The annual anti-internment march in Belfast was blocked on Sunday 11th August by a very heavy police presence from proceeding beyond the Old Park Road. Road blocks had also been set up around the area and in the city centre. Although the march dispersed without incident, the continuing heavy police presence in the area provoked local people and altercations broke out between them and the police. In one incident, a reportedly pregnant woman was video-filmed being arrested and assaulted by male police, apparently for telling the police to get out of her garden.
Internment without trial was used by the British colonial regime in Ireland as one of its measures to repress resistance to its rule. After Partition, it was used by the regimes on both sides of the Border. Its most recent formal use was in the Six Counties from August 1971 until the last one was released in 1975, by which time almost 2,000 had been interned, initially only people from ‘nationalist community’ but later on some from the Unionist community had been added to the trawl. During immediate street protests against the introduction of internment, the Parachute Regiment shot dead 11 unarmed men over three days in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast. During a protest march in Derry against internment six months later, that same Regiment killed 14 unarmed civilians and injured many more. According to the authorities and to some others, including Sinn Féin, internment without trial no longer exist.
But since the Good Friday Agreement, Republican political activists who are not in agreement with its terms find themselves being locked up without trial through a number of other measures:
Some Ex-prisoners released under license have had that license revoked and are brought to prison without trial (e.g. cases in the recent pass have included those of Marian Price [2 years] and Martin Corey [4 years])
Activists are arrested on spurious charges and refused bail, to be found not guilty eventually but having spent years already in prison (Colin Duffy, among others)
Or the activists arrested on spurious charges are offered bail only on conditions that would immobilise them politically and kept in jail when they refuse (Stephen Murney who did 14 months remanded in custody before eventually being found “not guilty” and released)
For this reason many Republicans consider that internment still exists but in a more hidden form and this has led to the formation of the Anti-Internment Leagueand also to the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland, the Dublin branch of which has organised many events, from public meetings to pickets and information tables. The main activity of the AIL is organising the annual march against Internment as near as possible to the anniversary of its introduction, August 9th.
It is worth mentioning that in addition to the covert internment methods, activists are also arrested and convicted and jailed on spurious evidence (examples include Brian Shivers – two years without bail awaiting trial and a third year convicted, before his conviction was quashed by the Supreme Court – and the Craigavon Two – still serving time although wrongly convicted).
The Parades Commission & Time Restrictions
Formerly in the Six Counties, Loyalist triumphalist parades were allowed wherever they wished to go in Belfast and in most other towns too. These marches did not so much celebrate their religious affiliation, Presbyterianism; rather, as demonstrated by their banners, colours and the airs played by their bands, they celebrated historic battle victories over Irish forces with Catholic affiliation. But their parades also celebrated in many ways the state’s institutional discrimination against communities raised in the Catholic faith. During these parades insults and threats against people in ‘nationalist communities’ were everyday occurrences. Any protests against them were repressed by the police.
On the other hand, civil rights and Republican parades were banned or subject to huge restrictions – for example many of the early civil rights demonstrations and all Easter Rising commemorations were banned and even the 1972 march in Derry, six months after internment was introduced was also banned. Most of those demonstrations went ahead and were attacked by police with batons, tear gas, water cannon, rubber and plastic bullets and on occasion live bullets; the one in Derry against internment became known as “Bloody Sunday”.
Some years ago people in nationalist areas began to resist the triumphalist and provocative sectarian Loyalist marches going through their areas and the Parades Commission was set up to regulate marches by Loyalists and by people from the ‘nationalist’ areas – all march organisers had to apply for permission and abide by the decisions of the Commissioners. However, the decisions of the Parades Commissioners have been widely regarded among the ‘nationalist’ areas as being biased in favour of the Loyalists. For example, every year the Commissioners approve a march by Loyalists through the Garvaghy Road, despite almost total opposition to it in that ‘nationalist’ area. They also approve many Loyalist marches through Belfast city centre without significant restrictions.
Republicans do not apply to march through unionist areas but there have been restrictions on parades planned to go through the city centre. Two years ago the police blocked the Anti-Internment march from going through the city centre and last year it was held up for quite a while by the police, the reason given being that they were trying to control Loyalists who had gathered in the city centre to oppose the marchers. When the marchers were eventually permitted to proceed, they found a few hundred Loyalists shouting abuse and hurling missiles at them, with hardly any police restraint, with a line of police in full riot gear facing the marchers.
