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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 284: November 2020

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Celebrating, commemorating, remembering

Any remembrance of past history in a divided society is bound to controversial even where it is seeking to look for commonalities because there are those who will want to emphasise their distinctiveness and the differences. And in a society such as Northern Ireland there is much to be divided about.

The ‘Decade of centenaries’ starting with 1912 (and the gun running of that year) has gone relatively well in exploring issues on all sides, and not sweeping anything under the collective carpet – though many possess their own rugs under which there are massive amounts of dirty laundry. While some understanding of ‘the other’ and their point of view has been fostered, it would have been unrealistic to expect this process to transform what remains a very divided society. But work by Johnston McMaster, Cathy Higgins and others have helped some understanding to emerge.

We are now approaching the centenary of partition in Ireland and the setting up of the Northern Ireland state or statelet. A recent development was that Derry and Strabane council decided they would not officially organise or participate in commemoration events marking the formation of Northern Ireland but went on to say that they are quite happy for others to do what they want, and the possibility of funding for groups involved was not ruled out.  Meanwhile the Orange Order has a variety of types of event planned.

Unionists protested that the Derry and Strabane council decision was sectarian, unfair and bad for community relations. But it is unrealistic to expect Catholics and Nationalists to celebrate an event which their forebears totally opposed and which led to very significant discrimination against them. For a picture of Derry in 1964 as seen from the nationalist side, see / It is equally unrealistic to expect Protestants and Unionists to celebrate  the Irish republican tradition or the setting up of the Irish Free State.

In fact partition was an option which was opposed not only by nationalists but by many unionists too, particularly in what became the 26 counties of the Irish Free State; they wanted the whole of Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom and felt abandoned in the same way that nationists in what became the six counties of Northern Ireland felt abandoned.. Partition may solve certain problems but it creates others, and those problems may be ongoing (as they still are for India and Pakistan from when British India was partitioned).

There is a hierarchy of dealing with historical events. Deliberate amnesia is one policy but solves nothing because myths and perceptions continue or propagate. Commemoration is generally where there is felt to be something to celebrate; that event or events might or might not be joyful (the Siege of Derry is still celebrated by unionists in the North when it was not a joyful occasion for them until the city was eventually relieved by Williamite forces). The 1916 Rising was, on the face of it, a fiasco but has been celebrated by those who support the Irish republican militarist tradition not only for the stand taken but for its effect on Irish politics.  To commemorate something is generally to say it was a positive thing, to celebrate it.

Whether it is possible to ‘commemorate’ something while thinking it is not necessarily positive is a point of semantics. Some people probably believe it is. Some may expect others to commemorate what they themselves want commemorated, as with unionists in Derry wanting the council to mark the formation of Northern Ireland. But commemoration usually implies remembrance in a positive light.

However commemoration can be divisive, as commemoration of many aspects of Irish history can be. Celebrating the Battle of the Boyne, for example, is actually to celebrate the victory of one group in Northern Ireland over another group, and resultant disrimination against that other group. Had  ‘the other side’ won then the discrimination might have been reversed and that would not have been anything to celebrate either. If we celebrate ‘our’ group winnining over ‘their’ group then that is inherently divisive, though the extent to which it matters is a question of how divided a society still is. And Northern Ireland is still very divided.

Remembering is a different matter. We cannot forget any aspect of history in Ireland, or attempt to sweep it under a carpet or rug. The extent to which we actually analyse what went on, and what it meant for different groups of people, may vary according to how interested we are in history and politics but we cannot reasonably ignore anything of significance.

Proper remembering also means to search for an understanding of the other’s point of view. It does not mean we have to agree but it does mean listening rather than dismissing people’s stand.  In most  cases we are what we are because of who and where we were born.

The partition of Ireland needs to be remembered but remembered in the context of where we have got to today, a vastly more positive place in many ways. Part of that remembering is the negative consequences of partition for both parts of this island, and the unfinished business which still remains in dealing with the issues concerned. The Good Friday Agreement has many limitations but it also has an, albeit rudimentary, mechanism for deciding on the border. ‘Remember 1690’ is an old loyalist slogan. Something better would be ‘Remember and analyse’ so that we are not holding to old shibboleths but dealing with realities. And there are a lot of realities to be dealt with.

The arms trade
Ireland, as in the Republic, is increasingly being dragged into the European military-industrial complex, through PESCO, through cosying up to the USA at Shannon, and military or dual-use production. There is popular rejection of support for US militarism, and definite support for neutrality, however the Irish government’s continued permission for US military use of Shannon Airport is an act of craven submission to the world’s greatset superpower. The challenge issued by brave individuals, such as Dave Donnellan and Colm Roddy (see lead news item this issue) is ignored by the state who are unable to deal with the issues concerned in an honest way.

‘The arms trade’ is not just something out there, external to Ireland, but a real issue for us all. The largest arms producer in Ireland is in the North, primarily in Belfast, the missile-manufacturer Thales. But there are dozens more companies who are in some way part of the arms trade even where it is only production of ‘dual use’ (can be used for either civilian or military purposes) components or software.

The arms trade is probably the most corrupt and unregulated global industry that there is. Countries promise tranparerency and accountability but what happens is a quagmire of political pressure and influence, bribes and bungs, lack of real responsibility for the effects and end use (think of British arms to Saudi Arabia being used in Yemen even if a court order subsequently banned ones that could be used there), and the fuelling of war and the possibility of war. The militaries of the world are also a major contributor to global heating.

