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The British Queen's Visit To Dublin: Lessons For The Republican And Socialist Movements?
dublin | rights and freedoms | feature Sunday June 05, 2011 00:07 by Diarmuid Breatnach - Personal Capacity
Could/ should the protests have been larger? Should there have been any protests at all?
As Elizabeth Windsor's visit moves into history it is time to analyse the reasons for the visit and what happened during it: the small protests, the massive restrictions on movement in Ireland's capital city, the huge violations of the right to protest,
Elizabeth Windsor, Queen of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland, Head of the Commonwealth, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces and Head of the Church of England, also head of an imperialist and capitalist family of vast wealth, has visited the 26 Counties Irish state for her first time ever (although she has previously visited the Six Counties of ‘Northern Ireland’).
One of the propaganda lines to sell this visit to the Irish public was that it would be “good for tourism” and therefore would “create jobs”. In the short term, this was obviously grossly untrue. It was actually bad for tourism, as visitors to the city found the main street blocked off and were re-routed around on a complicated journey (and at times down back streets they were uneasy at walking), tourist attractions such as the Castle and Trinity were closed for a time or had parts permanently blocked; traffic including coaches arriving from the West was delayed by about an hour, walking and bus tours were cancelled; taxis had difficulty picking up passengers and setting them down due to crowd barriers (without crowds!) and in some cases visitors found their very hotels surrounded by barriers. Restaurants and cafes in affected areas suffered huge loss of business and even outlying areas felt the effects.
It is doubtful whether in the longer-term it will encourage tourism either. Some media have spoken of it generating a large influx of British tourists who will now feel “safe”. Will they feel safer than the three to six million tourists from Britain (according to various estimates) who currently visit us every year? Who else will be wanting to come to Ireland now who did not want to do so previously? Really, the whole idea is and was prepostrous, and only a tame and obedient media would put it forward or refrain from challenging it. The motivation for the visit had nothing to do with tourism – it was purely political.
The previous time a British monarch had arrived in Dublin was when George VI had been in 1911 to what was then the second city in the British Empire, a decade before a political and armed campaign of resistance forced the British ruling class to propose a deal in which sovereignty for a major part of the country was ceded, in theory, to the Irish people. That deal in 1921, of course, led to a split in the Irish national liberation movement and a Civil War in which a section fought for the comprador (foreign-dependent) Irish bourgeoisie and, reinforced by recruits who had never fired a shot during the War of Independence (except perhaps in the British Army) defeated those who wished to have a united country free from British rule. The working class was marginalised during this struggle, both by the Republican leadership and by their own leaders who kept their organisations from taking sides. James Connolly and some other prominent socialists had been killed during the Rising of 1916 or executed afterwards; the Citizen Army had last seen action in the Rising and did not fight as a unit again, gradually disappearing from the stage.
The comprador capitalist state built on the defeat of the national liberation forces in 1922 has had a number of changes in government since then but essentially remains the same. That explains many things, including how it could invite the visit of the head of an invader state which is still holding on to a huge chunk of Irish territory and then defend her from their own citizens, in the course of which their police tore more than one Irish tricolour from the hands of protesters and, on occasion, put them into rubblish bins. The tricolour, mind, the official colours of the state!
The state wished to have this visit mark the normalisation of Irish society – the normalisation of the occupation of the Six Counties as well as the bailouts of financial speculators, paid for by the empovirishment of the majority of the Irish people. They may have wished for normalisation and they may still get it, but the huge security operation, the swamping of so many areas by police, the erection of barriers in so many places and the protests were all eloquent parts of a narrative that there was nothing normal about the visit or about Britain’s relationship with Ireland.
The visit was greeted with joy and sycophantic comment by representatives of the Irish bourgeoisie and its media. By contrast, most ordinary people either had nothing to say or were against it.
The mobilisations for the protests and the notable absences gave us much to think about, as did the relative ease with which the state was able to prevent us getting anywhere nearer than about two hundred kilometres from the ceremonies in the centre of our small city. The massive security operation resulted in a huge attack on civil liberties of Dublin civilians of any kind of political opinion, with regard to the right of free movement, as well of course as to the right to protest peacefully by those who opposed the visit. This attack was notable not only by the arrogance and arbitrariness of the actions of the Gardaí but also by the total absence of any kind of civil rights defence organisation.
THE DEMONSTRATIONS -- WHO, WHEN AND WHERE
Most people years ago and perhaps some up to a few weeks ago would have expected massive protests to be organised by Sinn Féin. This expectation would have arisen out of the organisation’s origins in opposing British rule and their movement’s practice over many years. Even after the Good Friday Agreement, many would still have expected the organisation to be to the fore in any protests against the visit of a British reigning monarch, at least while the 6 Counties of the north of Ireland remained under British occupation.
