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Nonviolence News



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

Number 278: April 2020

[Return to related issue on Nonviolence News]

Solidarity, and understanding, in a time of isolation

Our whole world, literally, has been stood on edge by Covid-19. Our own personal routines and life have been totally disrupted. Our concept of what is social, sociable, and anti-social has also been upended; ‘keeping our distance’ is the new positive social stance. Finding new ways to express social solidarity, and support for health and care workers, has been part of the community response. The new situation can be particularly stressful or uncomfortable for people with underlying health problems, older people, and those who are alone and not used to being isolated.

We are forced to confront our own fear. Fear is of course a protective instinct but in the face of a silent and invisible force like a virus it can become debilitating and disempowering. Acknowledging our fear, addressing it, and moving on is necessary; this is easier said than done but important to do.

There are many questions and issues arising from the current situation. One of them, coming from a peace and antimilitarist background, is obviously the money spent on the military that has not been spent on health. This may seem tangential but it is actually very important, nationally and globally. Supporting the military is an unnecessary burden.
We would also question uncritical comparisons of the current situation with wartime. Yes, it is an emergency, yes, there are dangers and the need to pull together. But Covid-19 is not a human ‘enemy’, it is another thing entirely and to draw comparisons with wartime may be to uncritically justify ‘war’ in general and possibly unnecessary restrictions on civil liberties currently. Obviously strong measures are needed to restrict movement and control the possible spread of the coronavirus but they need to be within necessary limits including the length of time they will apply.

The lack of preparation of health services for such an eventuality, and tardy political responses, have been a significant handicap. And poor countries are being left to struggle with the issue without the resources or infrastructure to possibly do so; consider the plight of a poor labourer in India, cast adrift perhaps a long distance from home. The result is disastrous in richer countries and will be catastrophic in poorer ones. A month is a very long time in politics; Leo Varadkar’s role in the Irish context has generally been seen as reassuring and sure footed, which is rather more than can be said about some political leaders to the east and west of Ireland. In the North, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill have not always sung from the same song sheet but still have a certain amount of harmony and more sympathy.

Covid-19 is a global problem needing global solutions, a global early warning system for the future, and a global solidarity system. The latter already exists, if in an often unsatisfactory form, in the shape of the United Nations and its agencies. Creating justice and peace in the world is not just a matter of resources but also of willpower and especially political will. The resources exist but are diverted to corporate and billionaire bank accounts. In the words used by World Beyond War, “3% of U.S. military spending could end starvation on Earth” - and that is just the USA’s military expenditure!

We signalled up food security and food sovereignty as issues arising from the situation in the last issue. It is unlikely that a current advisor to the British government would come out again with the comment that Britain does not need farmers – i.e. that Britain can import all the food it needs, and farming can go to the wall. Any society needs to have a secure food supply or a fall back to that; the ‘just in time’ nature of rich world food chains is a weak link.

The current lockdown, of whatever variety where you are, brings other issues to the fore. One is that of increased ‘domestic’ inter-personal violence as some men (overwhelmingly men) take out their frustrations on their partners and families. There is a need in any case for increased attention to educational and other initiatives to build a culture of nonviolence at a personal level (obviously as nonviolent activists we would say at societal and inter-state levels as well). The current crisis can bring out the best in people – responding in whatever way they can, and medical, nursing and care staff stepping into danger on our behalf. It can also bring out the worst in some of us.

The situation has highlighted some of what is really important in life. In a longer scenario, most jobs in society are essential, a small proportion are not. In a ‘shorter term’ lockdown, like today, however many months it may be, we can clearly see that the task of supermarket shelf stacking is an essential job, producing that food to begin with is essential, being a care worker in a nursing home or other setting is an essential job (without mentioning medical and hospital staff of all varieties). Thus hopefully we can move to more appreciation for all the positive roles people play in society and not be hung up on certain roles which are higher paid or seen as prestigious.

There is a big green question as well. Is it humanity’s encroachment on nature that has led to the coronavirus and leaves us particularly susceptible to the emergence of similar diseases? While it might be thought the jury is out on this question it is clear that encroachment on nature and intensive farming practices both leave us very vulnerable, aside even from global heating which risks many other catastrophes. There is much work to do to minimise these threats. Respecting wild nature and having better, more organic, farming practices are essential and not optional extras.

