We Need to Talk About Symbols

Brexit
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I have always had a certain ambivilance bordering on antipathy to flags. Flags are territory markers, symbols of possession. They are also a way of saying you are either in or out. If you are one of us you are welcome; everyone else ‘Scram!’

We say patriots wrap themselves in the flag. But really, they wrap themselves in tribalism. Underneath that tribalism is the rattle of sabers and the thunder of war drums, of winners chest thumping and losers being ground under a boot.

Flags are ugly things to me. We aren’t dogs that need to mark territory to find our way home.  To some, flags may be a symbol of belonging, but really they are also symbols of exclusion.

Living close to the boundary with Northern Ireland and, having ‘married in’ with a native of that part of the world, I know all about flags. Mercifully, those flags have become less prevalent since 1998, but there are still neighbourhoods that fly the tribal colours and we know that we can never belong. There are certain times of year where certain neighbourhoods are avoided while they have their annual tribal rites.

And seeing that profusion of tribal colours incites an unease. American-born I can go anywhere, but there are areas where  my husband would immediately feel unwelcome, uneasy if not threatened. It’s got much better, but the point is that those symbols are potent and they can instill fear, anxiety, terror.

I want to ban all flags. Because all are, in a sense, flags of convenience, ways to oil the wheels of power over, to profit the few at the expense of the many. They are symbols drenched in blood and suffering. Some glory in that sacrifice of human life. The truth is that there is never glory, only a trail of grief generation upon generation.

Resistance is more important than ever. Tribalism is pushing its unmasked face into ours. And how can you respond non-violently?

I live near to the border with Northern Ireland and there is much discussion about whether Brexit will mean that we go back to the  ‘hard border’ days prior to the Peace Treaty that created a renaissance in this region, much of it funded by the EU. No one here wants to go back to the days of delays crossing the border, customs checks, military presence.  No one wants a hard border.

A bridge between the villages of Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) and Blacklion, Co. Cavan (Republic of Ireland) is an international boundary. During the annual summer fair an art installation by Rita Duffy was mounted right on the international boundary line. “Soften the Border” used soft furnishings and knitted work (and The Markethouse in Blacklion is host to many avid crochet and knitting sessions) to make a symbolic point.

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And there was not Union Jack or Tricoulour in sight. On one side was a small purple blanket. The other was crochet granny squares.

No tribal colours or sabers or drums. This region has had enough of that to last three lifetimes and it brought a great deal of destruction, sorrow, heartache, depopulation and emigration, and economic decline.

They embraced this idea of peace, reconciliation, coexistence, respect. You don’t have to like everyone and their beliefs, but if you want a civil society without violence you need to suck it up and not rub your neighbour’s nose in something that will make them afraid, defensive and reactionary.

Which is why symbols of triumphalism of any kind, whether it is a flag or a statue of some supposed ‘hero’, have to go if we want to walk the talk of ‘love thy neighbour.’ Integration has a long way to go in the North, but over twenty years people have found common ground, most recently in the stand against fracking operations moving into the cross-border region.

Softly, persistantly, with craft, intelligence and wit, people can unite and resist without violence.

But absolutely, symbols are provocations and have the power to incite violence as much as they have the power to unite people behind the nobler call of equality, fairness, and power sharing.

If there must be flags, let them be wooly and soft, symbols of nurture and cherishing, warmth and welcome.

We need icons like this sculpture in Blacklion that looks across Lough MacNean to Fermanagh. We need symbols of hope that inspire us to keep walking the talk, no matter how imperfect our efforts  may be.

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Frack Off!

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AgitProp: it’s an old term I first heard back in the 1980s. It’s shorthand for Agitation and Propaganda. Which is what Resist and Persist comes down to. This week, the Republic of Ireland banned on-shore fracking. In a time where many feel oppressed by darkness and powerlessness, let me tell you a story to put some hope in your reservoir. Because people from a small county in a small country have put a ban on fracking into law this week.

In a time when people doubt the veracity of many stories, let me tell you what I witnessed these past seven years living here as I do in a village half in Cavan and half in Leitrim. I attended the very first meetings organised to resist fracking in what we felt was a profoundly toxic threat to a pristine environment, with a lot of areas of special scientific interest. You don’t put a geopark in a region that does not have 4star environmental credentials. Moreover, most of the economy was reliant on agriculture and tourism. Life and livelihoods were at stake here.

In 2010, the Leitrim Observer ran a story about how the Lough Allen Gas Basin was ripe for exploitation by international companies prospecting for natural gas using this new-fangled  hydraulic fracturing. Leitrim is rural and the most sparsely populated in the Republic; in the past it has been not wealthy and its land considered poor quality, except for raising cattle. Land was cheap, which is why it had attracted a number of ‘blow-ins’ from around the globe, many artists amongst them.

Leitrim has a proud political past, with Séan mac Diarmuda, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Indepence, being it’s most famous son. So when the Frackers came to town these were no ordinary hayseeds. They were politically savvy, well-educated, and, with the recession, many under-employed with time on their hands. Leitrim was also a national centre for organic horticuture and agriculture training. So there were plenty environmentally aware land lovers in the demographic.

