February 16, 2007 at 2:48 pm | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

The Politics of ‘Moral Force’ – Davitt and Saro-Wiwa 

I want to talk about the politics of moral force. As a form of political activity – that is, as a means to achieve social and political change – it can be contrasted with conventional, parliamentary politics on the one hand and with physical force or violence on the other. Moral force is a powerful tool available to anybody with sufficient courage. It involves saying no to being de-humanised in any way and instead asserting and insisting on our dignity and rights as free human beings. Moral force is about bearing witness to our humanity and being prepared to pay the price of confronting those powerful and necessarily aggressive forces which curtail and diminish that humanity. Moral force is not just a tactical strategy. It is intrinsically necessary as a statement about ourselves, about our values, about our disposition towards our comrades and perhaps above all towards our adversaries. In the long term we and our adversaries have the same interests. Moral force is an affirmation of our common humanity in the midst of our struggles. It encompasses not just our actions but our words too. Our words reveal who we are, our spirit, our dream. The means we use to achieve our social and political objectives tell us about the goals we have in mind – the type of world we want to bring about. Moral force requires moral courage because at the time it is employed its position on the side of justice is not necessarily recognized or accepted. Indeed, it is inevitably contested. Moral courage is standing up at the time and taking your position in the always ambiguous uncertain ground of the present. History will determine who was right but history belongs to the future.

 To illustrate this idea I want to talk about three events and two individuals. The events are Irishtown, Co. Mayo in April 1879; Ogoni in March 1993; and North Mayo in the summer of 2005. The two individuals are Michael Davitt and Ken-Saro Wiwa. What these events and people have in common is that they each illustrate moral force and courage in action. While each situation is different and clearly distinguishable they each involve an assertion of human dignity and a refusal to be oppressed or servile to those with power and resources. 


Let me begin then with Irishtown. Mayo of the 1870s was in a horrific social and economic condition. Starvation was a reality for many and during the decade there were growing concerns that there would be a repeat of the Great Famine of the 1840s. It is estimated that during that Famine 100,000 people died in County Mayo alone out of a population then estimated at perhaps 250,000. The 1870s were characterised by growing levels of eviction whereby tenant families would be forcibly removed from their homes and lands because of their inability to pay escalating levels of rent insisted on by the landlords. Often their miserable dwellings would then be ‘tumbled’ so there was no hope of return. The desperation of the tenants was accentuated by a culture of deference, passivity and fear which made them accept their lot as though it were fated and simply their unavoidable destiny in this life. (A phenomenon well described by Paulo Freire in South America). As Davitt wrote in his ‘The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland’:

It was always England’s soldiers, England’s laws, or England’s judges that confronted the tenants, cottiers, or labourers of the land whenever, singly or in combination, they had to assert the ordinary claims of humanity, in illegal or other ways, against this despotic social and political ruling power. Neither law nor land, homes or government, belonged to the people. They were treated as intruders and outlaws in their fatherland.

There had been some efforts to redress the shocking condition of the Mayo tenantry most notably with the founding of the Mayo Tenant’s Defence Association in 1978 chaired by JJ Louden from Westport and with my great-grand uncle James Daly as secretary. James Daly had publicly called for the establishment of a land movement in the west as far back as 1875. It was Daly who invited the newly released prisoner Michael Davitt to tour Mayo in 1878 to see the appalling destitution in the County and who sponsored his visit.

 In Jan 1879 a group of tenants from the Bourke estate in Irishtown approached Daly and asked him to publicise their grievances in the Connaught Telegraph which Daly edited at the time. Their rents were rising and many were under threat of eviction. Instead Daly proposed that they hold a public meeting to highlight their problems in particular and tenant issues in general. That meeting was held on Sunday April 20 and was an extraordinary success. The crowd was variously estimated as anything from 4,000 to 15,000 people – quite an extraordinary turnout at the time and given the conditions. Daly chaired the meeting which was addressed by a number of local figures including one of the MPs for Mayo, John O’Connor-Power. Three resolutions were passed two of which had been drafted by Michael Davitt. 

