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Billy King


Nonviolence News


This is an edited version of a paper given by INNATE coordinator, Rob Fairmichael, at the first session of the series Directions Through Conflict organised by the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast, in association with INNATE. The talk was followed by discussion.

Nonviolence - the possible dream

[This article first appeared in the November 2005 edition of Nonviolent News]

First, let me get the 'a' word out of the way. I'm not an academic but I am an activist. I'm more used to doing workshops with full and ongoing audience participation throughout. So interruptions are welcome. I will curb my workshop inclination except at a couple of points. One of which is now - I want to start off by making a fist of it with a very quick exercise which needs you to pair off with someone else you don't know, I don't want people to have to move much.

Now, one person is going to clench their fist hard and it is the task of the other person to try to get it open. If there are peaceniks and others who have done this exercise or know the possible answer, perhaps they could be the person with the clenched fist. And, please, no casualties, just take care.

[Exercise runs for a couple of minutes] One possible answer is ................ That is relevant to what we're talking about here today.

Personal introduction
I have been involved in the field of peace and nonviolence since I was 16 which was 36 years ago, so mathematical geniuses that you are you'll be able to work out my age, now was that 42 or 62? It was the very start of the Troubles and although I am originally from the Republic I have lived most of my life in the North. In that time I have been involved in a whole variety of enterprises including Dawn magazine which began in 1974 ('Getting up for Dawn leaves you exhausted by tea time'!) and INNATE, an Irish Network for Nonviolent Action Training and Education, which began in 1987, of which I am the coordinator - unpaid and part time. Both of these involvements have entailed contact with a wide variety of groups and people both at home and abroad.

I came into the world of nonviolence in quite a sudden way, although all of us who reach a changing point in our lives can reflect on what it was that made us react in the way we did at a crucial point. I am not intending to expand on that here, except to say that my conversion was as a result of watching a training film on hand to hand combat when I was a member of a British Army cadet force in the school I attended, just north of the border.

What I want to share with you today is some of the learning which I feel I have picked up along the way which does point to nonviolence being a possible dream. "I have a dream".....I think someone already gave that speech, interestingly someone who was also very much into nonviolence. I hope to show through history, ideology and practical possibilities that nonviolence really is a possible dream.

What is nonviolence? That's where our problems begin because the term itself has difficulties, consisting as it does of a negative, 'non'violence. I follow the usage in writing of using 'nonviolence' without a hyphen as something which is positively and explicitly so, and 'non-violence' with a hyphen for that which is simply not violent. Obviously this distinction which is possible in writing is impossible in spoken English without adding the unwieldy 'without a hyphen' or 'with a hyphen'.

Incidentally, the term 'nun'violence, with 'n-u-n' at the beginning, was used to talk about the involvement of religious in the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Phillipines in 1986.

Gandhi used the term 'satygraha', truth force, as a concept and synonym for nonviolence and that's probably as good as it gets, but in day to day use 'satygraha' is going to communicate rather less with most people than 'nonviolence' might. The term 'pacifism' is also acceptable but may have negative or passive connotations - it may in some ways be a synonym for 'ahimsa', the Gandhian and Sanskrit Hindu word for not doing harm.

I am also aware in this context of a comment made by Shirley Morrow when I was interviewing her in 1986 for the pamphlet which I researched and wrote on the Peace People. Talking about local people in the Peace People group she had been involved with, she said that people were not ready for 'long Gandhian principles'. Indeed they are not, they can be painful for anyone unless they are keen students of the man himself. I will come later to something of what my practical vision would be for Northern Ireland in the future.

When I talk about nonviolence I am meaning something which is made up of the following ingredients in varying proportions: thirst for justice, imagination, perseverance, risk-taking, respect for others including opponents, and an unwillingness to use violence. One possible usage for nonviolence in another language has been 'relentless persistence'.

My talk here is more about the nature of nonviolence as a possible and practical dream. But it does have a basis, in religious and secular ideologies, and in history. The basis of nonviolence can be in religious and/or secular thinking. For me, as a Christian, I understand Jesus' message as one of radical nonviolence - not just nonviolent but many other things too - it was the European revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg who characterised the early Christian church as being communist in consumption if not in production. The early Christian church, which was avowedly and broadly nonviolent in its first few centuries, made a classic backsliding compromise for power at the time of Constantine, and the Christian church has seldom looked back in seeking to wield power and influence since. The 'peace church' reading of Jesus and the scriptures has been on the back foot ever since. I say this because I believe that it is not just nonviolence that most Christian churches have turned their backs on. In relation to Christianity, I refer to the 'hidden gospel of nonviolence' - I believe it is a key part of the Christian message but mainly hidden.