Will societies and political establishments here and elsewhere learn the lessons and Be Prepared in a much more comprehensive way for future threats, of whatever nature, be they natural disasters or human made ones? It is up to us to ensure there is better preparation, and not to let those in power forget what is needed. But we also need to avoid any ‘bunker mentality’ which would compromise freedom and have us fixated on waiting for the next disaster or The End of the World; getting into ‘survivalist’ mode is dangerous. Sensible preparations can be built in to our routines and way of life. Having sufficient stocks of food and medical supplies to meet with possible emergencies is a question of planning and organisation. Even something as mundane as the planting of more fruit trees as public policy (including on public lands) is an easily obtainable goal.
Conventional and conservative economic policies have gone out the window. The nature and extent of state intervention, and support to individuals, varies from country to country, but what is not in dispute is that the state needs to intervene in an enormous way to deal with the huge issues arising from the coronavirus. Maybe we may hear less in future about the ‘nanny’ state and there may be more appreciation for the need to support everyone in need – and that this is a primary role of the state or state agencies. Many conservative economic policies seek to divide people into strivers and shirkers. Perhaps Covid-19 can help persuade societies to be more inclusive, but only if we join the dots and ensure this happens.

- - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Covid-19 - Cognitive Dissonance

We – meaning we human beings – really should be in a state of high anxiety because the climate emergency is an even greater existential threat than coronavirus. We really should be facing up to the need for revolutionary (and thus inherently risky) change in the economy, in society, and in collective values.” - Fintan O’Toole, The Irish Times, 17 March 2020

In the early stages of the Covid-19 emergency we were, metaphorically, in a coastal landscape of dense mist that reduced our vision of the lay of things to a circumference of a few meters and in wanting safety stuck to the well-worn path of past certainties. As the seriousness of the virus percolated into the public consciousness despair and fear conjured up mischievous fairy-folk who leaped out from behind boulders and trees offering misleading prognosis and advice. A common response to the fear and deluge of information was acted out in corner shops and supermarkets where people probed into the dark of empty shelves in the hope of finding a forgotten nugget of gold in the form of a pack of aspirin or cold relief capsules and filled shopping trollies with bags and cans of dry food, cleaning fluids and toiletries. Not wanting to be recognised in case of being thought foolish, selfish, or both, eye contact was generally avoided.

In this surreal Covid-19 world much of the behaviour we witness, and perhaps engage in, is rooted in the caution that comes from the duality of not knowing, and doing what we see others do. We learnt this response to uncertainty during our first days at primary school when yearning to belong and not to be thought odd we looked at others for clues as how to behave and how to be safe.

What the media coverage of Covid-19, and the response of the government, the media and public reveals, aside from information about the virus, the government response and what we should do, is the extent to which cognitive dissonance is an integral part of the dominant psychology of global society (cognitive dissonance can be defined as holding contradictory beliefs simultaneously or an unwillingness to revise a belief in the light of new information). I illustrate as follows.

Senior politicians never tired of reminding the public that their decisions, which before the advent of Covid-19 would be condemned as draconian, are based on science. What is also based on science is that 1.25 million people are killed and between 20 and 50 million seriously injured in road collisions every year. (*1) The response of the UK government to death and injury on the roads, which typifies that of governments worldwide, is evident in its early March budget. This is to spend £27 billion in building 4,000 miles of new roads. Roads that will increase the numbers who will die in road accidents as well as pave over precious soils needed for agriculture, wild life, water regulation and carbon storage. The science was ignored and the public good denied.

Five hundred people die every year in Northern Ireland from air pollution, 40,000 in the UK and 8 million worldwide. The tally is 80 million people dying prematurely every decade and hundreds of millions afflicted with chronic illness caused by the pollution. The response of governments is to continue to support the way of life that causes the air pollution. The science is ignored and the public good denied.

The science has been telling us loud and clear for the past 50-years that climate breakdown, due to the emission of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is catastrophic for humankind and other life-forms. Some influential people deny this, however, 99.94 per cent of scientists are of this view. (*2) The response of governments to this level of scientific consensus on the warming of the planet to ignore the science and support the fossil fuel industries to the tune of $5.3 trillion a year. (*3)

The science tells us that one of the things society must do without delay to help mitigate global warming and preserve biodiversity is radically reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products. The response of the public, government and big business is to ignore the science and ridicule the messengers as mavericks who are not living in the real world. The science is denied and the public good ignored.

Cognitive Dissonance is evident in the lack of gun control in the United States, in the existence of nuclear weapons, in the manufacture and sale of food sodden with sugar, fat and salt. In Saudi Arabia, the UK, the UAE and the United States it is evident in the war they are waging in Yemen, which has caused so much death, destruction and displacement of people the UN has called it the worst humanitarian situation in the world. Most of the country is on the verge of starvation. While digital and print media are rightly alight with calls from the public for the government to take decisive action on Covid-19 and for people to abide by the precautionary principle as in regular handwashing and physically distancing there is barely a whisper about the terrible suffering in Yemen which the UK and the United States have the power to act on.