This year, the Anti-Internment parade organisers were given permission to hold the march but on the condition that they were clear of the city centre by 1.30pm, apparently to ensure no disruption to shopping in the centre. The question needs to be asked: How would such a march prevent shopping and how long would it take them to pass? The only significant disruption would be from Loyalists wanting to attack the march and people wanting to avoid that trouble and, if the police were a neutral force, it would be their job to control the Loyalists and prevent them from breaching the peace. But the RUC (the PSNI after the force’s name change) have never been anything less than an extremely sectarian force and, during the 30 years’ war, were deeply implicated in collusion with Loyalist sectarian assassination squads.
The Anti-Internment Parade organisers objected to the times condition on the grounds that people would have to have to choose between attending their parade and the Ballymurphy Massacre March for Truth on the Springfield Road at 1pm on the same day.
But there are other reasons why such a time restriction is not reasonable, apart from clashing with another event and elevating freedom from a supposed impediment to shopping above exercise of democratic rights to protest. Apart also from the fact that Loyalists don’t have such restriction placed upon their parades, an 11.30 start means that people journeying from further away have to start even earlier – for example, even from Dublin, with a reasonably fast route, one would need to be getting on a coach in the city centre at 8a.m. All these problems and inconveniences resulting from a time restriction which, in turn, is to facilitate commercial interests by overcoming an alleged interruption to their making a profit.
The Anti-Internment League announced that they would begin the march at 2pm and the PSNI mobilised huge forces to prevent them, as they considered that “the march was illegal from the moment it started”, in the words of Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI, Stephen Martin on a radio program the day after.
I arrived in Belfast too late to attend the Ballymurphy Massacre march but I learned that hundreds had participated to once again commemorate the massacre by the British Paratroopers of eleven unarmed people in the Ballymurphy area over two days in 1971 (which they had followed up six months later with their Bloody Sunday massacre of 14 in Derry).
Unaware of the police mobilisation to block the Anti-Internment march, I had arrived in what I imagined to be plenty of time to attend it. But the police were preventing a local taxi firm from stopping by the coach station in the city centre to pick up passengers – what reason could there be for that, since that was not on the route of the march? Could it be that the police were trying to make it difficult for supporters to reach the march?
It certainly seemed like that when I walked in to the depot of the shared “people’s taxis”, i.e. the Falls Road Black Taxis about 1.45p.m. The word was that the RUC/ PSNI had cordoned off the southern approaches to Ardoyne, in North Belfast. I began to worry but was told that they would get me there. With a small group of Ardoyne residents, I waited in the depot, which resembles a coach waiting room and has a shop for sweets and soft drinks and another printing T-shirts and posters. Taxis pulled in and out, mostly heading for the Falls Road but eventually a taxi for Ardoyne (Ard Eoin = “Eoin’s Heights”) drew up and six of us got in – apart from myself, two youths, a middle-aged woman and an elderly couple, one of them with an English accent but clearly established in the area.
We had not gone far after dropping off one of the youths before we began to pass the PSNI vans, a kind of white boxed landrover, shields over windscreen, lights and siren and only slit windows in the back. From the taxi by now we had seen around 30 vans; we were all tutting at this massive police mobilisation. “Great day for a robbery,” I said. “Where’s the nearest bank?” quipped the elderly man. As we got nearer to Ardoyne we were suddenly confronted with a huge number of police vans and very soon afterwards, could go no further – PSNI vans, police on foot in black riot gear, shields and some with batons out already. Any belief I might have had that this was just an intimidation exercise by the police was dispelled. Our driver tried to negotiate with a female police officer who was dealing with traffic but all she could give were vague suggestions about which roads might yet be open. I heard our driver relaying information to his company’s control desk through his radio and I now realised that the police were determined to stop the march.
Our driver drove up and down other roads, gradually nearing Ardoyne and close to there apologised to us and pulled in outside a house in a residential street – it seemed that someone of some authority in Falls Road Black Taxis lived there. After conversing with our driver, this man got on our vehicle’s radio and spoke to someone at the depot, the terse conclusion of which was “Ardoyne is out”: Ardoyne was under police siege and the area was now out of bounds to their taxis.
The driver dropped us near to my destination, apologising again as he had done frequently. We assured him it was not his fault. As I walked down to approach the rallying point for the march, some of the local community were out in the street playing at an poc fada (“the long hit”), a one-shot competition with hurley to see who can hit the sliotar (the leather ball used in hurley games) the furthest. An poc fada is one of the features of the Féile Béal Feirste, an annual community festival which has been growing annually (and which some say has now largely become a commercial festival, far from its community roots, with dear admittance fees and drink prices, in an area with very high unemployment).