But there were still attempts to limit the extent of war. Our own Adamnan, see the Quiz on "Nonviolence - the Irish experience" [given to those attending - it's on the INNATE website], question No.4, was one. The Just War theory was another, and, without going into detail on that, it is quite clear that something like the Iraq war was ruled out from legitimacy for Christians by the Just War theory. This is why those two Christian gentlemen, Mr Bush and Mr Blair, studiously avoided referring to the Just War theory with regard to Iraq. Rather, they had a 'Justified war' theory - "any war which I decide is morally justified is just". Which is just....rubbish.

But other religions than Christianity support nonviolence too, most famously perhaps Buddhism but it can be argued all. Because if we look at the 'golden rule' in all religions - the 'love your neighbour as yourself' principle - then surely this means if you kill someone else you 'kill' yourself.

In secular and humanist thinking, one possible basis for nonviolence, as expounded by Hildegard Goss-Mayr, is "complete respect for human life". Another possible basis is simply the pragmatic, that nonviolence works.

Nonviolence in Ireland
You were given at the start a green sheet "Nonviolence - the Irish experience Quiz" [on the INNATE website] My purpose in composing that was and is not to do a posthumous baptism into the nonviolent faith akin to the Mormon baptismal practice regarding their ancestors. Rather, it is to say - Irish history is not just made up of violence, there is much more to it than that, some of which believers in nonviolence would be more than happy about.

I am surprised at the extent to which people still fall into the trap of viewing history and conflict in Ireland as the history of violence. The exhibition at the Ulster museum, "Conflict - the Irish at war", which began a couple of years ago, is an example in point. Firstly, the very title was problematic for me. Conflict can be positive but in this usage - 'Conflict - the Irish at war', gives an extremely negative connotation. The two do not equate. A history of conflict in Ireland is not the history of the Irish being at war. The content dealt with the Irish 'at war' but without putting that 'war' into a larger context. Thus to me it gave the impression of war as being a normal state of affairs. In the whole exhibition there were only two or three examples of where war was questioned or challenged.

Coming back to the 'Nonviolence - the Irish experience Quiz', I can illustrate No. 8 on economic boycotts with a "Woods halfpence" and a Repeal medallion for a boycott of non-Irish goods which are on display here. 'Woods halfpence' were boycotted when, in an 18th century example of Private Finance Initiative, Mr Wood produced half pennies for Ireland to an inferior standard than ones produced for Britain, pocketing the change, so to speak; they were withdrawn after a successful boycott. Daniel O'Connell, meanwhile, in regard to the Repeal movement and the development of constitutional nationalism, was of significance well outside the island of Ireland, an area dealt with in the paper on O'Connell in Dawn's "Nonviolence in Irish history" pamphlet in 1978 - written, incidentally by Angela Mickley who was based at the Institute of Irish Studies at the time - and we were rather pleased with the response from Maurice O'Connell, who died very recently; he was a great-great-grandson of Daniel O'Connell, and edited Daniel O'Connell's correspondence in 8 volumes. He said how much he learnt from Angela Mickley's paper.

I'll just refer to a couple of items in this quiz. The Céide Fields in North Mayo is an illustration that life for our distant ancestors was not necessarily nasty and brutish, whatever about short. Arguably one of the most effective acts in the independence struggle by nationalists in Ireland in the 1919-21 period was of nationalist controlled councils switching allegiance from Westminster to the Dáil in Dublin. This did not require one bullet or bomb.

I already referred to the Dawn magazine 1978 pamphlet 'Nonviolence in Irish History' which covered O'Connell, the Quakers, Michael Davitt and the Land League, Boycott, the experience of the 'westward moving' Irish in the USA, the early 20th century including Plunkett and Sheehy Skeffington, and peace groups in Ireland. While out of print it is freely available on the INNATE website.

Anyway I wanted to give you a quick break from the sound of my voice for a minute, and ask you to pair off again and discuss just for five minutes or so: "Can you talk about nonviolence in Ireland or in Irish history? Or nonviolence in wherever it is you are from?". You can share points later on when we get to plenary discussion.

Breaking into history
[Back in plenary] How do we break into history? How do we make a difference? George Bush and Tony Blair thought they could do it in Iraq through a short, swift war. They were wrong although the extent of their wrongness is still being worked out. If I had woken up in the autumn of 1939 I might have said that resisting Hitler required military force - but Hitler was himself the product of the First World War and Treaty of Versailles, and that had been a product of clashing imperial rivalries.

I believe we break into history through nonviolent resistance to injustice. And to those who say, you cannot resist authoritarian violence nonviolently, I say look at the history of non-violent resistance in Nazi occupied Europe. Hidden non-cooperation and the like was far more problematic for the Nazi regime than sporadic, if heroic, violent resistance. During the Warsaw Pact/Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1969, the Russians had to bring in non-Russian speaking troops from the USSR's far east because the fraternisation policy of the Czechs was so successful. The overthrow of communist regimes in Eastern Europe a decade and a half ago happened through popular, and largely non-violent, uprisings.

