It’s late Monday night, on the bus back from (outside) Hillsborough to Dublin, and though there was no time for a pint and a chat in the local pub, we’re carefully measuring the proverbial glass. Half-full? We had a spirited demo, where young militants literally ran past their more moderate elders, where authority was confronted, provocation was resisted and speech after speech comprehensively demolished this war-summit-under-peace-pretenses. Half-empty? Our crowd, gathered in the middle of nowhere at short notice, was small, a few thousand, it never got close to the brothers-in-blood in the castle; our allegedly leading anti-imperialist party, Sinn Fein, failed to bring big numbers the 15 miles from Belfast and continued to defend their intention to talk ‘peace’ with Bush and Blair on Tuesday.
On balance, we’re disappointed. We all know people whose work and personal commitments kept them away. But with the weight of the world on our shoulders, as the only peace people with a chance to get near potentates while Baghdad is being butchered, surely we in Ireland could have done better.
I say “we in Ireland” rather than Northern Ireland, because this was definitely an all-Ireland demonstration; sometimes, indeed, it felt like one of the recent Dublin demos transplanted. Several busloads came from Dublin — home of one of today’s named war dead, Ian Malone from working-class Ballyfermot and the Irish Guards regiment of the British army. More buses and cars came from elsewhere across the border. Among the Northerners, more distant Derry seemed better represented than Belfast.
Our wandering four-hour bus journey north from Dublin was good fun, considering the mood of injured outrage among Irish people about this summit. Rita Fagan from the inner city led us in a rousing rendition of ‘Victor Jara’ while the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) shunted us into a side road; the Trots from the Socialist Workers Party tried to sell papers and start a debate about whether we should block the Sinn Fein speaker or just boo him; Shannon ‘Plowshares’ activist Ciaron O’Reilly explained his group’s legal strategy, and his pacifist colleague Deirdre Clancy spoke of the inspiration she took from her grandfather’s efforts in the War of Independence (1919-21) that rid Ireland of imperialism. (Her words were only slightly undermined by the British army watchtowers we were driving past at the time.)
Spirits sank when we reached Sprucefield shopping centre, our gathering place. We shared the car-park with the B-team of the international media, those too low-powered to merit accreditation for Hillsborough village proper, two miles up the road. About 10 white vans were there, their cameras and powder-puffed reporters faced with a grim choice of backdrop: the Anglo-American twin towers of Marks & Spencer and McDonald’s, and a combination of spiky fence, scraggly trees and the grey skies of Ulster.
We waited a while for the promised Sinn Fein troops to materialise. They turned up by the dozen or two at a time rather than the hundreds — the rank-and-file evidently as confused as the leadership.
Marches always look better once they are stretched along the road, and ours was no exception, once we left Sprucefield to walk south along the A1 toward the next roundabout, past roadworks, a Shell station, a used-car lot, all the attractions of this lovely corner of Ireland, and not a spectator in sight — scarcely even a cop. Up the empty highway we enjoyed the usual clever signs and slogans (e.g. “This is what democracy smells like!” If you want to know more, get to your nearest demo this weekend.) About a mile up the road, in vaguely agricultural country, we reached a small stage, set up by the North’s trade-union congress leadership (appropriate, some said, that it sat in the middle of the road). The front of the march was largely young and southern-based socialists, whose leaders held a quick ‘conference’ on the grass median. “Where’s the police line?” “Another half-mile up the road.” “Let’s go.”
Their ‘decision’ probably validated a collective fait accompli: the open road ahead was very tempting, and it shamed a shame to come all the way to the wee North and not sample the cross-community local custom of marching right up to the riot shields. Most of the marchers ran on past both sides of the baffled union leaders on the platform.
Then there the police were, still nearly a mile outside Hillsborough, positioned across a narrow side road where the adjoining fields and hedges were nearly impassable: the PSNI, in front of armored cars and wearing ski masks under their riot helmets to conceal their features. Some shields still had “Royal Ulster Constabulary” labels stuck on them. There was no way past, so we put up some verbal resistance (“Police protect the bombers! Police protect the bombers!”).
A handful of close-cropped men suddenly appeared, one of them up a lamppost (where a “For Sale” sign had been scrawled with “Irish Peace Process”) waving a Betsy-Ross Stars and Stripes and shouting support for the war. A light object or two flew in their directions, but the anti-war group largely ignored the provocation, and argued reasonably with one bewildered interloper. What was he doing among us, when the pro-warriors had called their own prayer vigil (yes, it’s like that over here too) in front of Belfast City Hall.
Back in the middle of the road, the speeches continued. Those of us who had gone forward to see the whites of the eyes of the Empire’s Protectors were back in time to hear what were probably the most important speeches, from our own parochial perspective.
Sinn Fein’s articulate vice president, Mitchell McLaughlin, tried simultaneously to denounce the war and to pull anti-imperialist rank against his party’s critics, but was nearly drowned out by boos and chants of “Boycott Bush!”, surely a novel experience for the party’s Northern leadership. Calling for unity, he rather petulantly complained that when his party was on the frontline of struggle against repression and censorship, they didn’t have big crowds (“the likes of you”, he wanted to say) to support them.
McLaughlin had the misfortune to be followed, and buried, by his Derry neighbour, socialist Eamonn McCann, the best Irish agit-orator of the last 35 years — only Ian Paisley comes close. Clad in black t-shirt and jeans, his right-index finger gradually emerging from his pocket to slice any air that dared approach him, he took us quickly, brilliantly through the struggles of the Middle East and Ireland, forecast the future of resistance in Iraq and stabbed home the eternally pertinent question, “What side are you on?” To the SDLP and Sinn Fein he cried: “I ask them even at this late stage to think about it tonight, if word went out from this place tomorrow to George Bush and to the world that democratic leaders here in Ireland had said in simple, clear terms: ‘We will not bend the knee to you. We will not allow you to use the yearning for peace of the Irish people as a cover for your imperial adventure in Iraq!”
For a moment you could almost believe that McLaughlin would change his mind, that he’d call Gerry Adams and they’d beg off meeting Bush.
It won’t happen. Sinn Fein and the IRA are preparing some small gesture as their next offering in the eternal ‘peace process’, and feel they need to avoid embarrassing Blair. The Shinners find themselves outflanked on the left, and not only by the likes of McCann’s Socialist Workers, whose West Belfast poster mocks an old Gerry Adams quote about the IRA with “Imperialism: It Hasn’t Gone Away, You Know”. Even the SDLP’s Mark Durkan, with fewer immediate political asses to cover than Adams, can admit to being unhappy about this most cynical summit.
Back in the parking lot, the cops were dressed to kill and guarding a closed-up McDonald’s. They must have had us confused with some other protesters. We were tired and wanted to go home, to argue about what we had done and seen.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes a weekly column in the Irish Times. He can be reached at email@example.com