Belfast éirígí activist and republican ex-prisoner Pádraic Mac Coitir reflects on the week leading up to that British “visit”.
When it was announced by the British government on May 31st that Elizabeth Windsor was to visit her Six-County colony, we, in éirígí, along with other republicans, discussed the most effective manner to protest against this ‘visit’.
We met with like-minded republicans from other parts of the Six Counties and the first thing all agreed on was to involve those most affected by the British presence – the families of Britain’s victims.
Consultations with a number of families who had lost relatives at the hands of state forces were central to the format, date, and location of any protest. This again required several meetings over a period of time in order to reach consensus and finally agreement was reached on holding a march and rally in Belfast on Saturday 23rd June.
Although the Windsors, their hangers-on and their cronies, would be meeting their supporters in Enniskillen and Belfast, it was decided to concentrate our energies in Belfast where it was felt the protest would have greater impact.
Over 20,000 leaflets were printed, as well as numerous posters, asking people to attend a march starting on the Falls Road and ending with a rally at the City Hall. Given that there were only five days to deliver the leaflets, most parts of the city were covered – and this despite the heavy rain, PSNI harassment and in one case, an activist being bitten by a dog. Luckily, it wasn’t a corgi!
Although many statements were repeatedly issued to all media outlets in the week leading up to the march and rally on Saturday 23rd, few were prepared to report or afford any type of pre-publicity to the planned protest.
It was obvious that a conscious and collective decision had been taken by the media to ignore victims of British state violence and to whitewash over the many injustices which Elizabeth Windsor’s forces had been responsible for.
Instead, the media maximised on the propaganda of ‘normalisation’ as they focussed on the artificially constructed “will they/won’t they” saga being churned as Sinn Féin attempted to portray Martin Mc Guinness’ handshake with Elizabeth Windsor as being ‘a positive thing for Ireland’.
éirígí, meanwhile, had earlier published its own incisive analysis of the Sinn Féin position on Friday June 22nd. (Mac Cionnaith responds to announcement of SF/British queen meeting)
While delivering the leaflets advertising the protest across Belfast, there was a palpable sense of anger and dismay being expressed by ordinary people at the Sinn Féin publicity stunt, with quite a few saying the McGuinness/Windsor meeting was a step too far. Many felt that the injustices and suffering inflicted upon our communities by the British state were being deliberately ignored by the re-branded constitutional nationalist party.
On the day of the Belfast march and rally, many families from across the Six Counties who had lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters turned up. They were joined by several hundred others who stood with the families in their demand for truth and justice.
Although it had been raining heavily and the weather conditions were atrocious, the organisers and, more importantly, the families were delighted with the turn-out with reports putting a figure of between 1,000 to 1,500 participating in the actual march.
At Belfast City Hall, which had a large union jack flying, we listened as family members of those killed by the British Army and by the British police force addressed the crowd. The speakers came from each one of the Six Counties and some denounced McGuinness for meeting the commander-in-chief of an army that was responsible for the killing of their loved ones and hundreds of others.
On Tuesday 26th June, the day Elizabeth Windsor arrived in Ireland, a group of community artists and political activists erected a massive tri-colour measuring 120ft x 60ft on Sliabh Dubh overlooking Belfast.
Many unionist politicians reacted to this act of defiance by encouraging a gang of their paramilitaries to attack those on the mountain.
Inevitably, this did happen when a unionist gang attacked the protest and seriously assaulted one of the protestors, leaving him in a serious condition. The man, a former H-Block prisoner and blanketman, was very lucky to escape with his life.
As word circulated out about the attack, many republicans responded by going to the mountain to join the protest and strengthen the show of defiance.
The following day, Wednesday 27th June, the flag was once more erected and many more protestors joined with those already on the mountain. Both the PSNI and the unionists were deterred from taking any further action to disrupt the protest because of the presence of so many on the mountain.
Later that day, we gathered in support of a vigil outside Belfast City Hall organised by victims of British state violence, including relatives of all those killed in the Ballymurphy Massacre, who handed out leaflets to passers-by calling for an independent investigation into the killing of their loved ones.
This vigil was held outside a building which was then flying the “armed forces” flag in support of the British army – an army that murdered hundreds of Irish people, an army which continues to carry out massacres in Afghanistan; the same army of which Elizabeth Windsor is the commander-in-chief and whose hand a representative of constitutional nationalism thought fit to shake politely.