All I would ask is that violent and nonviolent approaches are judged by the same standard. Violence is not written off in popular thinking despite all the evidence of when it doesn't work.

There is a standard workshop on tactics which I do with groups campaigning on an issue, and it's partly to expand people's imagination as to what is possible within nonviolence. [Again, the workshop is on the INNATE website] A march and rally may be a good thing to do - it may also be the worst thing to do if your numbers are not going to impress people, and yet it seems to be the only action in some people's vocabulary. What I start off by doing in this workshop is not always the most exciting, working through Gene Sharp's "The Politics of Nonviolent Action" 198 varieties of nonviolent tactic. That 198 could be 198,000 but it is the examples Sharp put in his book in the 1970s. I'll say something more about that in a minute. But having worked through all these examples - from letter-writing through various forms of civil disobedience, strikes, fasts etc., we then do a personal risk list. What kind of thing can you easily do, could never do, or could do if you have support and preparation? This brings the list home to the individual. It is then that we brainstorm tactics for the particular campaign at hand and process and develop those.

Inevitably someone asks "What's 'Lysistratic Nonaction?", type No.57 on Gene Sharp's list. Based on the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, it is when women refuse to sleep with their men when they are involved in war and violent activities.

But there is a little story I tell against myself in relation to this list. One time in a workshop I was talking about the fact that some methods of protest may not be culturally appropriate, and I gave the example of No.22 on Sharp's list, 'Protest disrobings', where people take their clothes off as protest; this might not be culturally appropriate in Ireland, I said. I was immediately corrected and provided with a relatively recent example on this island. There has been a male-only nude bathing place at the Forty Foot, Sandycove, Dublin, and women went swimming naked to both claim the space and protest. There is also an example of a sect called the White Quakers parading naked through the streets of Dublin in the 19th century - given Irish weather if they weren't white beforehand they certainly were afterwards. What I take from this is that we should never write off an idea as culturally inappropriate until we have considered it closely. Indeed it is possible that the more shockingly inappropriate an action may be, the bigger will be its impact - what has to be assessed is whether this impact will be positive or negative.

I referred to the fact that tactics need to take into account numbers. An example of where one person can make an amazing difference is provided by the resistance to lignite mining proposed for the west side of Lough Neagh, the Ardboe area, in the 1980s (there is more currently the risk of said affliction in the Ballymoney area). The company involved had succeeded in dividing local people by offering farmers payments for prospecting on their land; some people accepted this causing bitterness and division. Local opposition was ignored and dialogue was refused though there was a local community group working against mining. When a drilling convoy was coming in to the area, one man mounted a picket and blocked a mobile crane; the driver was a union man and refused to try to proceed. The whole convoy ground to a halt. Dialogue began and the company's attempts came to nothing and were timed out. One man standing in front of a large lorry may have been a key action in saving a community from a terrible ruin.

Nonviolence in the Troubles
Those who explicitly espouse nonviolence are, ahem, somewhat limited in number and the bulk of those involved in broader peace and reconciliation activities in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles would not have identified with nonviolence in any way. For me the basic approach of nonviolence to military and paramilitary violence was not condemnation but organisation and inclusion, and pointing to alternatives. And the experience of some of those who did adopt nonviolence, such as partly the Peace People, who were the largest peace expression of the Troubles, was a mixed blessing (I studied this in detail in 'The Peace People experience' pamphlet, 1987, available in paper copies and on the INNATE website).

However some of those involved in the peace and reconciliation scene were very conservative and basically wanted paramilitaries to get lost - where they did not specify. Condemnation often seemed more to do with the speaker's desire to portray themselves as whiter than white than any move to deal with issues. But progress, when it has been made, has come through inclusion. I find it interesting that it took the British government and military fifteen to twenty years of the Troubles to realise that the 'shoot to kill' of paramilitaries was counter-productive.

The Peace People happened in 1976 when the Troubles had already peaked. While they claimed the downturn of violence was due to their work and existence, I think a fairer judgement would be that they were both a product of people's desire for an end to the conflict and in turn re-emphasised that trend.

Various groups during the Troubles took stands of varying kinds against violence, including Peace Train who specifically focussed on attacks on the Dublin-Belfast railway line. Such attacks by the IRA were totally illogical - uniting a country by preventing people from the two major cities in either part getting together has to be an all-time great of illogical thinking - but 'bringing home the seriousness of the war situation' to people could justify any action, anywhere. Peace Train tried to challenge the illogicality involved in this violence.

