ireland, under British rule on the whole island, divide-and-rule was the order of the day. Once Northern Ireland was created with partition, divide-and-rule continued very strongly through the Orange Card and what the state supported. This has had severe consequences for social and political progress in the North though thankfully, under the Good Friday Agreement there is meant to be parity of esteem. In this regard there was pressure on people to define themselves as ‘British’ or ‘Irish’, a dichotomous choice – and aspects of this even came into the Good Friday Agreement itself.

Colum Sands in his song ‘The Donegall Road’ in Belfast has stated that the time has come ‘that we were learning to count higher up than two’.  Thankfully that has happened literally in the North, and also metaphorically in the Republic. An influx of newcomers has changed the nature of people’s identity in positive ways. However Northern politics and government remains stymied by the old divisions.

The poet John Hewitt famously defined his identity as Ulster, Irish, British and European and many pre-independence unionists in the north considered themselves Irish as well as British. We are not advocating this, or any other, particular understanding of identity except to say that people should be free to choose and define themselves as they wish. This is easier in an era today when you could say you are Polish-Irish or Polish-British, when there are a lot more options to choose from, and a multiplicity of origins makes multifacted identity easier to portray.

Leo Varadkar said one positive thing over the summer in relation to a united Ireland (and Sinn Féin’s push to get voting on it in the North). This was that a united Ireland would be a different state with a new constitution – in other words, not just an add-on to the Republic. We have editorialised before on the need to explore what a united Ireland might look like, not in an absolute sense because what it would look like could only be finally decided in negotiations to bring it about. But such a process would set out principles and objectives, and pinpoint features that might be valuable. It would allow for more informed decision making and help to remove fears.

And in this process there would be the need to explore what those with British/Ulster identity in the North would need to be involved in a meaninful way in the creation of ‘a new Ireland’, at least involving as many as possible within the ‘Protestant’ community there. How would they feel their identity could be protected? It should certainly not be a case of imposing ‘Irishness’ on anyone but how their ‘Britishness’ could be protected and engaged within a united Ireland. There are difficult discussions to be had, and much uncharted waters, though the experience of ‘Southern’ or 26 county Protestants in the Free State after partition may help give some pointers, positive and negative.

If a united Ireland was coming about, it needs a profound discussion on ‘Irishness’ which should engage all those on the island and, indeed, the Irish disapora and the thinking of others outside. There are many questions to be answered. While nothing can be agreed until everything is agreed, a clear direction and understanding can be developed which can be drawn on if and when negotiations actually begin. That will not be today or tomorrow but violence thrives where there is perceived threat, uncertainty and lack of vision.

For some in the North to even contemplate what they might want in a united Ireland is tantamount to treason. But there are others from the Protestant and unionist traditions (both adjectives here plural) who would engage, if only as an insurance policy. Doing it in such a way as not to antagonise people is difficult, since some will see any such discussion as betrayal. But the reality is that we know what Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom looks like; we don’t know what a ‘united Ireland’ would or might look like – and we deserve to know and have this explored. This is for all our sakes.

In a globalised world, identity is much more variable and fluid than it once was. There are many positives in this. This is a valuable part of democracy. Sadly states in some parts of the world still attempt to impose an alien identity on people; this includes China in relation to Tibet and the Uighur region of Xinjian, and indeed India in regard to what it is currently attempting to do in its part of Kashmir. This is identity theft at a massive, state level and it is state repression at its worst.
In Ireland we have the opportunity to forge new and positive definitions about who and what we are. In the North this has not been, and will not be, an easy process. But it is a necessary one. We cannot predetermine the outomes but it is a journey and valuable one to embark on. With openness and a modicum of respect we can make the journey memorable and the outcome one to ensure the wellbeing of people for generations yet unborn.

- - - - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –


“Some people say that we are not doing enough to fight climate change. But this is not true. Because to ‘not do enough’ you have to do something. And the truth is we are basically not doing anything.”
Greta Thunberg, World Economic Forum, Davos, 22 January 2019

Despair is considered in a negative light as it is thought to lead to complacency, the acceptance of unsatisfactory situations, and allowing bad things to get worse. It is counter to the widespread view that we should persevere against adversary, be heroic even if our efforts are clearly doomed. The major religions hold that despair is counter to their core ethos, which is faith in an all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful God who can act outside nature and perform miracles. Despair, according to religious thought, is tantamount to the denial of the existence of God.

There are, however, grounds for the view that in some situations despair is a more appropriate response than hope. An example is when the laws of physics indicate that a ship can only but sink. In this case hope would be to deny reality. Likewise when there are not enough numbers to ensure the survival of a species hope would be a form of wishful thinking, a waste of time and energy. Feeling despair, like regret, loss and anger are a part of the human repertoire of feelings. To acknowledge that despair is a reasonable response to a dreadful and unwelcomed situation is to accept the fullness of our humanity, that there are situations in which we are powerless to affect the outcome in a positive way.

The news reports on the ecological state of the world cause a great many to despair that we will ever be able to halt our destruction of the nonhuman world. The good news in terms of the growth of solar energy, countries pledging to plant hundreds of millions of trees, and the awareness raising successes of Extinction Rebellion and the environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg are far outweighed by the bad. Here are some examples.

Dr. Carl Safina reports in The New York Times, 13 August 2019, that:

“The Trump administration has announced new rules that will significantly weaken the way the nation’s Endangered Species Act is applied, potentially opening the way for mining, oil and gas drilling and development that will undermine or doom components of our nation’s living endowment.”

This disregard for the wellbeing of nonhumans and their habitat comes in the aftermath of the UN’s Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report published in May which states that 1,000,000 plant and animal species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades. One gets the sense from the behaviour of Trump administration that he, and his corporate supporters, actually hate nonhuman nature. The same can be said of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil who since taking power in January has worked relentlessly to dismantle and neuter Brazil’s environmental laws.

Daniel Boffey informs us in The Guardian, 17 August 2019 that since Bolsonaro took office the rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest increased by 278% up until July. This equates to the destruction of 870sq miles (2,253sq km) of vibrant habitat containing innumerable forms of life. Boffey informs us that:

“The surge of destruction has continued. Last Saturday, farmers in the Amazon declared a “fire day” and coordinated a massive burn –off of trees to clear land for crops.”

The Amazon, which contains 10-14% of the Earth’s biodiversity, is not only important in its own right, for the health and wellbeing of the people of Brazil and its neighbouring countries, but is important to the whole world because of its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide thereby mitigating the warming of the planet. The Economist, 3rd – 9th August 2019, informs us since the early 1970s nearly 800,000km of Brazil’s original 4 million square km of rain forest, or 1.5 million square miles, has been obliterated by what is euphuistically called development. While the international media focuses on the fires in Brazil there are major forest fires in Bolivia and Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Siberia.

Further cause for despair is the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land published on the 8th August, 2019. Compiled by 100 scientists from 52 countries it states that the world is exploiting land and fresh water to such an extent that we are undermining the ability of humanity to feed itself. Among its findings is that the Earth is losing soil between 10 and 100 times faster than it is forming. We are in other words using up and polluting natural resources at such a rate there will be nothing left for near-future generations.

There is despair in knowing that tens of millions of people voted Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump into power, despair in that we in Europe, and the United States, knowingly consume food brought to us at the expense of the conflagration of the Amazon rainforest and the rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The loss of biodiversity and climate breakdown are but the most visible of the harms we are doing to the Earth and ourselves. Normally when things are dire, but all is not lost, the seriousness of the situation prompts us to rethink the paradigm that has hitherto served as the gravitational force of our way of life. The health of the biosphere is beyond dire and our collective response has largely been symbolic.

As individuals all we can do is live the best life we can in terms of caring for the Earth and for others but this does not neutralise the case for despair. The opposite of despair is not hope, think of being diagnosed with terminal cancer, but resignation.


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