Rounding the corner to head up towards the Shamrock Bar, I was just in time to join the tail of the march as it set off. I sped up to try and catch up with the Dublin Anti-Internment Committee, passing some people I knew along the way, exchanging greetings. There were five Republican marching bands playing music: the Garngad, Brendan Hughes and Volunteers Black and Ryan bands were all from Glasgow, while the John Brady RFB was from Strabane and the Julie Dougan from Portadown.
At the junction with Old Park Road I joined with the Dublin Committee comrades, apologising for my late arrival as we swung right to head towards the city centre. Further down the road, the police vans awaited us and as we got nearer we could see a blockade composed of police vans backed up by many police in full riot armour, holding shields and with batons drawn. We marched on and in minutes we were crowded against them. I feared for us if we tried to get through and I saw a drummer with one of the bands step out and retire to the sides with his drum. I didn’t blame him – drums are expensive pieces of equipment. The police had a big sign on one of their vans, saying that our march was illegal, a message they were reiterating from their p.a system, though difficult to decipher all the words.
After a while in literal impasse, one of the organisers spoke briefly into the p.a system and introduced Mícheál Mac Giolla Easpuig, an Independent local authority representative in Donegal. Mac Giolla Easpuig spoke first for awhile in his native Irish and then changed to English. He summarised the history of English colonial repression in Ireland since 1970 and
made the point that the need of the authorities for that repression denied any legitimacy to their occupation of the Six Counties. He concluded with the words of Volunteer Tom Williams, who was hung by the colonial administration in the Six Counties in 1942: “Carry on no matter what odds are against you; carry on no matter what the enemy call you; carry on no matter what torments are inflicted on you. The road to freedom is paved with suffering, hardship and torture; carry on my gallant comrades until that certain day.”
As the applause and cheering died down, a spokesperson for the organisers spoke briefly about the suppression of our democratic rights to march, about the continuing use of internment by other means and announced the end of the march, asking people to disperse.
One of the Republican marching bands played the verse and chorus of the Irish national anthem, The Soldiers’ Song; I sang along to it in Irish as is our custom in Dublin (but seems not to be in Belfast) and the band began to march away from the police blockade. We marched away behind them with the banners of the Dublin Committee, as did others with different campaign banners: Craigavon Two, Ballymurphy Massacre, Stephen Kaczinsky, Gavin Coyle and various Republican prisoner support groups.
At some point the Dublin and Cork contingents pulled away and went back to near the original rallying point, where local people and visitors were meeting and chatting as the sliotair of the Poc Fada whizzed overhead. Rumours were now reaching us of the police attacking people on the other side of their barrier and also, from time to time, of Loyalists attacking people somewhere. It was hard for us to know exactly what was happening and where. Eventually we piled in to the back of a van to get out of the area. Our driver had to take a long circuitous route again and eventually we were back in West Belfast, from where we could make our separate ways back to Dublin and Cork.
Fighting in the area
Later I learned from a variety of sources that the local community in the Roseapenna Street area had reacted to a police, who were still there an hour after the march had left, in an occupation or siege of their area. This was an area through which the march had planned to pass and which was now blocked off by police vans and police on foot in full riot armour. A woman was shown on video being arrested by two police in riot armour – it was said that she was pregnant and was being mistreated in front of her three children. Apparently she had objected to the police being in her garden and had demanded they leave. The video showed her being pulled struggling to the back of a police van, being pushed inside and big policemen piling in on top of her, her head being apparently twisted as she disappeared from view. Another woman protesting this treatment was bashed by the shield of one of the police and the mobile phone filming the incident suddenly ended up on the ground, apparently having been knocked out of the hand of its owner by the police.
Later reports in the media spoke of stones being thrown and even petrol bombs. I could easily empathise with the throwers: confronted with that police blockade and our impotence in the face of it, I had found a part of me frustrated and itching to strike back at them. Had the area I lived in been blockaded by police and cut off for hours, then also occupied by police in a massive show of force, then seeing people abused and assaulted for objecting, I would have been sorely tempted to get a bit of rubber tubing and a bottle, go to a friend and ask to borrow some of the petrol from his car. Stones after all are not very effective against riot armour, shields and riot vans. True, the police riot armour is flame-retardant but …..
