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Belfast IPSC threatens critics of Sinn Fein

20 May 2024

Pro-Palestinian protest at US Consulate.

The controversy created by the platforming of a Sinn Fein speaker at a Palestine solidarity rally at the US consulate in Belfast over the St Patrickís weekend continues to loom over the movement in the city.  There is no doubt that this incident has done huge damage and that has been evidenced by the dramatic fall off in attendees at events that have followed. The weekly solidarity marches that were once drawing around three to four thousand now struggle to reach one thousand.  This canít just be put down to a general protest fatigue, especially as numbers have held up in other parts of Ireland.  It is something that is particular to Belfast.

In any healthy democratic movement such a negative turn would prompt some self-reflection.  However, the Belfast IPSC is far from such a movement.  The fallout from the US consulate protest has seen it double down on its failings.  Its first effort was the posting of a statement from a group calling itself the Palestinian Community in Belfast that expressed regret at the divisiveness that was on display and appeared for people to unite behind a list of minimal humanitarian demands.  While it was not clear who this group represented, the content of their statement was very much in line with the positions of Fatah and supporters of the PA.  Despite most Palestinians in Palestine and amongst the diaspora viewing the PA as collaborators the Belfast IPSC presented this as the final word on the matter

Clearly this wasnít the last word and the Belfast IPSC, after further deliberation, has issued another statement (1) in its own name regarding the incident at the US consulate.  Posted in its Facebook page on the 6th of May this latest statement doubles down yet again.  Though it is rather cryptic, and doesnít name any parties, its threat to critics of Sinn Fein is very clear.  To set this up there are a number of glaring omissions and false claims.  The most obvious is the failure to mention what happened in the days leading up to the demo when the platform of speakers, which has been in the public domain for weeks, was suddenly opened to representatives of political parties (including Sinn Fein).  It resulted in the withdrawal of the most prominent speaker, the civil rights veteran Bernadette McAliskey, and the also a delegation of activists from Co Tyrone who had planned to travel to the protest.  In her address to a national Palestine solidarity rally in Dublin earlier in the year McAliskey had been scathing about Irish politicians who would be attending the upcoming St Patrickís celebrations at the White House.  It was expected that her address in Belfast would be in a similar vein. The organisers surely knew the inclusion of a Sinn Fein representative would mean the loss of the most high-profile speaker and also cause consternation among many of those in attendance at the protest.  This was entirely predictable and was the most immediate cause of the dissension.  Yet the leadership of the Belfast IPSC have refused to acknowledge this or take any responsibility for it.  In the absence of any explanation is it unreasonable to assume that they allowed themselves to be strong-armed by Sinn Fein?

The statement makes the assertion that the purpose of the rally at the Consulate was to highlight the complicity of the US in the genocide against the people and reiterate the call for Irish politicians to boycott the White House.  Yet if this was the case why was Sinn Fein, a party that had rejected this call, put on the platform.  The practice of boycott, which the IPSC has elevated to the level of a principle, was clearly breached.  This was the equivalent of inviting a worker who crosses a picket line to address a strike rally.  Again, the statement fails to address this central point.  It instead resorts to scolding those who rightly took offence at the presence of Sinn Fein and threatens to deplatform anyone who is deemed to be critical of the party.  While it is rather cryptic, and no organisations or individuals are named, the import is clear. It is very much in line with the talking points propagated by the party in the wake of the incident at the Consulate of their representative being the victim of a baying mob.  Given the forcible ejection of Palestinians protesting the presence of the PA ambassador at a Sinn Fein organised rally just a few weeks earlier this claim of intimidation is particularly risible.
The biggest falsehood in the Belfast IPSC statement, and the one that is fundamental to everything that has unfolded, is that the IPSC has a policy of independence from all parties and groups.  This is a policy that exists only at a formal level.  In practice the IPSC is a coalition of political parties and groups, and those which carry the most weight are Sinn Fein and the trade unions. The boundaries of what the IPSC says and does are set by the diplomacy that goes on between these two.  This wasnít a problem when Palestine was a low-profile issue and activism was limited to small numbers.  But the intensity of what has happened since Oct 7 and the rising consciousness and involvement of a broader swath of the population has changed the equation.  As a result, Sinn Fein have come under intense scrutiny, particularly over their engagement with the Biden Administration and links with right wing pro-Zionist politicians in the United State. This has been a sore point for the party and no more so than in the run up to the St Patrickís celebrations at the White House.

In an attempt to counter the growing hostility Sinn Fein has sought to redefine the nature of the movement, turning it from one of solidarity to one of sympathy.  Gaza is reduced to a humanitarian issue while anything political is dismissed as divisive. The primary purpose of the dismissal of politics is to divert attention from Sinn Feinís own politics.  Sinn Fein has made their choice and they have chosen US imperialism over the Palestinians.  So to have the other components of the IPSC who have placed their alliance with Sinn Fein over the need to build an effective solidarity movement.  What we are left with is a movement that is very conservative in terms of what it is saying and doing, limiting itself to humanitarian demands and reducing activity to A to B marches and consumer boycotts.

This is not working and its failure has been brought into sharp relief by the militant action of students. The victory of the occupation at Trinity College has achieved more in a few days than the official campaign has achieved in seven months.  The students have shown the way forward but, given its composition, it is one that IPSC is unlikely to follow.  Belfast provides the best example of this.  Despite the student protests in the US and violence directed against by the authorities the IPSC have steered clear of the local universities and the US consulate.  The IPSC has nothing to say about the position of Hiliary Clinton as Chancellor of QUB, while Biden administration officials, such as Joe Kennedy III, are free to come and go without protest.  This is not by accident; it reflects the accommodation that has been made to Sinn Fein.

The decay and decline of the Palestine solidarity movement in Belfast is more advanced than other places, and that is a reflection of the greater weight of Sinn Fein within the city, but it should serve as warning to the Irish movement as a whole.


(1),  06/05/24

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