This meeting had an incredible consequence both immediate and long-term. The immediate result was that the eviction notices were withdrawn from the Bourke tenants and the rent was reduced by 25%. Other local landlords followed suit. More generally though to quote a recent book on the subject by Bernard O’Hara ‘The Irishtown meeting ignited the flame that was to change the face of rural Ireland, and this small Mayo village became ‘the cradle of the Land League’’. In time further meetings were held in Mayo and elsewhere and the land league developed. What had happened? What was so significant about this event? The people had literally stood up and said no to their situation.


  • deference gone
  • empowerment
  • grassroots organisation – not parliamentary force (though the link with the Irish Party was crucial to its success), not physical force but moral force (what later came to be called passive resistance)
  • new repertoire of moral force – meetings, publicising grievances (shaming), boycotting or social ostracism, rent withdrawals, non-occupying evicted lands
  • ultimately a social revolution achieved incrementally over a number of years but inexorably

 The Land League illustrates the value and effectiveness of moral force. A social revolution was achieved using almost entirely peaceful means. But what is required is discipline, clear and focused objectives, patience and resilience. The most crucial point is that the means by which the Land League acted were itself part of the process of the conscientisation and politicisation of the tenant farmers. Both exclusively parliamentary means and physical force means involve handing power over to smaller elite groups. Acting by moral force becomes a praxis that in itself creates the society and world you desire. Means and ends become fused. By saying no to something and by how you say no with dignity and resolve you are already saying yes to something else and telling us about the world you will build. Bitter means will inevitably lead to bitter outcomes. Moral means lead to moral outcomes.


The exact same principles are illustrated in the great revival of the Ogoni people from 1990 following the foundation of Mosop. There are of course many people here who know far more about these events than I do and experienced them directly. As part of their campaign for Ogoni rights a large protest march was planned for January 4, 1993. Again, as in the Irishtown meeting, this was to be a demonstration of moral force – non-parliamentary and non-violent. Again it was to be a public manifestation of solidarity and commitment, or of a moral refusal to accede to injustice and a moral affirmation of rights and human dignity. As Ken Saro-Wiwa had said:

‘And finally we must begin to build action to transform our current advantages into political scores. This is not, I repeat, NOT a call to violent action. We have a moral claim over Nigeria. This moral claim arises as much from the murder of 30,000 Ogoni people during the civil war by Ojukwu’s followers as from the usurpation of US$30 billion worth of our oil and the destruction of our ecology amounting to the same sum. Our strength derives from this moral advantage, and that is what we have to press home.’ (52)

As with Irishtown, bringing together so many people in a co-ordinated march in four centers across Ogoni held risks of violence from either the security forces or indeed the marchers. Again to quote Saro-Wiwa:

 Four men and where possible a woman had been assigned the task of forming committees in each village; and the village committees in turn had been given the responsibility of ensuring that everyone turned out for the protest march along with dance troupes, masquerades and all such.One word about the festival aspect of the march. Joy should not have been a part of so serious and monumental a protest. But I was very worried about a number of things. True, we had told everyone that we were not going to be violent; that not a stone would be thrown. But how could we be sure that this would be carried out? Crowd control would be another problem. If we could not keep the men, women and children who would turn out busy, then the devil would find them an occupation. Hence the decision to keep them entertained with spectacle and song. 

In the event the day was an incredible success. 300,000 people marched throughout Ogoni almost 2/3 of the entire population. I quote Saro-Wiwa again:

‘’The empowerment which had enabled them to stand up to their oppressors at long last was the issue of the day’ (85).

 ‘When it was my turn to speak, I mounted the rostrum and sized up the crowd. From a vantage point above everyone, I saw a new profile of the Ogoni people, a profile I had not identified. I saw eagerness, determination and joy on the young faces that looked up to the men on the rostrum. And I knew that a new seed had germinated and everything would have to be done to water, nurture, grow and harvest it. Ogoni would surely not be the same again’ (88). 

That day, 4 January, was a truly liberation day: a day on which young and old, able and disabled, rich and poor, all of Ogoni came out to reassert themselves and to give notice that the nation had come of age – that it would not accept its destruction passively. We had surmounted the psychological barrier of fear. Ogoni would never be the same again. (92).

You can hear in this account echoes of the Irishtown meeting – the loss of deference, of servility, the recovery of pride and dignity. Again, the means used were part of the very process of liberation.