If armaments are not used they are still a waste of money when real security lies elsewhere. To think of real security in the middle of a pandemic we should be thinking of health and wellbeing, of ourselves and our neighbours around the world. But money is spent voraciously on armaments by states who cannot afford it if they are going to care meaningfully for their own citizens. And if arms are used then the result is, literally, bonecrushingly brutal. The United Kingdom is currently No.2 in the arms export charts, superseding Russia and France recently, and most British weapons go to the Middle East where they reinforce instability.

While it is established fact that investment in almost any other sector will create more jobs and knock on positiviity for society than armaments, governments tend to be fixated on this kind of brute strength and production. Arms production is hugely subsidised by governments, and ‘national securiuty’ is abused as a way to increase their power and influence. It is difficult to overestimate the negative effects of the arms industry to the wellbeing and peace of the world.

The arms trade in Ireland has in the past been the subject of studies by Afri, and Amnesty International, in relation to their concerns. However this area remains relatively unexplored by peace activists in Ireland. A forthcoming seminar run by INNATE (see News section this issue)  is only one tiny drop in a bucket of work and publicity which is needed in this area.

But beyond this whole area is the need for more resources to be devoted, at local, national and global levels, on alternatives to war and violence. If countries invest in peaceful alternatives – far, far cheaper and with none of the side effects of war – then progress can be made for the whole of humanity in a much faster and safer way. ‘Your’ armaments are a warning sign for ‘me’ to arm further.  ‘But ‘your’ disarmament and investment in peaceful alternatives, through the United Nations and otherwise, is a signal that ‘we too’ can look at things in a more peaceful and munificent way.

- - - - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Nemonte Nenquimo’s Open Letter to the Global Community -
It is time you listened to us.

Note to readers
In order to enable Nemonte Nenquimo’s letter to the global community to be read by as many people as possible I submit it in replacement of my own monthly reflections on environmental issues. Nemonte Nenquimo is president and cofounder of the Ecuadoran Indigenous-led non-profit organization Ceibo Alliance, which was awarded the UN 2020 Equator Prize. The prize is awarded every two years to recognize community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Nenquimo is one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2020. Among other outlets the letter was published in the Guardian, 12 October 2020.


My name is Nemonte Nenquimo, I am a Waorani woman, a mother, and a leader of my people. The Amazon Rainforest is my home. I am writing you this letter because the fires are raging still. Because the corporations are spilling oil in our rivers. Because the miners are stealing gold (as they have been for 500 years), and leaving behind open pits and toxins. Because the land grabbers are cutting down primary forest so that the cattle can graze, plantations can be grown and the white man can eat. Because our elders are dying from coronavirus, while you are planning your next moves to cut up our lands to stimulate an economy that has never benefited us. Because, as Indigenous peoples, we are fighting to protect what we love – our way of life, our rivers, our forests, life on Earth – and it’s time that you listened to us.

In each of our hundreds of different languages across the Amazon, we have a word for you – the outsider, the stranger. In my language, WaoTededo, that word is “cowori”. And it doesn’t need to be a bad word. But you have made it so. For us, the word has come to mean (and in a terrible way your society has come to represent); the white man that knows too little for the power he wields, and the damage that he causes.
You are probably not used to an Indigenous woman calling you ignorant and, less so, on a platform such as this. But for Indigenous people it is clear: the less you know about something, the less value it has for you, and the easier it is to destroy. And by ease, I mean: guiltlessly, remorselessly, foolishly, even righteously. And this is exactly what you are doing to us as Indigenous peoples, to our rainforest territories, and ultimately to our planet’s climate.

It took us thousands of years to get to know the Amazon rainforest. To understand her ways, her secrets, to learn to survive and thrive with her. And for my people, the Waorani, we have only known you for 70 years (we were “contacted” in the 1950s by American evangelical missionaries), but we are fast learners, and you are not as complex as the rainforest.

When you say that the oil companies have marvelous new technologies that can sip oil from beneath our lands like hummingbirds sip nectar from a flower, we know that you are lying because we live downriver from the spills. When you say that the Amazon is not burning, we do not need satellite images to prove you wrong; we are choking on the smoke of the fruit orchards that our ancestors planted centuries ago. When you say that you are urgently looking for climate solutions, yet continue to build a world economy based on extraction and pollution, we know you are lying because we are the closest to the land, and the first to hear her cries.

I never had the chance to go to university, and become a doctor, or a lawyer, a politician, or a scientist. My elders are my teachers. The forest is my teacher. And I have learnt enough (and I speak shoulder to shoulder with my Indigenous brothers and sisters across the world) to know that you have lost your way, and that you are in trouble (though you don’t fully understand it yet) and that your trouble is a threat to every form of life on Earth.

You forced your civilization upon us and now look where we are {global pandemic, climate crisis, species extinction and, driving it all, widespread spiritual poverty. In all these years of taking, taking, taking from our lands, you have not had the courage, or the curiosity, or the respect to get to know us. To understand how we see, and think, and feel, and what we know about life on this Earth.

I won’t be able to teach you in this letter, either. But what I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense as reverence. This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning. And you are taking all of this away, not just from us, but from everyone on the planet, and from future generations.

It is the early morning in the Amazon, just before first light: a time that is meant for us to share our dreams, our most potent thoughts. And so I say to all of you: the Earth does not expect you to save her, she expects you to respect her. And we, as Indigenous peoples, expect the same.

Copyright INNATE 2021