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Report on the anti-Bush demonstration in Belfast 

JM Thorn 

17 June 2008

A number of demonstrations were held in Belfast to protest at the visit of US president George Bush.  The biggest of these was at the City Hall, where a crowd of around five hundred was addressed by a number of speakers. Organized by the Belfast Anti War Movement (BAWM), this protest had the endorsement of ICTU, the Belfast Trades Council and a number of individual trade unions.  Political parties present included Sinn Fein, the Workers Party, the SWP and the Socialist Party. 

The main speeches were preceded by an introduction from Sean Mitchell of the BAWM.  He said that the popularity of George Bush had sunk to an all time low, citing Iraq, New Orleans, Kyoto and Lebanon as some of the reasons for this.  Given this background it was a disgrace that he had been invited to Belfast by local political leaders.  For Sean the offence was caused not just by Bush as a person but also by what he represents – war and occupation.  In contrast to this, the anti-war movement was calling for peace.  Sean condemned local politicians for allowing George Bush to associate himself with the peace process.  He claimed that this wasn’t what people wanted from the new political settlement, and warned politicians not to do anything like this again.

The next speaker was women's activist Linda Walker.  She claimed that for most of her life she had been campaigning for world peace.   She told the crowd about a conference that would be taking place soon at the Waterfront Hall on the subject of how war affects women and how women can contribute to peace.  Linda then went on to read out messages to the Belfast demonstration from women activists in Iraq, Palestine and the US.  She concluded by reciting lyrics from a song written by the American folk singer Pete Seeger.  At this point the crowd’s attention was drawn to the roof of the City Hall onto which anti-war activists had managed to climb and attach an Iraqi flag.  For ten minutes the Iraqi standard flew over the City Hall.  While this was a stunt, symbolically it was quite effective and provoked the best response of the day from the crowd.  After this entertaining interval, attention came back to the stage where student activist Matthew Collins was ready to speak.  He said that students were an important element of the anti-war movement and that tens of thousands of them had marched against the war in 2003.  The argument made by the anti-war movement at that time had proved to be correct and had to be reaffirmed.  Matthew reminded the crowd that in addition to being a warmonger Bush was also pushing a corporate agenda; an agenda that local politicians had bought into and was reflected in the slogan that the North was open for business.  He concluded by claiming that Bush was using his tour of Europe to drum up support for an attack on Iran, and called for any such attack to provoke mass demonstrations. 

The next speaker was Patricia McKeown of ICTU, who began by congratulating Raytheon 9 on their acquittal and for keeping alive the tradition of direct action and civil rights.  She said that thousands of people were on the streets in 2003, but they didn’t succeed because the voice of the people was ignored.  Patricia claimed that ICTU was against everything Bush stood for and he was not welcome.  Many abuses had been carried out in the “war on terror” and it had made the world much more dangerous. She condemned unionist MPs for voting for the re-introduction of internment, saying that freedoms couldn’t be sacrificed for investment.  Patricia concluded by claming that the peace settlement in the North didn’t need the endorsement of Bush. 

She was followed by Eamonn McCann.   He said that it didn’t seem that long since he had addressed the massive anti-war demo in Belfast five years ago.  Back they the demonstrators had been told they were wrong - that the invading troops would be welcomed as liberators and that Iraq would be a democracy.  However, none of what was promised has been delivered, and the warnings of the anti-war movement have proved correct.  Eamonn said that it was grotesque that Bush had been invited to Belfast and portrayed as someone who can consolidate peace when it was clear what he really represented.  It was also wrong to believe that Bush could be an aid to economic development; people in the North should not allow themselves to be blackmailed.  Eamonn said that people were being told to bow down to every demand from imperialism, but he believed such demands underestimated the people of Ireland, citing the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty as an example. 

For Eamonn, Bush was right on one thing in that you were either with him or against him.  He said that that there were people on the crowd, and this was clearly a reference to Sinn Fein (although one that was not made explicit) who thought you could do both.  They had to be challenged over whose side they were on.  (In fact Sinn Fein had sent a delegation to the demonstration while their leadership met Bush at Stormont). Eamonn said that in a globalised world the people of the Mid East were our neighbours and what was happening to them was our concern. He said that the cause of peace and the preservation of the earth could transcend differences. Eamonn concluded by warning the crowd that the opposition to war had to continue beyond Bush’s period as US President, but for now he had a message for him - “Go home, you're not welcome". 

Brian Campfield of Nipsa said it was important for people to take a stand and make it clear that Bush wasn’t welcome.  He said that despite the exposure of the lies it was based on the war was still continuing – Iraq was being carved up and its natural resources plundered. It was the drive for profits that was damaging human rights and destroying the environment.  It was not just Iraq that was subject to this but other countries such as Venezuela, Palestine and Cuba.  Brian claimed that this oppression have been going on for three hundred years.   The final speaker was an Iraqi man living in Belfast.  He said that people in Iraq knew that millions of people opposed the war and that they did not hold them responsible for the actions of their governments.  He denied media claims that things in Iraq were improving pointing to the hundreds of thousands who have died and the millions who have become refugees. 

In contrast to recent anti-war demonstrations this one attracted a reasonable crowd and had a bit more energy about it.  It was encouraging to see a trade union involvement as well as a high proportion of youth.  This shows that the anti-war cause still has the potential to mobilise people and could rise again in the event of a US attack on Iran.  However, despite these positives, there are still a number of weaknesses.  The first is organisational.  The BAWM is not democratic, but an ad-hoc front that is wheeled out by the SWP for public events, leading in this case to a split and two demonstrations, with one being led by the SWP and the other by the Socialist Party. The second is political. The BAWM continues to base itself on the lowest common denominator of moral outrage; it doesn't seek to deepen people's political understating of the war or how it can be resisted.  The most glaring example of this lack of understanding is the counterpoising of the political settlement in the North to the war in Iraq.  This is reflected in the change of hypocrisy levelled towards Bush for wanting to associate himself with the peace process, as if it was in conflict with everything else he did.  The fact is that the settlement in the North is just as much a part of the imperialist offensive as the war in Iraq, the only difference is that one is a success and the other a failure.  This is why the likes of Martin McGuinness are being dispatched to talk to Iraqi leaders. It is to persuade them to follow a similar path. Of course those arguments are much more difficult to make as they cut against the grain and challenge the leaders of the trade union movement.  However, if an effective anti-war movement is to be built, one that is organised democratically and stands in opposition to imperialism, these are the arguments that have to be made and won.  No amount of rhetorical flourish will substitute for this. 


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