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Meagre turnout, meagre politics – the Belfast anti-war rally

Andrew Johnson

22 March 2005

Fewer than 100 people took part in the March 19 rally in Belfast against the occupation of Iraq. Despite good weather and a fair amount of pre-march publicity linked to the International Day of Action, the attendance was extremely disappointing. It was not simply that the thousands who protested the US invasion two years ago were not present – key constituencies for the anti-war movement, notably the trade unions, were also conspicuous by their absence. The large majority of those participating were either members or sympathisers of the organised left.

After a noisy procession from the Art College to City Hall, the small crowd was treated to a number of speeches from a moral pacifist perspective. Generally the theme was that war was a bad thing and what was going on in Iraq was terrible. Apparently a decision had been taken that there would be no political speakers, as if the war was not a political issue! This was however somewhat undermined by the appearance of a speaker from the Green Party, who discoursed about whether the war had been legal under Security Council resolution 1441.

Two conclusions suggest themselves. Firstly, there is no functioning anti-war movement in Belfast. What we have instead is the tiny forces of the far left calling actions under the aegis of ad-hoc committees. While anti-war sentiments remain strong amongst the general public, these are overwhelmingly passive. Instead of pretending that a mass movement exists – one speaker argued that for everyone at the rally there were a hundred who would have loved to have been there – it is long past time to admit that there is no movement and we need a strategy for building one.

The second point is this. The vast majority of those on the march would have classed themselves as political activists, and as opponents of imperialism (at least the US variety, some would be more ambivalent about British imperialism). Yet we have the pretence that politics can be divorced from the war. The essential point about the Green speaker was not his party affiliation, but the idea that his contribution was not political. But the point he seemed to be making – that while all war was bad, a war with the endorsement of the world bourgeoisie embodied in the UN would be more acceptable – is surely one that most of the participants would have disagreed with. So why does anti-imperialism remain taboo for our anti-war activists? Is an anti-imperialist anti-war movement too much to hope for? It may not initially have much mass appeal, but it beats a small milieu of socialists lowering their politics to the level of a mass liberal pacifist movement that doesn’t even exist.


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