Halloween homecoming a welcome damp squib…

UNFORTUNATELY, I didn’t see Mark’s offer to go walkabout yesterday morning, although it seems we took remarkably similar routes. A mixture of curiousity and convenience took me to have a nosey at the Eirigi protest, where 200-odd republicans took part in an illegal march up to police lines at the edge of the city centre. What struck me most was how closely this republican protest resembled the Orange Order parades that were banned in the late 90s – the rows of Landrovers, the cops in ninja gear, the officer in charge reading out the ban, the flag-waving supporters, the hardline speeches read over a dodgy PA and so on. Switch the Tricolours for Union flags, and it could’ve been a scene from the Drumcree era. The ritual is almost identical for both sides. Despite the fiery rhetoric, this time nothing more than angry words were hurled. Here’s a brief clip, and there’s pics below the fold.

The first face I recognised from the crowd was Colin Duffy, a veteran Lurgan republican who’s something of a hate figure for unionists, as was this man, Brendan McKenna (second pic), better known as the spokesman for the Garvaghy Road residents, who oppose the Drumcree march. It would be hard to imagine two men who are more detested by unionists, though they obviously have support closer to home.

Perhaps it’s the credibility within republicism people like these two have that worries Sinn Fein, as both were previously part of the mainstream republican (ie Sinn Fein) movement, but now clearly choose to side with hardline dissidents on SF’s left flank. I have a feeling that Eirigi’s decision to hold this protest had great influence on Sinn Fein’s decision-making process since the Royal Irish homecoming was first announced.

The speech by former SF national organiser Brian Leeson was a mirror image of one unionist dissident Jim Allister could give – a traditional republican voice railing against those who have ‘compromised their principles for power’. Both police and protesters remained calm, and there was little overt provocation. This was the scene outside Millfield College while Eirigi stood at the police lines and journalists like Fionnuala O’Connor looked on.

Shortly afterwards, the protesters just turned and walked back up the road. A couple of hours after these two pics were taken, there wasn’t a single trace of anything that had happened, and the road was even quieter than normal.

I than wandered into town, but there was little to be seen by that point, although I heard a firework go off. It felt a bit like the Twelfth with millies milling around wrapped in Union flags around Church House and the low hoodie to first-time-moustache ratio, but towards City Hall there were more people who looked like they had dressed up for the occasion, more older people, and I saw one or two veterans wearing medals. I doubt they even realised there was bother.

Like the earlier protest, there was some tension in the air, but the trouble must have been very localised and over extremely quickly. Obviously, any violence or intimidation was wrong and stupid, but one arrest and a few missiles thrown in a crowd of 30,000 in the city centre isn’t bad going at the best of times. The crowd was similar to what you might expect for an outdoor music festival, and I’d imagine that Eventsec would be happy with that level of violence. So in terms of crowd control, I guess the PSNI can feel pleased with their organisation.

However, Mark’s video of loyalists walking the route and being clapped is, frankly, an embarrassment. If they were representing paramilitary groups, they were trying to equate thuggish and sectarian terrorism with the Army. Watching them, I doubt if they convinced anyone that they were doing anything other than piggybacking on an event they had no right to interfere with. A parade of chavs.

However, I heard the Secretary of State on the radio earlier, and while he has reason to be happy, he shouldn’t kid himself that this kind of event can happen peacefully without a huge security operation and behind-the-scenes negotiations. While nearly everyone was on their best behaviour, it didn’t come cheap and there was still a lot of stuff bubbling very close to the surface yesterday. I bet everyone’s glad they don’t have to put that much effort into everything they do.