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15th February: A new movement against war is born?

Below we provide three reports on the huge anti-war demonstrations in Belfast, Dublin and London.  The Belfast and Dublin reports are by members of Socialist Democracy.  The third is by a supporter of the British paper ‘Socialist Resistance’.

Belfast 15th February march ‘biggest ever’

JM Thorn

28th February 2003

On Saturday 15th February Belfast witnessed the biggest anti-war demonstration ever staged in the city with 15,000 people taking part in a march to the City Hall.  Such numbers are unprecedented.  Previous anti-war marches, the most recent one being in December 2002, had attracted little more than a hundred.

Clearly the current threat of war with Iraq has struck a chord with the population, even in a place noted for an insular view of politics.  The composition of the march was very much a cross section of the population, ranging in age, community background and class.  Although officially organised by a steering group made up of the Irish Congress of Trade Union (ICTU) officials and members of the SWP-aligned Stop the War Coalition, it can in no way be claimed that they organised people to go on the demonstration.  They put up the posters and sent letters to the newspapers, and facilitated the event, but the decision of a large number of people to attend was largely spontaneous.  The organisers were predicting a demonstration of 2000 people, and admitted they were “overwhelmed” by the numbers that turned out.

When the demonstration formed up at the Arts College long lines of marchers filled the surrounding streets.  Banners from Derry, Enniskillen, Strabane, and Omagh testified to the wide range of areas people were drawn from.   There was a rapturous reception for a feeder march from west Belfast and a group who had walked all the way from Derry.   A wide range of political groups were represented including the SDLP, Women's Coalition, Irish Republican Socialist Party, Communist Party of Ireland, Fourthwrite, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a number of anarchist groups.  There was a range of trade union banners on display, although the only recognisable group of workers were firefighters.  The main left groups visible on the march were the Socialist Party and the SWP, although the huge numbers swamped them.   The demonstration was attended by the Alliance Party leader David Ford, even though his party isn’t against the war.  Gerry Adams was also in the crowd although Sinn Fein made little effort to identify itself with the demonstration as a party.

At the City Hall the demonstration was addressed by a number of speakers.  The tenor of these speeches were very much a reflection of the broad political character of the event.  The first was the reading of a joint statement from the leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches in Ireland expressing their concerns over the possibility of war.  This was not an anti-war statement.  The next speaker was Peter Bunting of ICTU who drew parallels between the peace process in Ireland and the threat of war in the Gulf.  His clear inference was that Bush and Blair should adopt a similar approach to Iraq as they do to Ireland, as if there was a qualitative difference between the two.  He was followed by Mairead Maguire of the Peace People and Jamal Iweida of the Belfast Islamic Centre, who both focused on the suffering of the people of Iraq.

The key political speech was delivered by Eamonn McCann, the radical journalist and member of the SWP.  He drew a huge applause when, aping Ian Paisley’s address to a rally opposing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he declared: "We have come here in a great cause to deliver a simple message. Bush and Blair can say what they will but Ulster says no."  The most important part of the speech was his call on the "great trade union movement of Ireland to give confidence to workers at Shannon Airport" to stop its use by the US military.  This was an issue raised by members of Socialist Democracy at a public meeting addressed by McCann a week earlier in Belfast.  At that meeting he had said that such action always comes from below, in effect absolving the trade union leadership of responsibility.  His call for ICTU to initiate action was therefore a welcome step forward that now needs to become a consistent strategy of the campaign.  Another person on the demonstration making this call was Mick O'Reilly, the sacked regional secretary of the ATGWU.  If this is a serious call however it will mean challenging ICTU and others in the anti-war movement to back up their rhetoric with action.

In terms of numbers the Belfast demonstration was hugely impressive.  Yet in political terms it was weak, barely rising above the level of pacifistic, moralistic and humanitarian arguments.  There was also the sense that there wasn’t much thought beyond the 15th February.  The hopes of the demonstrators were that they could halt the war, which are likely to be dashed, necessitates a major re-assessment of how the anti-war movement should advance.   This will provide the opportunity to the make harder political arguments and develop a movement that understands what the war drive is about and how to stop it.  Whatever effect this has in terms of numbers on the streets it will not be an argument that can be avoided and politically it will make the opposition to the war much stronger.