One can only hope that Covid-19 will awaken people to the fact that we, whatever our sense of identity and status, are members of one species, dependent on each other and the biosphere, and really can change our behaviour commensurable to that required to heal the biosphere. The majority of people have changed their behaviour to protect themselves, their loved-ones and neighbours in the Covid-19 emergency and we can do likewise to tackle the greater catastrophe unfolding through our fossil fuel, consumer based way of life.

The ordinariness of the consumer mindset was recently highlighted for me when I saw a woman, perhaps in her early seventies, uproot a spray of mayflowers from a patch of earth in a small County Fermanagh village. She saw and took. There was no regard for the fact that flowers are a vital food source for insects, part of an ecosystem, and have a right to life. Nor had she any regard for the people to whom the flowers would have brought solace and joy. This sense of entitlement, inclination to take simply because one can, is the primary cause of the Covid-19 pandemic. The source of the virus is thought to be a wild animal taken from its habitat in China. The animal, like the mayflowers, should have been let be.

(*1) World Bank, 8 January 2018.
(*2) Bernhard Potter, Guardian, 18 March 2020.
(*3) IMF figures, Guardian, 19 May 2015.


Betty Williams Nobel Peace Laureate (1943-2020)

Co-founder Peace People (1976)

by Mairead Maguire

On Monday 23rd March, 2020 a final farewell to Betty Williams took place at Roselawn Cemetery, Belfast.

However, because of the Coronavirus restrictions put on Burials, it was a sad day for her family and friends as they could not gather all together in the Roselawn Chapel (it was closed) to grieve and wish Betty good-bye and thank her for all she had given to them personally, to the people of Ireland, to the world. For a woman who loved her daughter Debbie, her son Paul, and her three grandchildren passionately and who responded with an urgency and strength to anyone suffering who asked her help, especially children, it was a sad occasion, and yet it was too a time for a celebration of a life well lived. Betty Williams loved life, she enjoyed her life and she loved people.

On 17th March, 2020, Betty was admitted by ambulance to the Royal Hospital, Belfast. On the morning of 18th March at 7.30 a.m., Betty passed away. She had a difficult few years after back surgery and other health problems. I last saw Betty at a Peace Summit in Barcelona and as we greeted each other, I was shocked at how frail she had become and in pain and weakened by back pain. In spite of this, I still was shocked to hear of her death on 18th March.

I therefore would like to take this opportunity to extend to Betty’s daughter, Debbie, Son Paul, and Betty’s three grand-children and extended family members, the sympathy of my husband, Jack, myself, and family, the sympathy of all her friends in the Peace People and reconciliation movement, both at home and in the international community.

I loved Betty and I consider it a great privilege to have known and worked with her. Betty was a woman of great courage, with a loving compassion for all children. After returning from living in the United States, she choose to live in the Republic of Ireland, (2004) and together with her daughter Debbie, set up an organization World Centre of Compassion for Children (WCCC) in Knock, Galway. Through this organization, she, in her great spirit of generosity reached out to many people globally and she had a particular love of Italy where she worked with refugees and migrants.

For myself and those who had the pleasure of knowing her as a friend and co-worker for peace, she will be sadly missed, but we will remember and celebrate a great life lived to the full and in service of the children for whom she had a deep compassion and love. Thank you Betty from all your friends and particularly the Youth whom you inspired so much.


Indigenous knowledge

by Helen Henderson

Could Indigenous knowledge and practices hold some solutions to addressing conflict and legacy issues of colonialism in Ireland?

On return from an intercultural exchange with several native tribes from Canada, America and Maori people, I have more questions than answers. I feel that the ground under my feet has been shaken and disrupted, causing me to rethink what we are doing within community development/good relations/peace building? The experience of being around native indigenous peoples was enlightening as well as uncomfortable at times but ultimately it was stirring. It stirred up a mix of emotions and thoughts as I heard many stories about the impact of colonisation on native peoples historically and today.

I wondered what role my ancestors played in all of this and if this learning be applied to our current context here in Northern Ireland and Ireland. I have penned a few reflections from my conversations with my fellow traveller (Lorcan McBride, Far and Wild) and some of the people I met along the way.

Indigenous as a term, within the context of Ireland, needs further exploration as to whether it can be fully inclusive or whether it needs protected or limited to a certain extent. Who is indigenous to Ireland now? Are people from Catholic background more indigenous than people from a Protestant background? How far back can we go in the constant history of invasions to find a first nations, and how reliable is the ancestry and is this even relevant?

