Sinn Féin turns on protestors
Anne Mc Shane looks at 6 Counties' marching season events
The protests and riots which last week marked the annual marching season in Northern Ireland prompted an indignant outburst from the Irish media, both north and south.
The Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph alike raged against what were portrayed as malevolent and shadowy forces behind the protests. Dissident republicans, many of them ‘outsiders’, were said to have hijacked the opposition to the July 12 orange marches.
The Greater Ardoyne Residents Campaign (GARC) held a sit-down protest aimed at preventing the Orange Order from marching down Ardoyne Road. The Parades Commission had given the go-ahead for the march despite the clear opposition of local residents. Local Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly himself admitted in a statement that the violence which followed on Monday night was "brought about by the insistence of the Orange Order to march through three nationalist areas as an add-on to their main parade and the decision of the Parades Commission to facilitate them in this".
However, he then went on to target the GARC, the Republican Network for Unity (RNU) and the republican socialist group, Éirígí, for provoking disorder by participating in the sit-down. He was outraged that a “peaceful and dignified protest” by more sensible republicans on the sidelines of the morning march had been prevented from protesting against the return parade. He railed against the defiance shown by dissident republicans, who represented on the day little more than “anti-social” elements.
It did not matter to him that the GARC - which had actually organised a demonstration of several hundred peaceful protestors - had made a call for calm both before and after Monday’s protest. Or that the RNU strongly condemned and dissociated itself from the rioting that took place later that evening and on subsequent days. While Kelly is mildly critical of the Police Service of Northern Ireland for opening fire on the demonstration with plastic bullets, he reserves his venom for those who decided to confront the police.
As the PSNI forced the sit-down protest off the Ardoyne Road and escorted the Orange parade through the gathering crowds, all hell broke loose. Footage of the event shows hundreds of armoured vehicles and riot police. The police presence was immense - the confrontation had been expected and the state was determined not to give in to oppositionists. In its aftermath, encouraged by Sinn Féin and Social Democratic and Labour Party condemnations of protest organisers, the police promised mass arrests. They claim that law-abiding locals have given them mobile phone footage, which will lead to hundreds of criminal prosecutions. There have also been calls for the prosecution of the parents of children who threw stones at the police. At the very least visits to families from social workers are expected, as the local state directs it attention to the harassment and intimidation of protestors.
Of course, protests and demonstrations around July 12 are nothing new. The Orange Order’s triumphalist marching season has always provoked intense scenes of confrontation. Reports of conflicts stretch right back to the 1800s, with the Belfast riots of 1857 and 1886 being particularly bloody occasions. More recently, the summer months of 1969 were also intensely violent, with a huge crackdown on the civil rights movement. As recently as 2005, 50 police officers were said to have been injured following an attack by nationalists after they had led an orange march through a Catholic area. The fighting has always involved confrontation, as it did last week, with heavily armed state forces. The police have always - again like last week - been there to protect the ‘grandmasters’ of the Orange Lodge, who insist on their traditional walk of supremacy through Catholic areas.
In the 1990s Breandán MacCionnaith was a leading member of Sinn Féin. He was a councillor for Craigavon district council from 1997-2001. He was also a prominent member of the Garvaghy Road Residents Association. He played a central role in the sit-down protests that became the focus of major stand-offs between the Orange Order, police and nationalists in that decade. Garvaghy Road protestors encountered police violence, loyalist attacks and intimidation. These were followed by nights of rioting by nationalist youth throughout Northern Ireland. Such was the crisis and controversy, that legislation was passed in 1998 to establish the Parades Commission and, despite annual applications since then, the Orange Order has consistently been refused permission to march down Garvaghy Road.
Today the same Breandán MacCionnaith is still involved in opposition to July 12 marches through nationalist areas. He was in fact one of the leading protestors in the Ardoyne Road stand-off. But now he is the general secretary of Éirígí, having split with Sinn Féin after the special conference in 2007, which voted to support the PSNI. Éirígí, which was formed in 2006, says it stands for a democratic socialist republic of Ireland. It accepts the present ceasefire, believing that now is not the time for an insurrectionary struggle and says it has no armed wing. However, it does argue for a mass movement - the word Éirígí meaning ‘arise’. It has attracted many disillusioned Sinn Féin members, particularly the younger section of the party. In the north the problem has been Sinn Féin’s role in the Stormont parliament and in particular its support for the PSNI. In the south its membership has grown, particularly in Dublin, following the 2007 general election when Sinn Féin showed itself to be closer to Fianna Fáil in many of its policies than to the grassroots radicalism traditionally associated with it.
Obviously Éirígí is a thorn in the side of Sinn Féin. It stands for principles which it says Sinn Féin has sold out on. However, there are ongoing arguments within Sinn Féin, arguments that seem likely to lead to additional splits, as Sinn Féin becomes yet more entrenched in the running of the Northern Ireland statelet.
The leadership has clearly decided to go in hard against dissidents. Martin McGuinness, speaking on Sunday at the annual school of the current affairs magazine Magill, launched a strong attack on all militarist and “criminal elements” that threaten to derail the peace process. He rounded on the Ardoyne protest, “where it is widely believed that many of those who sat on the road wearing T-shirts describing themselves as, ‘residents, not dissidents’, told those anxious for a riot, many of them children, to do so only after they had left the road”. Elsewhere there has been condemnations of rioters by Sinn Féin representatives, with a number of press releases issued calling for ‘law and order’.
The implication is clear - the PSNI must be supported against such elements and all those that confront the state. With hundreds of riot police out in force in Belfast over the week, there seemed little to distinguish them from the latter-day Royal Ulster Constabulary. Except that this time Sinn Féin is on the other side of the barricades.