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“We intend to give George Bush a welcome he won’t forget.” No, that’s not the Northern Ireland Tourist Board talking — it’s Richard Boyd Barrett, chair of the Irish Anti-War Movement (IAWM). When the President choppers into the grounds of Hillsborough Castle on Monday evening, protesters from all over Ireland (and, one hopes, beyond) plan to put paid to the notion, advanced in some corners of the British press, that he chose this island, like the Azores last month, to approach Tony-territory while remaining as far removed as possible from the global peace movement.
Unfortunately, the protesters will in fact be rather far removed from the Bush-Blair summit. Not for us the pretty little Protestant village of Hillsborough, overlooked by the 18th-century castle where the queen and her ilk stay and entertain when they’re in “the province”. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (you may remember them as the RUC) has reportedly decided to corral us, along with the international media, in the car-park of Sprucefield shopping centre, in the shadow of McDonald’s golden arches, two miles away.
Disgusted though we are at that treatment, at the thumbed nose to Irish anti-war sentiment, at the cynical use by Bushies and Blairites of the North’s interminable “peace process” as a warmongers’ backdrop, we must admit there’s a certain poetry to the occasion. Even two miles away, we’re sure to hear the imperial echoes.
Hillsborough, you see, is a typical relic of the 17th-century “plantation” of Ulster, a process that we sometimes like to soft-pedal in the name of harmonious community relations. The local tourist body’s website strays toward the historical reality when it notes, without apparent irony: “The Hill family built the whole of the village of Hillsborough, starting with the fort in 1650.” No family is complete without one, huh? As an example of a sort of privatised military occupation, the settlement of Ireland has few equals; Jay Garner, take note.
Just to prove that pacification eventually works a treat, the website continues by calling the old fortress “a fine example of an artillery fort but with pretty additions in the 18th century. Surrounded by parks, Hillsborough, pretty as a picture, provides lots to see in a small space. Start at the Courthouse in the middle of the Square and be shown the full range of possibilities.” At the time of writing it’s not clear how many protesters may yet get to see the inside of the courthouse, or enjoy the full range of possibilities on offer in the North’s criminal-justice system.
For all the prettifying, Hillsborough is more a fortress than ever — three decades of IRA activity made sure of that. That’s the real reason the summit has come here: the North has a security apparatus that even London can’t match. Remember, during the 1991 Iraq-attack the IRA was able to land a mortar in the garden of 10 Downing Street while John Major was holding a “war cabinet” meeting. Now the IRA guns are quiet, but the infrastructure for handling protesters and more substantial “threats” is still in place here.
The immediate local population should certainly prove little bother. Dubya’s personal unpopularity is virtually universal outside the US, but the proud tradition of British military service and loyalty to Her Majesty among Northern unionists make them rather less likely protesters once a war involving “Crown Forces” is in progress. The major unionist parties, who were never entirely sure about Bill Clinton even when he was attracting thousands of cheering admirers to public rallies in the North, are pro-war and now extending the warmest welcome to his successor, with Ian Paisley’s DUP moaning about not being asked to the Bush meetings just because they oppose the power-sharing agreement currently in place.
Nationalist Ireland, North and South, is visibly squirming. The Taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, goes north from Dublin on Tuesday to play his part in the War & Peace farce. His attitude to the Iraq invasion? With Shannon Airport still an important stop-over for troop reinforcements, he and his party have spent the last three weeks struggling to find that elusive word that lies somewhere between “oppose” and “support” — even “regret” sounds too rude, it seems. Last week, when he probably knew Bush was coming (though we didn’t yet), in parliament Bertie wandered off into strange musings about how the war wasn’t really “pre-emptive” because the US and UK had written to the Security Council to let ’em know it was coming. (Was he thinking, Bush-like, of pre-something-else, we all wondered?)
The Northern nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, are against the war; the latter has been fairly visible in anti-war activities both sides of the Border. However, the SF leadership is defying the call by other anti-war campaigners to boycott Bush; they say they’ll tell him what they think of the war when they see him, but are too far stepped in to the Clintonite precedent that declares Washington to be a big player here to back away from even this transparent piece of New Labour stage management. Gerry Adams says the visit is, wait for it, “a strong signal of President Bush’s support” for the 1998 Belfast Agreement. “Sinn Fein will be pleased to discuss the Irish peace process with President Bush and Prime Minister Blair.”
Any Irish nationalist who can keep his Hillsborough breakfast down while Bush and Blair strike their poses of righteous militarism surely has an iron stomach. For a Sinn Feiner, less than a decade removed from a brutal “war” in which the British and their loyalist allies employed, shall we say, extra-judicial means (everything from torture to shoot-to-kill), it might be best to avoid eating altogether. The British military and media attitude to the war has reveled in the allegedly superior interpersonal skills of Our Boys, honed in 200 years of colonial managementA story from last week’s Guardian is typical:
“A British officer was alarmed when the American marines who were escorting him through the port of Umm Qasr let loose a volley of rifle fire at a house on the outskirts of town. The officer told Reuters reporter David Fox: ‘They said they had been sniped out from there a few days ago so they like to give them a warning every now and then. That is something we [the British] would never condone.’ A US special forces officer said it was sometimes difficult to contain the exuberance of men doing the actual fighting.”
Another expert contrasts the Yankee exuberance with British “precision, guile and forbearance”.
This doesn’t play well in most Irish homes, where disgust at bloodstained imperial hypocrisy is instinctive, and the moral superiority of shelling and besieging Basra as opposed to bombing and shooting-up Nasiriyah doesn’t quite compute. Some of us even recall a few checkpoint incidents in Ireland, not so long ago, when the trigger-happy lads were British.
Even among people far removed from support for the IRA and other outgunned “terrorists”, there has been “sneaking regard” here for the Iraqis, fighting this war by the Michael Collins anti-colonial guerrilla rulebook, as amended by Hamas.
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