By June 2010 the first meetings were held to investigate what this might mean to our rural idyll. While I have a friend who jokes that Irish politics runs on schism, I won’t say it was all smooth sailing at the beginning. But what came about was a unified resolve to resist and each individual came to play to their strengths. Some researched legislation in Ireland and the EU. Some scoured the internet for scientific research. Some looked at planning laws. Musicians wrote songs, cut CDs and sold them to fundraise. Artists designed t-shirts and sold them to raise awareness and fundraise. Sculptors, poets, singers, Irish dancers, photographers, film makers – all used their talents to raise awareness and spread the word. School children drew pictures that were posted in local libraries. My local GP joined the fray and concerned medical practitioners also got on side. People raised petitions and wrote to TDs and just about any media outlet to get it on the national agenda. Newletters colated information and were disseminated by email.

Social media linked us and spread information on research and international developments. Social media was important in keeping us connected. North American speakers came to Ireland to share their experiences in public meetings.

But what brought a lump to my throat was seeing the Tahany Dance Academy presentation set to The Lord of the Dance at The Upset Art Exhibtion, June 2012, in Drumshambo. Irish dancers from age four right up to teenage danced a story of farmers seeing off the frackers, not falling for the lure of big cheques, and retaining solidarity with their cattle and the land. You can see a video of it on You Tube at https://youtu.be/lpzjmEZK31w?list=RDlpzjmEZK31w

When you have kids telling a story in a traditional art, you just know you are on to a winner. How could we fail these kids? But there was plenty graft ahead.

And then the Frackers didn’t come to Leitrim. They decided to try their luck out first in Fermanagh, over the border in Northern Ireland, which comes under UK jurisdiction.  Bear in mind that there was a hard border with a military presence up until 2002 in Belcoo, where Tamboran wanted to do their test drill.

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There were meetings and demonstrations in Enniskillen. There was plenty of cross-border information sharing and support. When Farmers Against Fracking held a slow-mo tractor rally from Fermanagh to Stormont, farmers in potentially affected border counties joined the ranks.

A Protection Camp was formed outside the Belcoo quarry where Tamboran were planning to do the first test drill in Northern Ireland. And the Wednesday night session at Frank Eddies pub just moved up to the camp to entertain the campers. Since it was school holidays, many children were resident. Police presence was softly, softly. Indeed, when I was up at the Protection Camp I recognised a woman police officer I had spoken to at length about the experience of fracking in my home state of Pennsylvania. Friends knew police officers who had family connections with farming, too, and felt personally conflicted about having to ‘protect’ the frackers from the Protectors.

It looked very bleak. And then there was a Ten Minutes to Midnight Miracle.

Two weeks before the deadline (Tamboran had obtained a six month extention to test drill that was just about to expire) some brilliant, tenacious voluntary researcher hit gold. The quarry had never received official planning permission. Hasty court hearings determined that a full planning hearing would have to take place. It went up to the Environment Minister for Nothern Ireland, Mark Durkin. The drill pads were on the move to start at 6pm. Tweets reported photos of the drill pads on huge lorries at the roundabout in Manorhamilton, Leitrim at 5:30pm.

And then Durkin ruled that they could not drill! Tamboran had run out of time. They had had their extention and now time was up. The lorries had to turn around at that roundabout twenty miles from their target destination.

A region that had known sectarian paramilitary tension and action a decade earlier found a unity of purpose in saying ‘Frack Off Fermanagh.’ When a Service of Thanksgiving was held at the Protection Camp, there were Roman Catholic and Anglican priests officiating and the Letterbreen Silver Flute Band made the music! To have imagined something like that happening prior to the Good Friday Agreement in 1997 would have felt sheer fantasy bordering on lunacy. But here everyone was, being respectful of all traditions, united in a love of the land.

So that felt like the second miracle.

Northern Ireland isn’t included in this ban. The frackers did a test drill in Woodburn Forest in Antrim that could not be fended off, but hit water soon enough. Which was a bit of a no-brainer since the drill site was about 500 metres from the North Belfast City Reservoir. (Yes! Let’s drill for gas right next to where drinking water is reserved. How smart is that?!) Ireland is really unsuitable for the process. The land is so soggy you can trampolene on it!

What the frackers had not taken into account were the rural communities they proposed to invade who had plenty of savvy, wit, grit and sheer graft to offer to head them off. There were also lots of people here who are very skilled at getting ‘hard at the prayin’.

It’s taken seven years to get this ban.

It’s not perfect and it’s not completely over. We don’t know what might happen ‘up North’ especially now that Arlene Foster’s DUP is propping up the Tory administration in the UK; Foster’s husband is alleged to have some prime acreage ripe and ready for frackers. There are off-shore concerns not covered in the bill, which was the first private member’s bill to pass in the Dáil.  Yet, against many odds, it has happened. It has been no mean feat.

This is a story of resist and persist that I want to share. We need to know these proud stories of people not being mowed down or cowed by those who assume they are more powerful and more entitled to have their way over our say.

Ben Okri says of story  in A Way of Being Free

In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them…We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.

The story we had inside of us was a love of the land. The story we had inside us was that it was worth protecting. The story we made was that everyone had a talent to give in some way to help make it happen.

And it happened. And that gives me hope.