North Mayo 2005

Finally, the third event illustrating the value and necessity of moral force – North Mayo 2005. As you know on September 30th  last year five men – the Rossport Five – were discharged from prison by the High Court in Dublin. They had served ninety-four days in Cloverhill prison for refusing to obey a court order directing them not to interfere with work on the proposed Shell pipeline in North Mayo. When they entered prison on June 29th they were almost entirely unknown outside a cluster of small villages and communities. By the time they left prison they had become figures of national and, even to some extent, international prominence.

When the men were released they entered a different world from that of ninety-four days previously. Then, the scenes both inside and outside the court were nothing short of horrific. People lay on the footpath overcome with grief and despair. Others stood shocked and numbed that peaceful protest could have resulted in an indefinite prison sentence. When the men entered prison, the Corrib gas project seemed a done deal, certain to go ahead. No one was paying any attention to the demands of locals. Shell had already begun work on excavating peat from the site of their proposed gas processing plant. However, by the time the men were released all of this had changed. The following day the men led a crowd of 5,000 people through the streets of Dublin. That evening, in the early hours of the morning, they returned to Mayo greeted by bonfires and many hundreds of their neighbours.


However, the focus on the men may have obscured the extraordinary events which had unfolded in North Mayo through the summer of 2005. In effect, a local community had revolted and refused to accept a development project that they felt had been imposed on the area. Their refusal was such that irrespective of the law, irrespective of the consequences to themselves, they brought the entire Shell project to a stop. This was exemplified on the Monday morning following the men’s imprisonment and on the day following an extraordinary rally in Castlebar which was attended by a huge crowd of many thousands. Some hundreds of people gathered at the gate of the proposed Shell refinery site in North Mayo and spontaneously decided not to permit Shell lorries enter the site for further peat excavation. A Garda inspector arrived in due course and the people gathered there fully expected that they would all be arrested and charged. In the event, the Gardai chose not to act against the local people and the demonstration continued causing a complete closure of Shell’s worksite. There had been no violence, no aggression – just a moral assertion of rights and dignity.

In effect, people were saying no to being treated as objects without a voice. They were saying no to being exposed to unacceptable levels of risk, no to their families, community and place being diminished and threatened for the profits of a multi-national corporation. But they were also affirming community values and democracy. At the heart of the community’s opposition was their profound sense that the insertion of a huge processing plant and associated pipelines into their community, without any participation from themselves and without any long-term benefit, would irrevocably transform their place from a locale of intimacy and familiarity to something threatening and alien. Therefore, to understand the Corrib gas conflict you have to see the world in a particular way. You have to know the value of place and what that means. You have to know what it is to feel invaded, to be afraid and to have no power to resist. You have to know what it is like to be ignored, to be ridiculed.

In North Mayo however people fought back and refused to allow their place be taken from them. Their stance is therefore a moment of optimism in a world of growing ecological decline and political disengagement. Yet neither the community nor the five men who went to prison were heroes. These were ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation. They did not seek out this position – these events were thrust upon them. Everything that they did they did because they felt they had no choice. They opposed the Shell project because they believed that they had to do so in order to protect themselves and their families. The five men resisted Shell’s efforts to access lands in the village of Rossport because this was the logical consequence of their opposition to the project. They broke an order of the court because that was the logical inevitability of continuing to protect themselves. They accepted imprisonment because they believed that they could not agree to cease their opposition. They remained in prison indefinitely because they could not accept that they must accede to Shell’s project. People in their villages brought Shell’s work to an end, risking imprisonment themselves, because they could not permit their neighbours to be incarcerated while Shell’s project was permitted to proceed. Thus everything was driven by necessity and events. If this was heroism it was heroism of the ordinary kind, heroism that all people are capable of when they feel left without choice.

 The events may have been triggered ostensibly by a single issue but showing through is the enduring quality of the human spirit. We live in a cynical age where motives are constantly questioned and where value is nearly always measured in monetary terms. From the beginning of the Corrib gas conflict, the concerns of locals were dismissed by crude stereotypes. They were accused of seeking greater financial compensation. They were accused of not understanding what Shell was proposing. They were accused of being left-wing ideologues. They were accused of being luddites and anti-progress. The Corrib gas project itself was imbued with some of the most dominant myths of modernity, that industrialisation equals development, that industrial development equals progress, that fossil fuels must always be exploited.  In resisting these stereotypes and myths one can discern in this campaign a progression from an initial reaction to the gas proposal towards an affirmation of a particular set of values. It is in this sense that the North Mayo protests were not simply defensive and reactive. They were also assertions of autonomy, participation, and democratic rights. In short, people insisted that they had a legitimate view of their own and a distinct version of what constitutes development and modernisation. The methods used perfectly exemplify what I am describing as moral force.   

