Over the summer I attended an engaging seminar run by Corrymeela with a range of local and international participants examining the challenges of tackling paramilitarism in our society. A participant from England (who is active in tackling extremism there) related how he sensed a palpable fear in the room. People from a range of public agencies, as well as those working in the voluntary sector, voiced their nervousness about the risks involved in standing up to these organisations.
During the discussions that followed, a theme that kept re-emerging was the need to develop a ‘civic courage’ in standing up to these groups and addressing failures in systems that allow people to be threatened, extorted, intimidated and brutalised by these groups.
“Apathy is not neutral – it is a kind of corrosive fear”
It reminded me of a conversation I had over 30 years ago with Ciaran McKeown – one of the founders of the Peace People and someone I regard as a personal mentor and inspiration. He told me – “Apathy is not neutral – it is a kind of corrosive fear”. It has always stuck with me – and chimes with the well-known mis-quote attributed to Edmund Burke – “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
Having worked for many years on the issue of the impact of paramilitary violence on young people – I am struck with how this brutal practice has continued over 5 decades with the State (both the local administration when we had one and the UK Government) at best ignoring the problem and at worst being complicit in allowing it to continue. Politicians have not distinguished themselves either – it is seen as a peripheral and uncomfortable issue – and certainly not a vote-winner. While some have issued condemnations there has been little in the way of engagement about how to move neighbourhoods and our society as a whole away from this kind of brutality.
The recent public information campaign under the heading ‘Ending the Harm’ is a critical watershed. It is the first time in over 50 years that the State has stepped up on this issue – and having done so, we need to ensure that it does more to protect those who are vulnerable to these groups and that the groups themselves are dismantled.
One rather weird phenomenon is that sometimes the fear of these groups seems to increase the more remote the person is from the groups themselves. I suppose that is the nature of terror – people have a hugely inflated sense of the capacity and threat that these organisations embody – and no one wants to be the person to stick their head above the parapet – or should I say trench? We need to dispel the myths of these groups’ propaganda, and get our fear into proportion. Professor Duncan Morrow recently coined the phrase “The Societal Shrug” as the response to these violent attacks – a collective disconnect and sense that I can’t do anything about this. The journalist Brian Rowan told me he believes it was a deliberate ‘political shrug’ – not part of the ‘ceasefires’ or the conditions surrounding the Good Friday Agreement. Recently I have witnessed another phenomenon which I will call “The Societal Squirm”. When people in public agencies are confronted with the collective failure to address these groups many of them look physically uncomfortable and will do anything to avoid the hard conversations.
A friend confided that she really admired the #StopAttacks film which I had helped a group of young people to make about the impact of paramilitary assaults. She also admitted she hadn’t shared it, as she didn’t want to have to deal with the comments that might come in response. I could tell she was feeling a little guilty about it. It got me thinking.
Civic courage doesn’t have to be about the brave gestures. Not everyone can have the courage of Stephen Hughes – the youth worker in Divis who recently gave an interview to the Stacey Dooley programme in which he openly criticised paramilitary groups for their abuse of young people. Certainly more people should stand with him – but civic courage can take much more mundane forms.
Individuals can do their bit – whether it is ‘liking’ or ‘retweeting’ something on social media with which they agree, discussing the issue with their friends and family, or thinking “…am I doing all I can?” in their role in society. We’ve all had those moments – where we witness sectarianism, racism, misogyny or some other demeaning and abusive act, and decide not to speak or act out of fear of the consequences. We also all know that we usually feel better about ourselves when we do act or speak out. I am not sure I can remember a more important time to do so – whether on this issue or the wider culture of fear and hatred that seems to permeate so much of politics, the media and public life these days.
Be more brave. It encourages bravery in others.