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Report on the 22nd March anti-war demonstration in Belfast
27th March 2002
On Saturday 22nd March Belfast witnessed its first anti-war demonstration since the commencement of the US/British attack in Iraq. While the numbers involved were down from the historic 15th February demonstration, the size of the demonstration, estimated to be around four thousand, was still impressive. The lower numbers could be explained by the short time period to organise the march and also by the fact that the weaker elements of the last demonstration have faded away, disillusioned that their efforts had failed to stop the outbreak of war.
The demonstration on Saturday had been preceded by a number of largely spontaneous events in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Iraq. These mostly involved school pupils and students, and involved class walkouts and town centre demonstrations. The Socialist Party aligned Youth Against War was particularly prominent at these events.
With the commencement of war there has also been a attempt by unionists to attack the anti-war movement and draw away its Protestant supporters. Democratic Unionist assembly member Edwin Poots condemned the trade union movement for its role in the anti-war campaign. He said it was "sending the wrong message to our troops who are part of the British army's involvement in the campaign in Iraq". Also on the attack was Nobel Peace price winner David Trimble who called on organisers to call off anti-war protests. He called on people on Northern Ireland to rally round the troops and support the war “rather than demonstrating against it”. The Orange Order urged people to get behind the war. In their reactions to the war and their attempt to use sectarianism to split the anti-war movement, unionists once again demonstrated the thoroughly reactionary nature of their politics.
However, these blustering blimps did put the main anti-war group, the Stop The War Coalition (STWC), under pressure. Led by ICTU, with its record of accommodating loyalism and striking a spurious balance between the “two communities”, the STWC significantly diluted its anti-war stance. In a press conference before the demonstration, Peter Bunting, the main spokesperson for the STWC and also a senior ICTU official, stated that: "We oppose this war while supporting the troops”. Of course this argument is completely bogus, you cannot seriously oppose a war and support the troops that are prosecuting that war. Little more could be expected from a organisation with a record such as ICTU, but when you consider that the another sponsor of the STWC is the Socialist Workers Party, such a position is disgraceful. That such a position could be adopted is a clear indication of the unprincipled character of the politics at the centre of the STWC and also of the lengths that the SWP will go to accommodate the trade union bureaucracy.
In case the message of supporting the troops was not clear enough, it was reiterated in the main speech at the demonstration from Bob Gourley, an ICTU official who has been associated with the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party. He stated that “we are protesting against the policies of Tony Blair and George Bush who have started an illegal war and you can oppose the war and support the troops.” This was roundly booed by a large section of the crowd, an indication that the base of the anti-war movement is more politically advanced than its leadership. The demonstration was also addressed by Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International who highlighted how the US and Britain had once supported Saddam Hussein, and by Ismael Al-Hinti of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who related his own personal experience of being in Kuwait during the last Gulf War. The most political speech of the day came from Malachi O’Doherty, the editor of the liberal journal, Fortnight. He was the angriest and was the only speaker to tackle the statement from David Trimble. But really this was no more than a howl from a representative of the disillusioned middle class. His hope that Blair would not go to war in the future because of the opposition he has faced over Iraq seemed rather hollow.
Overall the demonstration had a rather downbeat tone, and there was the sense that the ICTU leadership were trying to wind things down. There was no call for further action. The parting words from Peter Bunting for the crowd to “disperse peacefully” and go home summed this up. It is clear that the STWC does not pose a credible opposition to the war. The SWP has handed over the leadership to the trade union bureaucrats, who have run for cover at the first sight of unionist hostility. However, the demonstration also showed that there is a solid core of people who are opposed to the war who have no illusions in the STWC. Potentially they could provide the base for a serious anti-war movement.