Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Peace Protest at Belfast City Hall

Thousands stand in silence outside Belfast City Hall in one of a number of rallies across Northern Ireland to protest at the murders of two soldiers and a policeman. Photograph: EPA

When I spoke to my parents back home about the shootings here, they were unphased. My dad said, "And? Police get shot here everyday!". I thought that was callous but I didn't expect them to understand. What they don't know is that just one event can set off another civil war. That is how volatile and fragile this society still is.

I asked Craig if we can go into town for the Protest. Without hesitation he said, "No". Not that he was against it but in the back of his mind he can't help but think what might happen. I didn't want to argue because I know he'll give me a speech about getting caught in the middle of a riot which he has experienced many times as an innocent bystander. He's told me numerous times that just one minor incident can trigger a riot that can escalate very quickly. He even gets paranoid that a riot will ensue walking among the drunkards on the Dublin Road. I don't blame him for looking out for our safety. So I just watched it on tv. I saw people in droves gathered in solidarity to express how much they don't want to relive the past. People holding signs "No more killings" and "No Going Back". Everyone from all walks of life gathered today with one goal in mind...for unity and peace. I can't imagine what people felt. Probably disappointed and confused. A protest like this is unnecessary during a time of peace. Their healing wounds have been reopened and are reminded of the painful memories of the past. They never thought they would go back to this again. But today was the perfect opportunity to show themselves and the rest of the world that Belfast is redefining itself. And that its people will continue to strive for peace because their children and future deserve it.

Dare I say it, but props to loyalist paramilitaries for keeping their heads straight by not retaliating and adding fuel to the fire.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Northern Ireland today for silent vigils to protest against the murders of two soldiers and a policeman by dissident republicans.

Carrying placards reading "No Going Back", more than 2,000 people gathered in front of Belfast City Hall. As a lone bagpiper played a lament, the crowd fell silent for five minutes.

Former paramilitary convicts stood alongside mothers cradling children. Some people wept while others shook hands and offered condolences to police.

Aidan Kane, a paramedic who attended the rally with his six-year-old boy on his shoulders, said he was a Catholic who grew up in an area "where the police were the enemy". But he said: "If my wee lad here wants to be a policeman when he grows up, I'd be proud."

John Batch, 49, told Reuters: "What has happened over the last 10 years should not be surrendered. I grew up through the Troubles in Belfast. I don't want that for my children."

Other vigils were held in Londonderry, Newry, Downpatrick and Lisburn.

Speaking outside Belfast City Hall, Peter Bunting, the assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions which helped organise the protests, said people were delivering a strong message that they did not want a return to bloodshed.

"This lunchtime thousands of citizens are gathering to collectively share moments of silence," he said.

"The trade union movement stands together with all citizens in solidarity to prevent any derailment of the peace process. The callous attacks of the past few days were an assault on every citizen who supports peace.

"Here in Belfast, and in Newry, and in Londonderry, and at spontaneous gatherings across our land, workers and their families are making clear their abhorrence at these murders and the direct threat to the peace process."

Security on the Irish border was tightened today in response to the upsurge in terrorist violence.

Additional checkpoints have been set up on the frontier after a security review by the Garda Siochana. The assistant garda commissioner, Mick Feehan, who heads the force's northern region, has instructed local commanders to increase checkpoints and mobile patrols on the border with Northern Ireland.

Fears of loyalist paramilitary retaliation over Real IRA and Continuity IRA attacks subsided today after the Ulster Defence Association ruled out any revenge attacks.

The UDA leader, Jackie McDonald, praised the Sinn Féin MP and deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, for his strong condemnation of the killers.

"The IRA blew the two communities apart during the Troubles but the Real IRA and Continuity have actually united the people like never before," the UDA chief said at today's rally in Belfast.

"There is no place in this society for these people [the dissident republicans] but it's up to the police alone to deal with them," McDonald said. "People on the loyalist side are determined not to fall into any more traps. That's what groups like the Continuity IRA and Real IRA want us to do. There is no reason to go there again and nobody wants to go back. Loyalism has matured an awful lot in recent years."

The UDA commander revealed that the organisation's political allies, the Ulster Political Research Group, held talks this morning with the Sinn Féin mayor of Belfast, Tom Hartley.

Hartley later confirmed that the ground-breaking meeting between himself and the UDA's political voice had taken place, with the aim of calming fears within the loyalist community. He said loyalists had a "very important" role to play in building peace.

The other main loyalist paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force, has already made clear its opposition to any return to violence in response to the recent attacks.

During prime minister's questions, Gordon Brown said the murderers should not be allowed to destroy the achievements of the peace process and said today's vigils showed "the unyielding resolution to say with one voice that the peace that the people of Northern Ireland are building no murderers should ever be allowed to destroy".

The prime minister sent his condolences to the families and friends of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, who were shot dead on Saturday, and PC Stephen Carroll, who was killed on Monday. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said the most important thing was that everyone in the province worked with the PSNI to ensure the "callous killers" were caught, charged and convicted.

The pope joined in the condemnation of the killings, describing them as "abominable acts of terrorism" during an address to pilgrims in St Peter's square, Vatican City.

Feehan said that despite the murder of Carroll, there were no plans to withdraw a small number of Garda officers who were working on secondment at the PSNI as part of an exchange programme between the two police forces.

A man, aged 37, and a 17-year-old youth remained in custody today after being arrested in the Craigavon area yesterday. They were being questioned about the Continuity IRA murder of Carroll, the first member of the PSNI to die at the hands of terrorists.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's first and deputy first ministers have left for the US after twice postponing their trip because of the murders. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are hoping to persuade US investors to set up businesses in Northern Ireland. During their tour, the DUP and Sinn Féin MPs will attend a St Patrick's Day celebration at the White House hosted by Barack Obama. - Henry McDonald, Esther Addley and Haroon Siddique,


Jennifer said...

Interesting article and I too hope that peace is maintained.

However, I love (in an ironic way) how the UDA leader blames the IRA for "blowing apart the two communities" during the Troubles. ugh

Flippin' Yank said...

That statement really is hypocritical considering that the UDA was just as much as responsible as the IRA for tearing the communities apart.

At least this time around they're willing to cooperate and maintain the peace. So they say.

On the flipside, there are concerns that the looney Real UDA (a splinter group which has no affiliations with the UDA) may retaliate if the killings continue.