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Belfast Anti-war demo shows unrealised potential

JM Thorn

14 August 2006

The second major anti-war demonstration in Belfast in two weeks took place on Saturday, 12 August.  Like the earlier demonstration, it took the form of a march to the City Hall.  However, unlike the previous one it was not dominated by the Belfast Anti-War Movement and the Irish Palestine Solidarity Committee  (IPSC). The Irish Congress of trade Unions (ICTU) was the main organiser of this demonstration.  This was reflected in the significant trade union presence, with banners and posters on display from Unison, NIPSA and the ATGWU.   There were also a number of trade union officials present, including Mick O’Reilly of the ATGWU.  In terms of numbers there was about 300 people on the demonstration, twice as many as had been on the earlier one.  The atmosphere was also a lot more militant. There was a greater sense of determination and anger, with people readily taking up chants and slogans.  The contingent from Socialist Youth were particularity lively with their chant of “Fight the power, fight the system. The only solution is socialism”.

When the march reached the City Hall, it was addressed by a number of speakers.  The first of these was from the ICTU chairperson, who stated the trade union position of being for an immediate ceasefire and against the killing of innocent civilians. He then called for a minute’s silence for all those who had died in the conflict. 

After this was observed, Kevin Doherty of the Belfast Trades Council spoke. He welcomed the UN Security Council resolution on Lebanon that had been agreed the previous day, although he regretted it had taken so long.  He doubted that this in itself would create a lasting peace, and called for any ceasefire arrangement to be immediate and unconditional.  Kevin reiterated ICTU’s condemnation of attacks on civilians and the displacement of populations, whether they were Lebanese or Israeli.  He then went on to discuss the politics behind the war.  For him Israel’s agenda was not about freeing captured soldiers or creating security, but rather part of a wider US strategy to create a new Middle East that was safe for its interest. This was also behind the targeting of Syrian and Iran.  Kevin pointed to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence that the US strategy was not working.  The “War on Terror” was actually fuelling terrorism, destroying civil liberties and increasing support for radical Islamic groups.  Kevin said that the anti-war movement in Britain had to put pressure on Blair over issues such as US military planes using UK airports to transport weapons. He ended his speech by highlighting the ongoing attacks in Gaza.  If there was to be peace these attacks, as well as the assault on Lebanon, would have to stop. 

The second speaker was Sue Pentel of the IPSC.  She reminded people that the demonstration in Belfast was part on an international day of action, and that we should be proud to be part of world wide anti-war movement. Sue said that that it would be wrong to think that all Jews supported the war; many did not, and some were actively opposing it.  As examples she cited Jews for Justice group in Britain, Woman for Peace, Gush Shalom and the Refuseniks movement which were all active within the Israeli state.  There was also a movement among the Jewish Diaspora to renounce the “right of return” granted to all Jews by the state of Israel, which allows them to live in Palestine irrespective of where they were born or reside. At the same time, Israel denies the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.  Sue said that people needed to speak out for Palestinian human rights and for the end of occupation and settlements.  They should not be intimidated by accusations of anti-Semitism as these were designed to silence dissident voices, particularly from within the Jewish community.   Sue said that the IPSC made a link between the invasion of Lebanon and the attacks on Gaza and the West Bank.  She then gave a list of atrocities carried out in Gaza and the West Bank since June that had resulted in the deaths of 200 people and injuries to many hundred more.  In terms of activity, Sue urged people to lobby politicians and to boycott Israeli products. 

The next speaker was Omar Furuki, a Palestinian refugee living in Belfast.  He was probably the angriest of the speakers, saying that Israelis attacks on Palestinians were a form of terrorism, and accusing them of turning Gaza into the biggest prison in the world.  He was particularly critical of the role that Britain was playing in the Middle East, reminding people of Britain’s part in establishing the state of Israel.  Instead of accepting its share of responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians, the current British government was supplying Israel with arms to attack them.  Omar said that the media converge of the war in Lebanon was a complete distortion.  Israel had refused to negotiate the release of Arab prisoners for the return of its captured soldiers.  Instead it invaded Lebanon. It was only when this happened that Hezbollah started firing rockets across the border.   Omar finished by saying that Palestine was the root of conflict in the Middle East, and without a just solution there would be no peace. 

The fourth speaker was Sarah Boyce of the Anti-Racism Network.  She said that the war in Lebanon was bound up with racism.  As an illustration she read part of an article by right wing columnist Richard Littlejohn that questioned the innocence of Lebanese victims.   Such pro-war propaganda was informed by racism as it identified Muslims as terrorists.   This racism was reflected in the raft of anti-terrorism legislation introduced in Britain, in the Forest Gate police raid and the Stockwell tube station shooting. 

The final speaker was Goretti Horgan of the Derry Anti-War Movement.  Eamonn McCann had been due to speak, but was not able to because of the bail restrictions on him as a consequence his involvement in the protest at the Raytheon factory in Derry. These barred him from attending anti-war events.  Goretti said she could not talk in detail about the protest as the people involved were now charged and before the courts, though she did make a number of general points.  She defended the actions of the protesters and said that it was no crime to stop war crimes.  A defence campaign for the “Raytheon Nine” was already up and running would be building in the next number of weeks.  Goretti said that the protest had put the role of the arms industry on the political agenda.  This was an industry that was subsidised by the taxpayer from MOD contracts and Invest NI grants.  She said that this money should be used instead to fund public services.  She also revealed that the protestors had received messages of support from around the world, including an e-mail from Noam Chomsky.  Goretti finished by urging people to support the defence campaign, the first task of which was to get the charges against the protestors reduced.  They were currently charged with scheduled offence that means their case will go before a Diplock court. 

Overall, this demonstration was quite positive.  It drew wider support then the earlier one, which largely down to the involvement of the trade union movement, able to draw on a wider base of support than earlier demonstrations.  However, there are still some major weaknesses. 

One was the pacifism of the trade union leadership, which blamed everyone equally and limited the possibility of explaining the imperialist aggression of Israel and the US, supported by the British junior partner. This position might have been expected, given the history of the trade union leadership.  What was more surprising was that  the pacifism extended to the socialist groups and that no-one, other than the Palestinian speaker, went beyond the demand for a ceasefire.  By this time even Tony Blair was calling for immediate ceasefire! 

The most serious problem was that the demonstration was really just an ad hoc event for people to show their opposition to the war organised by a diplomatic coalition of the trade unions, socialist groups and republicans.  At the end people just dispersed.  There were no proposals for future activity, or for people to get involved in a campaign.  Without a democratic and open campaign anti-war events are likely to remain intermittent and disconnected.  Three hundred people is not much, but it is enough to build a much more significant opposition to the imperialist war drive than exists at the moment. We need a democratic campaign in order to develop the politics and organisation of the anti-war movement. 


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