The crowd stood in the rain and gusting wind in Ardoyne, Belfast. In front of them, the gable end of a house shrouded in black. The crowd was dotted with uniforms of the various Republican marching flute-and-drum bands from Scotland, some green and some black. Irish Tricolour flags fluttered and here and there the Starry Plough and the Palestinian flag was in evidence, including above the shrouded mural.
After what seemed like a long wait, the MC, life-long Republican activist Martin Óg Meehan, called forward those who had commissioned the mural, the Independent Principled Ex-POWs group; around thirty of them, all dressed in black, carrying a banner with their group name on it, they formed a kind of honour guard during the ceremony. As indicated by its name, this is a collective aligned to no political party or group; it was established earlier this year by North Belfast Republican ex-prisoners.
Then after a short dedication speech, the shroud was pulled down to unveil the newest Republican mural in Belfast, which is surely Ireland’s city of murals (certainly of political murals). The centre-piece was a section of The Rythm of Time poem, written by Republican prisoner and hunger-striker to the death, Bobby Sands; around that central piece a number of panels depicted scenes from the struggles of Republican prisoners from the 1970s onwards. A special mention was made of the families and relatives of Republican prisoners, those who bore much of the brunt of the system that encarcerated their loved ones. One of the Scottish bands was then called to play The Soldiers’ Song, the Irish national anthem written and composed by two Republicans and which had been sung by some of the insurgents during the 1916 Rising against British colonial rule.
Some time after this ceremony, the primary purpose of the day was attended to as people assembled for the march against internment organised by the Irish Anti-Internment League. The British colonial statelet abandoned internment without trial after four-and-a-half years in 1975 but since then has been finding other means to remove its active political opponents from the streets. Some ex-prisoners who were released under Temporary Licence as part of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 have been returned to jail without charge, trial or right of appeal. Others have been faced with ridiculous charges — of in some way “assisting terrorism” — and jailed while awaiting trial; when eventually found not guilty, they have nevertheless already spent between one and two years in jail. Still others, after periods in jail awaiting trial, are being found “guilty” on highly suspect evidence in the special courts and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment (some of these too have eventually been released on appeal against conviction).
After outlining the order of march, Dee Fennel warned the participants that Loyalists had gathered in the city centre on the route of the march to oppose us. Dee urged us to obey the stewards and not to permit ourselves to be provoked into responding to Loyalist provocation. “The law is on our side, for a change,” he stated, meaning that permission for the parade had been applied for and granted, so that the police, if carrying out their duty, had to prevent others from attacking or obstructing us.
The march was headed by the prisoners’ relatives group and followed in sequence by the Justice for the Craigavon Two Campaign, Wolfe Tone RFB (Republican Flute Band), Anti-Internment Group of Ireland (including the Dublin Anti-Internment Committee), Independent Principled Ex-POWs, Parkhead RFB, IRPWA, Vol.s Patricia Black and Frank Ryan RFB, Cabhair, Vol. John Brady RFB, Cógus, Erin Go Bragh RFB, Éirigí, 32 CSM plus other groups bringing up the rear. The Vol. John Brady band is from Strabane but all the rest are from Scotland: two from Glasgow and the Wolfe Tone and Erin Go Bragh bands from North Lanarkshire.
We worked our way down from Ardoyne in driving rain and strong gusts of wind, through the streets in twists and turns towards the city centre. Along the route we noted occasional Palestinian flags hanging from windows of people’s homes and from some flats in tower blocks. As we turned into Donegal Street coming in from the east and heading for Victoria Street, what sounded like a bestial howl arose ahead of us – the Loyalist mob had sighted the relatives’ group leading the march. There we halted for what seemed a long delay, while our march organisers brought the stewards up to the front. Tension mounted, the worse for the wait and not being able to see what lay ahead. Then the march started forward again.
The howls grew louder and then we could see the Loyalists, about 400, many waving Union Jack flags, straining against yellow-jacketed PSNI, the British colonial police, who faced them. Then a line of colonial police in full black riot gear, including shields, facing us (!). Between us and them stood a line of our stewards, their backs to the police and to the Loyalists. A number of police were videoing the marchers, intelligence-gathering, but I saw only one filming the Loyalists.
Two loud fireworks exploded fairly close ahead, presumably aimed at the relatives or the colour party of the band. The storm of abuse was so loud and varied that it was hard to make out any actual words. On video recordings one can hear us being called “baby killers” and – no doubt totally unconscious of the irony — calls in support of Israel! This last no doubt a response to a number of Palestinian flags showing among the marchers.
