BY ANN FIANDER
The following notes and observations were made by a Militant reporting team of Paul Davies, Ann Fiander, Tony Hunt, and Stephen Jenner that traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 5-8.
BELFAST, Northern Ireland- Throughout the north of Ireland, Sinn Fein has held regular community-based meetings in every area. Leaders of Sinn Fein, the dominant political force in the fight for Irish self-determination, address these meeting and take questions and comments from local residents about the strategy proposed by the organization.
Micheal Gallagher, a student at Queen's University studying in the first full Irish studies course to be offered at the campus, described the meetings as "an opportunity for the wider community to voice concerns. When the cease-fire came it was dramatic and questions and clarification were needed in nationalist circles."
He added, "people now look to Sinn Fein in a much more positive light and they have a popular base of support. Look at me - it's good to be out showing support. Before the cease-fire I was afraid to be active. The bus from the university to my home went to a Catholic area and I could not have been active in the struggle and caught the bus. Now I can continue my studies and demonstrate."
Henry McKinley, a former political prisoner and now a school caretaker, explained that "ordinary Catholics who don't necessarily agree with Sinn Fein's tactics still want the peace process to go forward. They have concerns that they raise at the meetings.
"My cousin was shot dead by the B-Specials in 1969," McKinley said, referring to the elite police force that for years helped enforce British rule in Northern Ireland. "My family wants to know that the IRA will not disarm and leave us at the mercy of the British again. Others are interested in what the 'peace dividend' will bring," he said. "People ask when they can get moved from the 'egg boxes,' " the small terraced houses of the Catholic enclaves. "They want decent houses like the Protestants."
Many actions for national self-determination are taking place across Belfast. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Kelly addressed this at a memorial lecture on the anniversary of the death of political prisoner Bobby Sands May 5. "To grow in strength we must grow in numbers and expertise," he said. "Activities on the ground are essential to making the momentum of the peace process unstoppable. If anyone does not know what part they have to play or can play, come forward and a role will be found."
In contrast, Irish foreign minister Dick Spring called for a halt to all Protestant and Catholic parades and protests during the peace process.
This reporting team was able to participate in several of these local activities during the time we were in Belfast.
The week before we arrived, 700 residents on the Lower Ormeau road organized by the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (LOCC) blocked the Langan bridge to demand that the Orange Order parade be re-routed.
"The re-routing is not a victory but common sense," said Tom Holland, an ex-prisoner participating in the May 7 Belfast rally commemorating Sands and demanding freedom for Irish political prisoners.
Residents in the Catholic enclave, which is hemmed in by Protestant areas, have been demanding the re-routing of the "kick-a-pope bands" since five people were shot dead in a bookie's shop there by loyalist gunmen, said Bobby, who lives in that neighborhood. The pro-British demonstrators "march six or seven times a year and shout, 'Five,' " he said, holding up five fingers in a menacing gesture as they walk through the enclave. Bobby's cousin was one of the residents killed in the shooting. "They just want to walk down here to hurl sectarian abuse.
"We agreed to Sinn Fein's request to start the Bobby Sands Memorial March from town (Belfast city center) and not from here," he added. "We have a right to demonstrate from our area and there is no way to town that does not go near a loyalist area. But our marches are not triumphalist and we want a peaceful demonstration."
On Saturday, May 6, 250 people protested on the Lower Ormeau against the decision to re-route the rightist Orange order marches. One couple participating on the picket told the Militant, "It's not for Catholics to tell us to re-route our marches. The lodge has been marching for hundreds of years and the Catholics have only just moved into the area."
After the residents had stopped the third Orange Order march, Gerard Rice of the LOCC said he was prepared to meet with the Orange lodge. "The LOCC has promised to continue opposition to the sectarian marches," Rice said, "but at the end of the day we want this issue resolved."
In the New Lodge area of Belfast the residents have been fighting for 25 years to change the names of their flats, now bearing the name, "Winston Churchill" and other British names, to Irish names. In the 1960s the workers living in the buildings picked new names, but City Hall refused to accept the changes.
One of the people living in the flats is Hugh Quinn, a retired brick layer who worked for 40 years but never had a job in Belfast. He said he had been forced to work in England.
"All we want is equality," Quinn told us. "We want Irish names for the flats. The Protestants have the right to change the names of their flats - we want the same."
The general view of the residents is that this demand has now been won as a result of their protests and they are awaiting the city council to change the name plates.
To fighters for national self-determination, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is an arm of British colonial rule. On the streets the gray armored cars and the armed police create an atmosphere of fear and tension. The demand "Disband the RUC" is a key part of the fight by working people for the political space to organize and demonstrate in Northern Ireland.
In the two weeks leading up to the May 10 British government talks with Sinn Fein, supporters of the democratic movement held pickets and demonstrations demanding equality in the negotiations. As Sinn Fein negotiator Kelly explained, "We will not accept a two-track approach which makes the Republican voter a second or third class citizen and neither will the republican community accept it. ... There can be no democracy without equality of treatment."
Eight armored cars lined up in the road to "control" less than 100 demonstrators at a May 6 picket organized by Saoirse in central Belfast against the city council's refusal to allow a float from the prisoners' rights campaign on the Lord Mayors parade. One protester, Maria, commented, "We won't have trouble here - it's too public, the world can see." Things are different at the Equality Pickets, she said.
Maria described an RUC attack on a peaceful April 28 Equality Picket at New Lodge Road. There the cops dragged a pregnant woman off the sit-down protest in a neck hold, set dogs on the demonstrators, and hauled protesters repeatedly over the traffic bumps in the road, causing extensive bruising to their thighs and backs. "They are trying to intimidate people to stop the growing numbers joining the protests," the activist said.
The British government revealed its 100 percent backing for the police force when it announced in April even greater powers for the RUC. These include forced mouth swabs and searches, greater powers to enter premises without a warrant and to detain or arrest people, and random searches for incriminating evidence.
The upturn in political activities by opponents of British rule puts limits on what the cops are able to do, though. "The cease-fire has meant people feel safer to be seen peacefully demonstrating. The British government has had to control the RUC's open brutality against peaceful demonstrations because they no longer have the excuse of security," said Holland as we watched the gray armored vans at the May 7 demonstration.
Ann Fiander is a member of the Amalgamated Engineering
and Electrical Union (AEEU) in Manchester, England.
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