Belfast and the RIR parade from afar

The weekend of Nov 1st saw the Royal Irish Regiment stage a 'homecoming march' through Belfast. There were several republican counter protests and the Belfast WSM decided to call one of its own. Family commitments meant I was unable to travel up so my role in events was limited to designing a couple of posters and helping with post protest image processing (more below). The decision of Belfast WSM to go it alone and the press statement that announced this not got only only a good bit of media attention in the 'Irish News' but also provoked a storm of discussion on Irish 'republican' bulletin boards and elsewhere. Some highlights at  As I wrote there in response to someone asking if the seperated demonstation meant we were unwilling to 'work with reformists' The missing element is the bitter divisions in the working class in Belfast along religious sectarian lines and the historic role of the RIR (or rather its predecessor the UDR) as the state paid militia for the loyalist / protestant side of that conflict linked to numerous sectarian killings. This history means, for instance' that the NEFAC slogan of 'We support our troops when they turn their guns on their officers' wouldn't work as a significant section of the population would not identify them as 'our troops'. But this also means that an anti-RIR demonstration by republicans will be seen as 'anti-protestant' by a large chunk of the cities population and in the modern context when republicanism increasingly tolerates sectarianism because of the head count politics of regional government there will be such an element there. I've not seen the SF posters but the Eirigi ones don't even mention Afghanistan, there is a SF press release So - at least in this context - its not simply a question of working with 'reformists'. In addition there are at least three seperate and rival republican demonstrations taking place so even if we had decided that one of these was the way to go (and we might have done so if one was organised on a different basis) it would still be a question of which one. As it stands these demonstrations are going to look more like part of the ongoing struggle to determine who are the 'true republicans' and a testing of sectarian boundaries than being in connection with imperialism (except in the local context).   On the day the massive loyalist and unionist mobilization (between 30 and 50k people turned out to welcome the troops) and the presence of loyalist paramilitaries among them meant that the comrades who had gathering in Belfast very sensibly moved their token demonstration off the main route. Two of the comrades have posted their own report of the day,  and I summarized this as there was a huge pro-troops mobilization with mainstream media putting this at 30-50,000 people (that's up to 10% of the population of the city). This included a significant loyalist paramilitary mobilization including a march into the city and a certain amount of stone, bolt and firework throwing at the Sinn Fein demonstration - youtube  All the anti-imperialist demonstrations were small although of course there is the usual tendency to big them up. Reasonable figures seem to be in the region of Sinn Fein - 800 eirigi - 250 RUN - 50 Conditions on the day (Royal Avenue being lined up to 10 deep with pro-war demonstrators!) and the probable presence of loyalist paramilitaries among the crowd mean that the tiny (a dozen) WSM demo took place in the perpendicular Castle Street and consisted of little more than the unfurling of the Belfast branch banner before the PSNI (cops) moved in and they moved off. Interestingly a couple of SWP (IST) members did turn up but otherwise it was all WSM - mind you unless someone was in phone contact I don't think they'd have found the relocation. Below I've included some edited analyis of what happened I posted to a discussion on the internal WSM site .. while its true eirigi mentioned the RIR role in Afghanistan in the small print their demonstration like all the others made the decision to focus in on the historical role of the UDR in Ireland and to stage their protest in/from Catholic nationalist areas of the city. The other choice they could have made but did not was to instead emphasis the Iraq and Afghan role and build the protest as an anti-war one and leave the historic role for the small print. The first set of decisions played badly for them, in fact about as badly as it might have payed out 1. It ensured a sectarian polarization which resulted in a massive loyalist mobilization (estimates as high as 50k), from an anti-imperialist/anti-war point of view this was a massive defeat with those in support of imperialism outnumbering those in opposition by about 25:1 2. The eirigi, SF and Republican Unity Network turnouts were not only tiny but very nationalist in tone. This is probably only going to encourage eirgi's move towards traditional nationalism although there is also an opportunity here to use the facts of 1 to point out why this is a deadend. With hindsight it's clear that the Belfast branch made the right decision .. it did put down a marker for an alternative. Plus the last minute eirigi ban on carrying any political banners / placards other than their own would have been unacceptable. The main thing I'd draw from the whole thing in that the loyalist variety of militant nationalism seems to have a much greater resonance / drawing power that then Irish 'republican' version which I'd guess is down to the much greater loyalist insecurity about the 'peace process'. If there was no nationalist polarization at all and just an anti-war one we'd probably have seen a very much greater result. .. asks "Why this march in deeply divided Belfast whenever across Britian parades are often confined to barracks or church ceremony's?" This actually is a very good question but the answer is somewhat more complex than that given on republican forums. Rather than it simply being a case of provocation by the unionist establishment (and they must be delighted with that outcome) its also the case that the sectarian polarization made the march possible in a way that it would not in many British cities. A home coming march in Britain would face the real possibility of anti-war demonstrators considerably out numbering the 'support our troops' crowd, that would represent a massive own goal for the army and one they avoid through the church ceremony route. In Belfast they were probably pretty confident that sectarianism would ensure very much greater numbers coming out in support of them. I don't think any city in Britain has seen 5-10% of the population coming out for such an event. Above I referred to 'post protest image processing'. A picture had been taken of our brief protest but the question arose as to how to use it. Our problem was that we had aimed at getting people along from across the sectarian divide and those of us working on the internet report didn't know where two of the non-members from Belfast who appeared in the picture lived or worked. Obviously if either were from a loyalist area putting their picture up might cause trouble for them. The picture was published on a republican bulletin board in response to taunts from someone who had been trolling anarchists there ever since our demonstration had been called (a good illustration of why its best not to respond to trolls). In that case all the faces had been blacked out but that creates a rather sinister impression and although the demonstration was illegal there was no liklihood of action being taken against our members.   So in the end we went with a photoshop motion blur which obscured the faces we are worried about but which doesn't give the same sinister impression. I related all the above as an illustration of how un-normal politics remains in Belfast. I've been taking pictures on protests for two decades and in general on the south even on banned demonstrations we don't obscure people faces. The few cases where I've done so are where the images might appear to show someone engaged in a more serious illegal act, typically where police are attacking a demonstration and are liable to charge people in the aftermath with assault to justify their attack. Being any more paranoid then this would be silly in the south because as I've related in previous blogs we have a very active and often delibretly visible secret police force that lurks outside many meetings and at many protests taking everyones picture for what must by now be a massive set of files. But up north on anything that might be interpreted as a republican demonstration you need to be a lot more careful. Generally those attending these from loyalist areas are fully aware of the problem, I've an old picture from a Derry Bloody Sunday commemoration where one of the anarchist marchers is wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses despite it being a winter day at the end of January. Things have calmed down in the decade since I took that picture but not yet to the extent that this problem is historic. On Wednesday we had a discussion at our Dublin meeting which included some criticism of the risks taken in calling the demonstration, something that I know anarchists outside the WSM had also been raising. There is of course a point to this but it is also true that risky demonstrations are not that unusual in the south either. Of course normally you expect to get a kicking from the Gardai rather than a load of loyalists but while no one got injured on Sunday people have been injured at the hands of the Gardai at Rossport, Shannon and on Mayday 2004. On the day the comrades made some sensible decisions to reduce that risk but unless you are going to retreat to a position of either ignoring imperialism and/or sectarianism or confining your activity to catholic areas then a certain level of risk taking will always be required. Otherwise things will always continue as they are.


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