Could the concept and practice of ‘Being Indigenous’ inform a philosophy, a symbiotic way of being in the world that benefits all species and nature? In an ideal vision, it could heal old wounds, and unite all living things in the interconnected web of life where nothing is separate. Geraldine Moane (UCD) discusses the potential for transformation and recovery through restoring the cultural, linguistic and spiritual traditions that were made invisible by colonial processes. She specifically talks about the need for processes where trauma, loss and oppression are transformed through spaces for resistance, pride, creativity and joy.

Lorcan McBride from Far and Wild says ‘I think or hope that indigenity can be a value or set of values as well if not more than an issue of origin. And perhaps that is all that is left for us in Ireland to pursue. And that it can be guarded and protected easier if it is.’ One of the Maori leaders talked about Indigenous as a lens through which we view the world, a perspective and a way of life that moves beyond race, skin colour and tribe. Perhaps we need to accept that no one can claim full indigeneity, but some people have been disproportionally impacted by colonialism?

Diane Kopua is an indigenous psychologist based in Gisbourne (NZ) and sees indigenous knowledge as critically important in the world but continually witnesses how it is not equally valued with mainstream ‘western’ knowledge. Her indigenous worldview encourages us to live a life of value, and it acknowledges that everyone has been affected by colonialism. It also understands the problem of poor mental health within an historical and environmental context, a systems understanding. Diane defines it as, “Remembering who you really are in connection to your ancestors and your environment”.

The legacy of colonialism is ever present in society today, globally and more specifically within Ireland and Northern Ireland. This presents itself symptomatically as a disconnect between people and the natural environment, pervasive individualism and continued ethno-political conflict in N.I.. Geraldine Moane mentions several legacy issues that remain today including; partition, minority native language and the dominance of the church.

Intergenerational trauma passed on from significant historical events including the Famine, institutional abuse, struggles for independence and the more recent Troubles is increasingly recognised as a causal factor in the current mental health crisis in Northern Ireland. These legacy issues do not often feature in the public discourse around health, environment and peace building, and perhaps there is a fear to exploring these openly and honestly. In Ireland, we rarely talk about colonisation in the current context, understanding our current challenges in this lens could be helpful when we look at; addictions, depression, suicide, division, environmental pollution.

Colonisation cannot be ignored, however, can it be addressed in a way that moves beyond blame to a recognition that whilst some people benefited and others lost from the process, people and planet suffer today as a result? Is this enough or do we need some form of redress? All life in Ireland has been impacted by colonialism and needs restored to varying degrees.

Colonialism is often talked about in a passive, factual and historical way, that is only relevant in history lessons. Whilst this is important there is a need to move beyond a passive understanding of this to a more active resistance that challenges the status quo. Is there an opportunity for an active process of ‘digging up’ indigenous knowledge, practices, values that can be applied in various fields including health, education, psychology, peace as well as informing an alternative way of being in the world?

Whilst there remains a legacy of colonialism, there is a need to recognise that the process of colonisation continues today but perhaps in a different guise. This includes corporate power, media, inequality, consumerism, government corruption, extractive relationships with natural resources, and the value system of neo-liberal economics where money matters more than other issues.

In these times of uncertainty and system change, it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed and lose hope. During this exchange, I often felt sad at the realisation that here in Ireland we have lost our way so badly, we have disconnected from our natural environment and have forgotten so much of our traditional wisdom. However, I was inspired how many of the Maori speakers who had shifted their language from ‘decolonising’ to ‘Indigenising’ to embrace an appreciative approach rather than a deficit model. They gave wonderful examples of how they are drawing on their rich heritage to inform their education models.

I started to see a glimmer of light that perhaps we are not as far away from our indigenous ways of being that I had originally thought. There is a whole world out there, alive with wonder, story, rituals, poetry, myth and senses. Perhaps we need to come back to our senses and wake up to the wisdom and practices that our ancestors engaged in to sustain life, abundance and hope.

If everyone lived in a way that respected mother earth, appreciated the interdependence of all things, and engaged in a regular spiritual practice, could we have a better world?

My questions for going forward:

  1. How do we actively dig up and promote indigenous values and practices in a way that serves the most marginalised of people and species?
  2. Can English be used for this, or will this further reinforce a colonial lens and the superiority and separateness of humans over nature? Does this need to be processed within native language?
  3. How do we actively seek diversity to address our blind spots and the blind spots of others with compassion? Not assuming to ‘be there’ or ‘have the right way of seeing things’.
  4. How do we engage with these issues critically in an academic system that has been carved out of colonialism?
  5. How can this be made accessible to everyone and different disciplines? Health, education, leisure, etc.

Helen Henderson works at St Columb’s Park House peace centre. She would welcome comments about this piece to and/or comments can come to Nonviolent News

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