Did the peace and reconciliation movement achieve anything in all this? Yes, but quantifying it would be exceedingly difficult. As we know, the main movement away from violence came from those involved in, or supporting, the violent groups who were able to reflect and see that violence was not achieving their aims. This happened most markedly in Sinn Féin and the IRA but in loyalist paramilitaries too. For example, the IRA's long march from the Hunger Strikes at the start of the 1980s through to decommissioning in 2005 is an amazing journey.

But I would say something about the relative 'constitutionalisation' of Sinn Féin and the 'republican movement' (in quotation marks). I would say that in their journey to party political activity only, compared to violent activity, they have lost and left behind some of the 'non-violent' tactics which were part of their campaigning. They were adept at protesting, e.g. 'white line' protests in the roadway, to publicise issues. All that seems to have gone by the board apart from the occasional rally to mark continuity with the violent past. Which brings me on to what a practical, nonviolent vision would be for today and tomorrow.

The future
I do have a dream - and while realising this dream would require an enormous effort I do not see anything in my list following as impractical or impossible.

I would like to see every school child on this island learn about conflict in a basic way at school. This would primarily be through peer mediation and the skills associated with that so that, in a very practical way, children and young people learnt positive ways to deal with conflict. This is a major task and one which the late Jerry Tyrrell of Derry grappled with. I would like everyone to leave school feeling that they were equipped to deal with whatever conflicts might come their way, and knowing that other nonviolent approaches are possible.

I would like to see movements for change adopting a more imaginative methodology, including not just the usual lobbying of governments but also movement building through use of a broad range of nonviolent tactics. These need not be oppositional in the sense of condemnatory and accepting of powerlessness. Rather they could signal up the positive aspects of the changes which they are striving for.

And in relation to the sectarian situation in Northern Ireland I would like to see a variety of things. Most importantly would be open dialogue across the board. Everyone seems afraid of everyone else and their views; the aim is usually to discomfort and discredit your opponent (e.g. recent responses to Fr Alex Reid) rather than understand them and what they feel. Being confident enough in your own views to feel able to dialogue is essential; but so then is a willingness to listen and take on board points which the other side raises which are valid. We have a significant journey to arrive at this point but without it we are condemned to division and divisiveness for a very long time. I would argue that an explicitly nonviolent approach can help facilitate this, not just what I can learn from my opponent but also being able to be strong enough to dialogue. The refusal to dialogue should be considered a weakness rather than a strength.

The organisation Community Dialogue does a good job in facilitating community dialogue on issues of division, including a new publication recently on sectarianism. What does the 'other side' think and why do they think it? I would like to see a whole community festival approach to dialogue, that they come to our community festivals and we go to theirs, and we get to know what makes each other tick. I am not sufficiently naïve to imagine that this can happen overnight, any more than the peace walls, both physical and mental, which both separate and provide security can be pulled down overnight. Financial and other incentives in this area could help to melt or shake a wall or two. It seems sad that the money for cross-community activities has not been increased when it became more possible to do things on a cross-community basis following ceasefires and agreements.

I think we also need to rethink how politicians are elected and decisions made at referenda. The Westminster electoral system is the most divisive in the universe. Proportional Representation as used in the North for other elections, and generally in the Republic, is better, but it is not the best. For systems like de Borda which do reward cooperation, we need look no further than The de Borda Institute and Peter Emerson here in Belfast. It is usually said that people get the politicians they deserve but it might be truer to say that many political systems give people the politicians they do not deserve. Having a system which rewards divisiveness and then bemoaning said divisiveness is a bit like.......a rude phrase comes to mind.........what I'll say is that it is totally counter-productive. And what I have said about electing politicians applies equally to referenda - whether it's a border poll in the North or a referendum on abortion in the Republic; being forced to decide on a 'yes/no' basis is ludicrous and divisive and treats the electorate as immature.

We also need to encourage consensus decision making at small group level so that all can feel included. The consensus material on the INNATE website is some of the most visited material there.

I would also like to see the Christian churches rediscovering their prophetic role, not as agents for their own members but as followers of a prophet who taught a different way to love, rejected violence in his defence and was about breaking down barriers. A more profound discussion is needed on the nature of power and powerlessness.

All of this is possible if on a current count improbable. Humankind has big questions to answer in the near future; global warming, poverty in a globalised world, weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation - for which I blame those currently holding such weapons as much or more than I blame those wishing to acquire them, ethnic conflict in many societies, to name but a few. What on earth, to use an appropriate phrase, is the UK doing planning to replace its Trident 'nuclear deterrent' at a cost of squillions of pounds?

Nonviolence is both methodology and goal. For me it is the art of the possible. I hope I have been able to share some of those possibilities with you.

[ We hope to publish one or two other papers from the series; the topics were given in the last issue, NN 133. ]

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