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Police attack anti-war demonstration in Belfast city centre

Paul Flannigan

14 April 2003

An anti-war demonstration was staged on Tuesday April 8th by the Stop the War Coalition (Northern Ireland) outside Belfast City Hall in the centre of the city.  The wrath of the protesters was targeted at the Blair-Bush war summit on Iraq then being stage managed from Hillsborough Castle. The numbers involved were small, about two hundred or so. The protest was intended as some sort of secular imitation of Remembrance Day. The official union participants wanted something very dignified to remember the war dead and people were asked to wear black.  The organisers requested all those attending to play dead for a couple of minutes in symbolic simulation of the war dead. The die-in was in fact rudely interrupted by a gang of bored looking media types who proceeded to conduct interviews with many of the dead.

Eventually a few dozen of the not so dead protesters decided it was time for the living to have their say. They moved from the footpath onto the near by road and began beating drums, blowing whistles and shouting slogans about the killer Bush. These first signs of life were deemed way too threatening for the watching police officers who began pushing demonstrators back off the road. Some protestors responded by sitting down on the road. Police intelligence quickly identified the dangerous ‘irregulars’ amongst the protestors and wasted no time in calling in the riot squad. The riot squad clad all in black and looking like leftovers from Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’ clearly relished their call-up and flayed into the mostly young protestors, beating and dragging them off before they had barely enough time to chant ‘Bush your daddy was a killer too.’  Many protestors were roughly treated; some girls were trailed away by police goons gripping their hair. Fourteen were charged with obstructing traffic, causing an affray or resisting arrest. Several of those clubbed by the snatch squads were injured; a schoolboy had his arm fractured courtesy of a police baton.

The rough treatment dished out by the riot squad did not go unchallenged by city centre shoppers.  Instead of breaking up the demo the police tactics caused more people to swell the ranks, ‘shame! shame!’ shouted bystanders. After a period of confrontation the riot squad backed off and the protest broke up without delay or trouble. That evening the supposedly friendly news media reported the official police version of events. Apparently anti-war militants hell bent on causing trouble had attacked police lines and injured five officers. There were in fact no attacks on police lines, thought something did get released intro the air by an ‘irregular’ in a white boiler suit, a mysterious red substance. A top class police forensic team later identified this as jam.

Later the spokesperson for ICTU issued a grovelling apology via the press claiming ‘that the group responsible for the unrest came along once our protest had dispersed’. The ICTU claim about those arrested not being part of the protest was in fact untrue.  The ICTU press statement also praised the police tactics ‘we thank the PSNI for the rapport we have established with them over the last six weeks.’ It seems to have escaped the memory of the ICTU people that identical anti–war sit-down protests had already taken place outside the city hall and had provoked no action from the police. The ICTU people have some explaining to do to the rest of the Stop the War Coalition for their abject political behaviour.

So why did the police resort to strong- arm tactics this time? It was pretty obvious on the day that riot squad personnel had been briefed to expect trouble, or rather get involved in trouble.  In fact the police operation had all the hallmarks of a prepared show of strength aimed at intimidating sections of the anti war movement. The intended political outcome was clearly to try and drive a wedge through the anti-war movement splitting it between the ‘law abiding’ and the ‘subversives’. Genuine ‘law abiding’ anti-war people should have no truck with the Reds and Republicans who are just up to their old civil rights movement tricks of taking up good causes for their own law breaking subversive ends.

So despite the much hyped police reforms the Continuity RUC now re-branded as the PSNI continues on pretty much as before, having as its first priority a crucial political function, the hammer of a declining sectarian State geared to crushing every spontaneous democratic movement from below.  Trimble and Paisley can rest easy, on the evidence of Tuesday the old political and reactionary RUC hasn’t gone away.



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