AFTER hearing Jeffrey Donaldson on Talkback and Nelson McCausland on Stormont Live, I couldn’t help but feel that – while they have a point – the two were perhaps not best placed to criticise Saturday’s rally for a ceasefire in Gaza. Both have described as hypocritical the attendance of former terrorists who attended the Belfast rally, yet both have attended unionist rallies where loyalist terrorists were present. Unionist politicians have generally had no problems associating with paramilitaries at anti-Agreement, Drumcree, Ulster Says No and countless other rallies. So who’s the hypocrite? Nonetheless, there still seemed to be a gulf between the voices on the platform on Saturday, and the most vocal members of the assembled crowd. For a start, some of those at the rally clearly did not support a ceasefire at all.The Jerusalem Post , perhaps with DUP assistance, was quick to pick up on the fact that Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and ETA bomber Juan Ignacio de Juana Chaos took part in the rally. They could also have named Old Bailey bomber Gerry Kelly, but perhaps one Assembly junior minister informing on the other would have been too politically embarrassing even for Jeffrey.
And there were others in the 57 varieties of republicanism the JP could have mentioned, from unionist bete noir Bobby Storey, the former IRA intelligence chief and current Belfast Sinn Fein chairman, who appeared to be wearing an ill-fitting tea towel round his shoulders on Saturday, right through to far-left republicans who actually know how to wear their keffiyeh.
But as Donaldson well knows, you can’t keep terrorists – former or current, loyalist or republican, dissident or maintream, repentant or unreformed – away from public rallies in public spaces.
In a democracy, or what passes for democracy here, it’s a tad rich for unionists to complain about anyone exercising their civil right to walk the Queen’s highway.
It’s simply an argument that doesn’t stand up.
Yet there did still seem to be a certain awkward disconnection between the calls for peace from reaonsable voices on the platform and the most vocal demonstrtors in the crowd. The SWP loudhailer blared out ‘Victory to the intifada’ and – as recounted with such glee by Nelson – ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. And the gentleman standing with the Republican Network for Unity (surely a misnomer given the number of republican groups present) with the Hezbollah flag depicting an AK47… was he more interested in a ceasefire, or more violence?
There were other moments where the actions of a minority of protesters seemed to jar with the organisers’ message of peace. As noted by Mark in his excellent blog post, after the burning of the Israeli flag, one woman voiced her disgust, and tore it from the railings of City Hall. When I saw her later, she was holding a Sinn Fein placard, which pleasantly confounded my expectations (or perhaps prejudice).
Earlier in Castle Court mall, Mark and I witnessed and recorded the eirigi protesters dumping hundreds of leaflets over an Israeli stall from the balcony. While pretty harmless in the physical sense, I wonder if the direct action wasn’t counterproductive. The stall was trading again shortly afterwards. The workers’ voices in the background of the video I took didn’t sound sympathetic to the calls for a boycott of Israeli goods, nor did many on Talkback who witnessed the action in Marks & Spencer.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the rally was hijacked by a minority, I think it’s fair to say the message of those who attracted my attention most on Saturday seemed out of kilter with the views of the platform party.
And while Protestant ministers addressed the crowd, there did not appear to be any unionist groups represented in the march to City Hall or unionist politicians present, although I’m certain there were individual unionists present. Perhaps they could comment below on how they felt the rally went.
In the wake of the rally, editorials have appeared in the Press calling for the lessons from Northern Ireland to be applied to the Middle East. Sinn Fein politicians called for a Stormont debate (denied by the DUP Speaker) and held a protest/photocall (criticised by the DUP) at Stormont, where Gerry Adams appealed for dialogue. The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre subsequently issued a statement reminding us of David Trimble’s words that “If there is one lesson to learn from the Northern Ireland experience it is that preconditions are crucial in ending violence and producing a settlement.” And Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, Gidon Bromberg, has called for funding for grassroots peace-building initiatives, as opposed to an elite, leadership-driven Middle East peace process.
The peace process was so morally and politically ambiguous, you can draw whatever lesson you like from Northern Ireland. It’s a practically meaningless exercise these days.
But given the level of political maturity in Northern Ireland – ably demonstrated by the DUP/SF partners in government fighting a phoney PR proxy war – perhaps the best thing the Middle East could do is ignore us and find its own way. But that starts with a ceasefire, not an escalation in violence.