In front of our contingent, the Wolfe Tone RPF band marched without playing but to a steady rap …. rap … rap …. of the side-drums. One of the mature members of the band called out some words of encouragement to the younger members and, in time, began to call out “clé …. clé …. clé, deas, clé …” (“left … left … left, right, left …”). Behind me in the crowd, somebody began to shout “the I … the I … the I, R, A” in response to the Loyalists.
By now other missiles were flying from the Loyalist crowd and, not surprisingly to us, the police seemed to be making no effort to arrest the perpetrators. I saw a plastic bottle full of water land ahead – a marcher picked it up and threw it back; an orange or red umbrella landed among the marching band and a tall bass drummer stooped, picked it up and threw it back almost without looking and without breaking stride …. Some police struggled with a very large Loyalist woman, her face contorted in rage, as she tried to break through to attack us. Those of us carrying the Dublin Committee banner brought it to flank between a section of the band and the Loyalist missiles while one continued to film the event. One of our contingent was struck on the head by a flying object but continued to march. Another firework exploded somewhere behind. The band continued marching, facing forward …. clé …. clé …. clé, deas, clé …
In a short enough time (though it seems longer watching the video later), our section of the march had passed the hostile mob but the roaring continued, aimed at the marchers coming behind us. On the main road heading up to the Falls Road, a fierce gust of wind caught us – we failed to lower the banner quickly enough and one of the bamboo poles snapped. We carried our banner the rest of the way, on up the Falls Road, past the Cultúrlann, then past Milltown Cemetery.
As we approached the Felons’ Club, stronghold of Provisional Sinn Féin, the band began to play “Take It Down from the Mast”, a Republican song from the 1930s castigating Republicans who had abandoned the path of fighting for independence. Originally the lyrics had been aimed at the Irish Free State government, then at the Fianna Fáil party; since then they have been thrown in turn at Official Sinn Féin, the Workers’ Party and now, at Provisional Sinn Féin. After Fianna Fáil, each party had sung the lyrics at those considered traitors before them, only for each to become, in turn, the target themselves.
“Take it down from the mast, Irish traitors,
It’s the flag we Republicans claim;
It can never belong to Free Staters,
For you’ve brought on it nothing but shame.”
As we passed the Felons’ Club, a number of their patrons leaned on the rail watching us go past. I wondered what they thought and felt. Before 1998, presumably it would have been them participating in the march – perhaps even having organised it. What did they think of a march for civil and human rights in their heartland of which they were not a part? Of 5,000 demonstrators marching in driving wind and rain on an issue around which PSF no longer organises? An issue, in fact, which they find threatening, now that they are part of the colonial administration … This is perhaps the reason for their dismissal of those independent Republicans and groups they call “dissidents” and “micro-groups” who, they say, “have no programme”. No doubt they are aware that it is a long time since Provisional Sinn Féin were able to mobilise 5,000 people to march on any issue.
The march came to an end at the Andersonstown shopping centre, the participants to be congratulated by Dee Fennel; we stood to one side, applauding the soaked marching bands as each one passed us. A couple of speakers were announced but, too cold and wet, some of us decamped to our coach, which had been summoned to meet us nearby. There we found that our thermos flasks of coffee and tea had fallen inside the coach and that the linings had smashed – so no hot drink for us.
When all our Dublin party were at last aboard and some had changed into dry clothes, we headed back up the Falls Road in search of food. Some of us were annoyed to find the Cultúrlann, in the restaurant of which we had looked forward to a cooked meal, closed and had to be content with a Chinese take-away for some hot food at last. Then back to Dublin; in our own city, our publicity and organising work as an anti-internment committee awaited us, as well as whatever other political work we might undertake as individuals or as members of other groups.
Links to videos and photos:
Video of many of the participants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4V8ZbUPbY5Q#t=782
Short video as Dublin Committee approaches and passes Loyalist demonstration (available only on Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=682736298478617&set=vb.100002267588752&type=3
IRPWA is the Irish Republican Prisoner Welfare Association and is linked to the 32-County Sovereignty Movement and campaigns for political prisoners.
Cabhair is an Irish Republican prisoner welfare and campaigning organisation linked to Republican Sinn Féin.
Cógus is also an Irish Republican prisoner campaigning and welfare organisation and linked to the Republican Network for Unity.
The Anti-Internment League and the Anti-Internment Committee of Ireland are campaigning groups independent of any political party or organisation.