In addition, people living in the area and trying to leave it had been attacked by Loyalists hurling golfballs from the nearby Twaddel Road, which is a Loyalist area. In fact, they have had a Loyalist “camp” there for some time – illegally by Six County law but of course untroubled by the PSNI. Its purpose? To show those Fenians — those Taigues — up in the Old Park, Ardoyne and “The Bone” (Machaire Botháin) areas just who really runs the Six Counties!
Worse in a way was to come, as along with the ritual condemnations by Unionists and Loyalists, PSNI spokespersons and biased media reporting, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin blamed the violence entirely on the organisers of the march. As well as being a very senior figure in the Sinn Féin party, McGuinness is of course Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland colonial Government. Back in the day when he was the commanding officer of the IRA in Derry, he had condoned and defended participating in many marches that had not so much been restricted to particular times as completely banned by the Six County authorities. During one of those illegal marches in Derry, in 1972, the Parachute Regiment had opened fire on unarmed people and killed fourteen, injuring many. In those days the IRA and what was thought of as Provisional Sinn Féin placed their blame for all violence unreservedly upon the police and army (and occasionally the Loyalists), also on the 6-County Government and on the British colonialists, who should not be in Ireland at all, according to Sinn Féin. But that was then and their party now shares in the administration of that same British colony. Reading his reported words, I wondered whether if that Derry massacre of Bloody Sunday were to occur now, McGuinness would blame the marchers for going ahead with a banned march?
The Anti Internment League hit back with a statement of their own, condemning the comments made by Martin McGuinness. “The AIL responsibly took the decision to march away from a flashpoint that was of the PSNI’s own making”, the statement read. “No participants engaged in violence,” it continued, “which occurred over an hour after our dispersal and was caused by PSNI invasion of property and assaults on residents.” The statement went on to point out that Mc Guinness had praised the PSNI a few days earlier (a reference to his shared platform with PSNI’s Chief Constable on Thursday 6th in a venue on the Falls Road).
Uncannily (or perhaps not), the statement went on to mirror my own earlier speculation: “Using Martin McGuinness’s rationale, he would place responsibility for the murder of 14 civilians in his own city by the British Army on Bloody Sunday in 1972 on those who organised the Anti-Internment parade that day.”
“There is perhaps no greater indicator of how Mc Guinness now views Republicans as his opponents, while the forces of repressive state apparatus that he himself promotes and endorses are now his ‘comrades’ “, the statement concluded.
Follow-up meeting with area community
In a follow-up to the events of Saturday in the Lower Cliftonville area, on Tuesday night in Manor St Community Centre, the Anti Internment League hosted a meeting with Rosapenna residents affected by the PSNI lockdown on Sunday 9th August.
“Every house in the area received a leaflet making them aware of the meeting” according to a statement issued by the AIL. The panel was composed of representatives of the AIL, community workers from Lower Cliftonville and a local solicitor. A journalist from the Irish News was also in attendance to hear accounts and opinions from residents.
Because of Martin McGuinness’s “public criticism of both the AIL and local residents”, according to the AIL statement, Sinn Féin had been invited to send representation to the meeting “to challenge the AIL if they wished and to hear residents’ thoughts and opinions in a public forum”. According to the AIL statement, although SF had indicated that they would attend, they did not appear at the meeting.
The atmosphere in the meeting was angry, according to witnesses – all of it directed towards the PSNI with no-one criticising the march organisers, with the exception being those who chided the organisers for having turned the parade back “too soon”. The AIL represenatives’ explanation of the considerations and reasons for doing so seemed to satisfy the critics. One of the AIL representatives reportedly also asked whether residents would rather the parade did not pass through Rosapenna Street in future, which was “rejected unanimously by residents present, who all said they enjoy the music and atmosphere that the annual march brings to the area.”
A hitherto unreported aspect of the events on Sunday in the area was that local businesses reported having been forced to close down by the PSNI for no reason that they could determine. This was particularly interesting in view of the Parades Commission’s rationale for insisting that the march finish passing through the City Centre by 1.30 pm – to prevent any perceived disruption to big shopping commercial interests in that location.
The AIL statement went on to outline their plans to work with local community organisations to “jointly request and facilitate a “surgery” style event, inviting the Police Ombudsman to compile complaints against the PSNI from local residents.” Concluding their statement, the Anti-Internment League declared that they, working with “local community organisations and Republican activists will not allow the violent actions of the PSNI within the Lower Cliftonville community on 9th August to go unchallenged.”
End/ A Chríoch.