2000,000 march in Dublin

John McAnulty

28th February 2003

The February 15th march by 200,000 people in Dublin was the Irish reflection of a global phenomenon that most had forgotten – the power of the mass movement.  Everything fell away before the sheer mass of protest.  The state forces hid, but there was no disorder, as the common purpose of the protesters imposed their own order, brushing off the odd counter-demonstrator in favour of war.

In this sudden world of humanity, democracy, and solidarity, the forgotten spontaneity and native creativity of humans was rediscovered.  What was striking was the range of home-made posters and slogans, interspersed with those in costume acting out the horror of war. ‘What part of no don’t you understand Bush?’, ‘Blair – you’re barking up the wrong Bush!’ And the sublimely Irish ‘Down with this sort of thing!’

The other side of the coin of spontaneity was a lack of political focus.  About a third of the crowd refused all political literature and only about a tenth showed an eagerness to find out what analyses were being offered.  There was a certain dreamlike quality – people were profoundly unconvinced by their leaders warmongering but seemed not yet to feel the need to break from their existing political affiliations.

Perhaps the biggest problem was at the end.  In common with most other demonstrations the protestors went home.  They did not have a structure where they could meet, reflect on what they had done and plan further action.

The greatest possibilities lie with the massive numbers of young people.  They have learnt something of their potential but the tendency is to turn to direct action alone and impatiently dismiss the immediate task of converting mass action into a mass movement.

London March threatens Blair

Liam Mac Uaid

25th February 2003

The lowest estimate for the number of people on London’s anti-war march was 750 000. That was from pro-war papers like Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Sun’. Other estimates went up as high as 2 million. One indisputable fact is that it was the largest demonstration Britain has ever seen and only the mass celebrations at the end of World War 2 matched it. Another is that these people were there to intervene in the political debate on the war against Iraq and they were saying that they do not want it.

Virtually every strand of opinion in British society was present. There were large numbers of church groups, Muslim organisations, unions, student organisations and hundreds of thousands of people whose only previous political activity was voting. The press made much of this diversity and it is one of the anti-war movement’s strengths at the moment when the main task is to prevent the war. The Liberal Democrats, spotting a bandwagon, turned out a contingent of 4000 people and managed to get their leader on the platform. When the shooting starts and the anti-war movement needs to stand up against a patriotic tide this heterogeneity will be the cause of much friction.

 You wouldn’t expect the Tories to be there but the handful of Labour Party banners was significant. At the level of wards and constituencies the British Labour Party has almost collapsed due to its former members’ loathing of Blairism. The marchers should have been Labour’s natural constituency and yet during the speeches the calls for Blair’s resignation got loudly cheered. His problems inside the parliamentary party are growing. He is not prepared to give MPs an opportunity to vote directly on the question of war but the opposition among them is large and increasing. It may be that Blair is prepared to split the Labour Party in order to keep Britain closely bonded to American imperialism. He could establish a coalition government with the Conservatives. Certainly there is no clear ideological distinction between him and them on the public sector, American imperialism, economics or tormenting asylum seekers. It may even be that there is a coup against him inside the Labour Party as a way of preventing the split.

To have such an historic march before the war had even begun presents Blairism with a serious problem. Several of his ministers have made it clear that their first loyalty is to the link with the United States. This is not the view of the hundreds of thousands of Labour voters who marched against the war and it isn’t one that is shared by several in Blair’s cabinet. His grasp on the keys of Downing Street has been weakened. He has made a very transparent attempt to differentiate himself from Bush by making noises about the environment in late February but nobody cares.

Walking on the demonstration there was an overwhelming sense that the marchers knew that their numbers made them strong. It wasn’t articulated too clearly but everyone knew that this was a demonstration against the nascent American world order. It was also the most self-consciously internationalist demonstration in British history as these hundreds of thousands walked through central London in a challenge to their government’s foreign policy.  That Saturday marked the re-emergence of the radical dissenting tradition in the heart of British society.  The British left now has a one in thirty year chance to separate the unions from the Labour Party and build a new anti-imperialist mass party and the clock has started ticking for the Blairite project.



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