Ireland: British Army 'parade of shame'

November 8, 2008

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 — supporters of continued British rule over the six counties that make up Northern Ireland — who crammed into Fisherwick Place.

The jeering of those who support the British "union" was directed at the families of nationalists gunned down by British state forces in the six counties — families who stood not 30 metres away, protesting against the British Army's march of shame.

This was November 2 in Belfast City Centre, and if the actions of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the British Army, loyalist mobs and the unionist politicians in the city centre 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 the British army unit Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea was greeted with disbelief by 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 Belfast daily The Newsletter — to "Welcome Home the Heroes".

This campaign provided unionist politicians, Democratic Unionist Party 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).

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was also quoted in the October 20 An Phoblacht stating: "There are also people, including many who are not Sinn Fein supporters, who feel that a march to celebrate the actions of the British Army and the British government in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wrong."

It didn't matter to unionism that the many thousands of nationalists who suffered at the hands of this very same army would be offended by the proposed armed parade and fly-past by the RAF.

But when Sinn Fein announced its intention to organise a demonstration to give voice to the disgust felt, traditional unionism — enjoying the support of "green unionists" in the chattering classes, the churches and the Social Democratic and Labour Party — went on the offensive.

The unionist strategy was to accuse Sinn Fein of sectarianism, of fomenting trouble and jeopardising peace, the power-sharing executive (involving Sinn Fein, the DUP, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party) and community relations.

They conjured up images of Belfast City Centre in flames as a scare tactic.

Most vociferous was Nelson McCausland from 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 Fein demonstration to go ahead fulminated, "the Parades Commission has handed Donegall Place over to Sinn Fein".

What irked unionists most was the way in which Sinn Fein spokespersons, such as MLA 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 and Ulster Defence Regiment operated as surrogates for unionist death squads; that members of the UDR were members of the death squads, supplying weapons and intelligence that 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 loyalist paramilitaries Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force played their part and mobilised within their strongholds, telling people to be in Belfast City Centre on the day.

The tension was slowly but surely ratcheted up.

However, unexpectedly on October 31 the British Ministry of Defence cancelled its proposed RAF fly-past and said the marching troops would not be armed.

Then at a noon press conference, Sinn Fein proposed an alternative route for the relatives' counter-demonstration.

The Sinn Fein decision, that would take the nationalist protest 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 British Army.

On their arrival at Fisherwick Place on November 2, the families of those victims of British state terror, at the head of a 2000-strong crowd, were met by vile sectarian abuse — as well as bottles and other projectiles — from the hundreds of loyalists.

The "welcoming" was soon being exposed for what it was, another exercise in loyalist coat-tailing.

The loyalist crowd chanted vicious rants, such as "The Famine is over, why don't you go home", and "Would you like a chicken supper Bobby Sands?" (in reference to the Irish republican prisoner who died on hunger strike in 1981).

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 for anyone willing to look. Alas most of the media didn't 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 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 and left alone by the PSNI, 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.

[Reprinted from the November 6 An Phoblacht,]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.