Davitt and Saro-Wiwa

I want to briefly turn now to the two men I have already referred to – Davitt and Saro-Wiwa. I do so to illustrate how the methods of moral force are tied up not just with achieving political objectives but also with our very humanity, who we ourselves are, who we wish to be as human beings. In a political struggle one can be transformed very easily. One can be diminished and embittered by politics and campaigning. We have all seen this happen many times to very good and committed people. It is Yeats who captured this best in his great lines from the wonderful poem ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’:

 We had fed the heart on fantasies,The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,More substance in our enmitiesthan in our loves But one can also be humanised and ennobled (if one can use such a word nowadays) by conflict. Some people become enriched and manage to touch deep personal and human resources that allow them to access a vision and depth of experience that permits them to transcend the immediate issues they are campaigning on and to articulate values and principles that are of universal significance. Both Davitt and Saro-Wiwa attained these levels which is precisely why their names live on and will live on wherever human beings invoke principles of justice and humanisation. Both were deepened by their political experiences. Both asserted the power of argument. Both asserted the centrality of human dignity. Take Davitt’s extraordinary will which he wrote in 1904. In it he writes: 

My diaries are not to be published without my wife’s permission. On no account must anything harsh or censorious, written in said diaries by me about any person dead or alive, who has ever worked for Ireland, be printed, published or used so as to give pain to any friend or relative. To all my friends I leave kind thoughts; to my enemies the fullest forgiveness; and to Ireland the undying prayer for the absolute freedom and independence which it was my life’s ambition to try and obtain for her.

Davitt moved from a simple Fenianism through the politics of the Land League to ever wider humanitarian interests. He wrote accounts of his travels in Australia where he drew critical attention to the plight of mine workers and Aborigines. He wrote about the Boer war and championed the case of East European Jews in his book ‘Within the Pale’. He became a firm supporter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Davitt argued for women’s rights, a political party for the British working class (the Labour Party which came to fruition) and he supported free non-denominational education. He abandoned his early belief in violence as a means of effecting change in favour of the most potent tools of all – his ideas and his words.

These too were the means favoured by Ken Saro-Wiwa.

 “I am a man of ideas in and out of prison — my ideas will live.” In his statement before the court which tried him (which he could not read) he said: My lord, We all stand before history. I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginilization and economic strangulation, angered by the devestation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization, I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated.On another occasion in prison he wrote: 

‘I warned that, in my absence, the violence which I feared most might erupt. I prayed that this should not be, as I was more than anxious to keep the struggle at a non-violent level.’ (25)

 There are depths of humanity here being plumbed. Despite the incredible suffering, the horrific injustice which he and his people experienced, Saro-Wiwa retained an inclusive vision of peace and ultimate reconciliation. In Camus’ great allegorical novel The Plague Dr. Rieux, who is leader of the groups who fight against the onset of the plague, says: There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency. 

Part of the necessity and vitality of moral force is that its advocates can look beyond the immediate to the time when the conflict is over and life must be restored. As the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess wrote:

All human (and non-human) beings have long-term interests in common.

 Why do we need this?  ·        We live now in an increasingly brutalised world. Images of violence are dominant and a tolerance of violence is thereby created. Iraq etc. ·        We live in a time of ecological devastation. Global warming has begun. Oil and gas companies are in principle unethical.·        We have a politics without a moral compass.·        We live in a world of ethnic, religious and cultural hatreds and intolerance. Liberalism has become a term of abuse. There is thus much at stake. In our campaigning and protesting we must meet each other on the plain of our common humanity. Despite our issues, despite the exigencies and imperatives of our struggles, we forget our common humanity at our peril.     References A month and a day & letters (1995), Ken Saro-Wiwa. Ayebia Press. ISBN 0-9547023-5-2Davitt (2006), Bernard O’Hara. Mayo County Council. ISBN 0-9519624-77


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