6 November 2008 Edition
Parade of shame was old-fashioned unionist coat trailing
By Peadar Whelan
First came two British soldiers, decked out in desert battle dress, leading a pair of Irish Wolfhounds. Behind them strutted the first contingent of soldiers from the Irish Guards. Left right, left right, they marched with their chests puffed out pompously.
Next came the military band in their ‘Royal Irish’ green dress uniforms blasting out the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers no doubt in an attempt to hide this display of naked militarism behind a religious fig leaf. Not that it mattered as the strains of the hymn were all but drowned out by the bellicose screaming of hundreds of loyalists who crammed into Fisherwick Place. Their jeering was directed at the families of nationalists gunned down by British state forces who stood not 30 metres away protesting at the British Army’s march of shame.
This was Sunday 2 November 2008 in Belfast City Centre and if the actions of the PSNI, the British Army, loyalist mobs and the unionist politicians who were in Belfast city centre last weekend say anything it is to tell nationalists that the struggle for justice and equality has a long way to go.
When the British Army decided in September to hold a “homecoming” parade in Belfast to “welcome” home soldiers from so-called Irish regiments, particularly the RIR, who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea was greeted with disbelief within the nationalist population.
The relatives of those killed by the British state over the past four decades of war in the Six Counties knew instinctively this march was to be an exercise in militaristic posturing that dove-tailed perfectly with the unionist campaign – driven by the Belfast daily the Newsletter – to ‘Welcome Home the Heroes’.
This campaign provided unionist politicians, DUP members in particular, with a stage on which they could pose as latter day Winston Churchills; totally committed to the military prowess of the British armed forces (or their efficiency as a killing machine).
The photographs, published in the Newsletter, of the DUP’s Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson on their sorties to Afghanistan playing soldier as they posed with heavy machine guns and sat behind the controls of armoured vehicles revealed the militaristic soul of unionism. The ‘might is right’ mentality was outed.
So it didn’t matter to unionism that the many thousands of nationalists who suffered at the hands of this very same army while serving the interests of the British crown would be offended by the proposed armed parade and fly past by the RAF.
But when Sinn Féin announced its intention to organise a demonstration to give voice to the disgust felt by those who suffered at the hands of the British Army, traditional unionism enjoying the support of “green unionists”, in the chattering classes, the churches and the SDLP went on the offensive.
The unionist strategy was to accuse Sinn Féin of sectarianism, of fomenting trouble and jeopardising peace, the Executive and community relations. They conjured up images of Belfast City Centre in flames as a scare tactic.
Most vociferous of the unionists was Nelson McCausland, he of the Orange Order who insists on imposing unwanted marches on nationalist communities of Belfast year in, year out. McCausland, enraged that the Parades Commission had the temerity to allow the Sinn Féin demonstration to go ahead fulminated, “the Parades Commission has handed Donegall Place over to Sinn Féin”.
What irked unionists most was the way in which Sinn Féin spokespersons, such as Paul Maskey, articulated the legitimacy of the nationalist case. The West Belfast Assembly member argued that the British Army gunned down over 400 nationalists during the conflict in the North: that the RIR/UDR, operated as a surrogate for unionist death squads; that members of the UDR were members of the UDA and UVF supplying weapons and intelligence which were used to kill hundreds of Catholics and Nationalists.
As the day of the march drew near unionists whipped up their supporters into a frenzy. The UDA and UVF played their part and mobilised within their strongholds, telling people to be in Belfast City Centre on Sunday. The tension was slowly but surely being ratcheted up.
However, unexpectedly on Friday 31 October the British Ministry of Defence cancelled its proposed RAF fly-past and said the marching troops would not be armed. Then at a 12 noon press conference Sinn Féin proposed an alternative route for the relatives’ counter-demonstration.
The Sinn Féin decision, that would take the nationalist protest away from Royal Avenue to Fisherwick Place closer to the British Army’s march route, meant according to North Belfast assembly member Gerry Kelly that the focus would remain on the relatives’ protest against the RIR and the British Army.
On their arrival at Fisherwick Place on Sunday the families of those victims of British state terror, at the head of a 2,000-strong crowd, were met by vile sectarian abuse from the hundreds of loyalists gathered around the Presbyterian Church’s Church House. The ‘welcoming’, as we knew it would be, was soon being exposed for what it was, another exercise in loyalist coat-trailing.
Vicious rants about the Famine, about Bobby Sands and soccer tripped off the tongues of the loyalist crowd. And when the soldiers and their dogs appeared on Fisherwick Place the baying got louder and as each contingent of Irish Guards, the military band and the RIR swaggered past the cheers and jeers became more venomous.
The triumphalism and sectarianism of unionism were on show on Sunday 2 November for anyone willing to look. Alas most of the media didn’t really want to see it. Unionism didn’t want see it. The churches ignored it and the SDLP as usual were afraid to see it.
What provoked this torrent of bigotry last Sunday was a silent, dignified demonstration of grieving families looking for truth. Instead they were confronted by a rabid loyalist mob, whipped up by unionist politicians, telling the croppies to lie down.
They need to know that it is long past the time when nationalists will ever cower before such a display of bigotry.
Loyalist supporter of the British Army homecoming parade screams abuse at the Sinn Féin protestors on the other side of the road