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Bush visits Blair in Ireland
14th April 2003
On Monday April 7th a makeshift anti-war demo attempted to get to Hillsborough Castle, regal setting for the Blair-Bush war summit. The demonstrators were of course stopped by a police barricade some way short from their intended target but about two thousand or so protestors managed to get themselves out to the gathering several miles outside Belfast. The announcement on Friday evening that Bush and Blair were coming caught everyone off guard. It appears that Blair was keen to bring Bush to Britain but anxious to avoid a mass anti- war protest in the British capital.
Blair shamelessly counted on Ulster’s well tested reputation for keeping the flame of Empire burning bright ‘I hope that everyone, whatever their view, supports the British troops and feels a tremendous pride and sympathy for them in a difficult situation. It was a help too that the pride of Ulster Unionism, the Royal Irish Regiment, (formerly called the Ulster Defence Regiment) was out in Iraq doing its bit for Queen and Country. David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist Party were very much in the pro-war camp in the House of Commons.
Trimble took the opportunity of the Anglo-American war on Iraq to make a show of Unionism and its ardent support for imperialism. Earlier he had publicly rebuked the north’s trade unionists for sponsoring anti-war activities, accusing them of undermining the morale of the local fighting boys. Trimble and Paisley did not shy away from associating the activities of the anti-war movement with Sinn Fein. The media images of Blair and Bush taking time out from the Iraq war to promote the faltering Irish peace process was all the better for their war mongering reputations.
Anti-war activists only had a single weekend to get their protests organised. It did not help that before the Coalition even had a chance to meet the SWP had already announced to the media that the main demonstration would be taking place at Hillsborough on Monday evening. Staging the main anti- war protest at Hillsborough was always going to mean reduced numbers. Monday night at Hillsborough certainly was a poor call but in the interests of maintaining unity everyone including Peter Bunting of the ICTU played to the lines of the SWP script.
The gathered media were treated to a demonstrations of about two thousand, carrying a plethora of colourful anti-war banners like: WWW.Bush or ‘World Wide War Bush’; ‘ Irish sovereignty, Iraqi sovereignty both violated’ Some banners indicated that people had travelled hundred of miles, from as far away as Maynooth and Donegal. Slogans such as ‘George Bush we know you, your daddy was a killer too’ were loudly pounded out. Passionate speeches especially from Bernadette McAliskey, Eamonn M’Cann, and Abdul al Jibouri an Iraqi exile were enthusiastically delivered and well received.
The biggest bone of contention was over the fact that the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trades Unions) had invited some of the political parties that were due to attend the Bush-Blair summit up to the speaking platform. This included Mitchell McLaughlin of Sinn Fein, Alex Attwood of the SDLP and Monica McWilliams of the Women’s Coalition. Some in the Coalition viewed this as a breach of trust as it had been agreed at an organising meeting that a central task of the demo would be to raise the demand on those political parties invited to Hillsborough to boycott it. Peter Bunting, the chief spokesperson for the ICTU justified the decision on the basis of a sort of dirty political realism ; ‘We are a broad coalition of political views. We live in the real world. The parties are meeting George Bush. That’s real politics and it shouldn’t mean they can’t speak at this demonstration.’
Inevitably the speeches exposed the political cracks in the Coalition, between those who were just against war and those who were anti-imperialist. When Sinn Fein’s Mitchell McLaughlin rose to speak the heckling became sustained and loud and he was visibly shaken by the raucous reception. Shouts of ‘shame on you Sinn Fein’ quickly turned into a cacophony of angry voices ‘don’t go’ ‘where’s Gerry’ ‘stay away’ ‘don’t meet the murderers’ demanding a political boycott. Many of those doing the heckling were traditional republicans furious over Sinn Fein’s policy of double-dealing, making deals with Bush and Blair whilst siding with the anti-war movement. At times Mitchell McLaughlin struggled to be heard ‘we know all about war. We know the pain of war. Sinn Fein has been in the vanguard of the anti-imperialist movement. We should move forward with one voice.’ But the derision kept up right to the end of his speech.
The most dramatic intervention of the night was made by Bernadette McAliskey, and was all the better for not being pre-scripted. Bush and Blair she said had ‘come to the north of Ireland because it was one of the most militarised places in the world complete with a governor’s mansion and enough soldiers to cover their backs.’ She really threw the fat on the fire with ‘Your peace process is the same one they are peddling in the Middle East and you are part of the delusion.’ Bernadette did not flatter or patronise those listening; she connected imperialist policies abroad with imperialist policies at home. This flagrantly contradicted the speeches of the Women’s Coalition, the ICTU and the SDLP and Sinn Fein. They combined their criticisms of George Bush with plaintive words of worry that the Irish Peace Process would hopefully not be tarnished by a forced association with foreign imperialism; ‘He doesn’t give a shit about your dialogue…. this is all about the new world order and power.’
By the end of the night there was a clear political division between anti-imperialists and the others as evidenced by the fact that all of the supposed anti-war parties ignored the last words said at the demo by journalist Eamonn McCann ‘Imagine if the word went out from this place that democratic leaders in Northern Ireland have said we will not bend the knee to you. Don’t do it Gerry! don’t do it Mark! Don’t meet the murderers.’ The very next day Sinn Fein, the SDLP (Mark Durkan) and the rest wandered along to Hillsborough and waggled their happy tails for George Bush. However given the time and the place the anti-war demo was a worthy enough effort. Many young people fresh to politics attended their first anti-imperialist demo and many seasoned campaigners came away with a spring in their step having in particular seen the hypocrisy of Sinn Fein meet the derision it so richly deserves.