It was not to be. First Martin McGuinness, senior figure in the SF leadership, publicly stated his wish that there be no protest against the monarch’s visit. Gerry Adams, the party’s president, began by saying that he considered the visit “premature” but that he respected the decision of the Irish President to invite the Queen. In another interview a few days before the visit, he expressed the wish that since she was going to come, that her visit should play a role in improving relations between both countries. Over recent weeks, queries of SF activists in Dublin elicited a shifting of feet and sliding of eyes as they struggled to reconcile their own view with those of their leadership and to defend the indefensible.
The SF leadership struggled to give their more militant following something while projecting themselves to the bourgeoisie as the “responsible” bourgeois party they wish to become. In the end they decided that they would promote the anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings of 1974, in the course of which some of the relatives of the slain civilians in Dublin felt that their annual commemoration was being hijacked. The party’s only Dublin protest which could be closely linked to the British Queen’s visit was the release of black balloons from their headquarters on Parnell Square West as she visited the Gardens of Remembrance on on the other side of the Square. In the run-up to the visit, the party leadership instructed their members not to support any demonstration organised by “anti-Good Friday Agreement groups” which of course, meant no demonstrations for them at all. Some of their young supporters defied their leadership and came out anyway but the vast majority stayed away.
The organisation which had most energetically been promoting resistance to the royal visit was undoubtedly éirigí, the Republican socialist organisation (and also with the largest Dublin membership among the “dissident” groups). They had in fact been organising opposition to any talk of British royal visits for years and had brought about a significant protest a number of years previously near the Croke Park stadium, when the British Queen’s sister had been invited by the Rugby Union of Ireland to one of their games there. Recently, with the Queen’s visit due soon, they held an O’Connell Street protest where the highlight was the monarch being “tried” for “crimes against the people”, being found guilty and then beheaded by guillotine.
But they were not the only group to hold public protests in Dublin’s main street in the run-up to the visit, as the Republican Network for Unity and Republican Sinn Féin had held separate protests there too. In addition, the Socialist Workers’ Party had organised a tour of four Irish cities between the 13th and 15th of May for Prof. John Newsinger to speak on the “Horrible History of the House of Windsor”. About 40 people attended the Dublin meeting
During the visit and just before it éirigí organised four public protests while the numerically smaller (in Dublin) 32-County Sovereignty Movement and RNU carried out two separate protests. Although there seemed to be some joint action between 32 CSM and RSF at one point during the visit, there was no joint action between the other organisations. An exception might have been on the 18th when a group of fifty or so 32 CSM approached the éirigí rally platform in Thomas Street from the direction of the Castle, halted there a while chanting slogans, only to turn and march back. A call for unity? A challenge? A disparaging comment? The answer is not known, but by the time the éirigí march got going and reached the scene, the others had been ‘kettled’ down a side street and were kept there for hours.
The éirigí protests were almost entirely peaceful with some police violence and the odd missile thrown. For the week of the visit itself they had planned originally two public activities: a ‘peace camp’ outside the Garden of Remembrance to prevent or at least protest the scheduled visit of the British Queen there and a march to protest outside Dublin Castle during the reception and banquet hosted by the State in her honour the following day. However, the police prevention of the protesters getting near the Garden of Remembrance forced a change of plan; the protest would now meet further towards the Centre and march on as near as they could get to Parnell Square (in which the Garden is located) and make their noisy protest there.
The other additional protest was planned for the Memorial Park at Islandbridge, when it was learned that British Loyalist assassination squad leaders of the UDA had been invited to lay wreaths at the monument to Irish soldiers who were killed in the British Armed forces during the World Wars.
The éirigí protest on Sunday May 15th at the Parnell Monument corner of Parnell Square took place there because the Gardaí predictably prevented them from moving up to the Garden of Rembrance.
On Tuesday 17th, the day the Queen was to enter the Garden of Rembrance, the éirigí protest the started off at O’Connell Street, where they tussled with the Gardaí as they sat for awhile at the Spire in the cordoned-off O’Connell Street. Then they moved off to Moore Street, the sadly neglected site of the last headquarters of the 1916 Rising, before entering Parnell Street and, amid some shoving by Gardaí, sitting down in the road at the junction with Parnell Square West. The slogans here were: “They say ‘Queen’ – we say Guillotine!”; “Whose streets? Our streets!”; “Can you hear us loud and clear? British Royals not welcome here!”
On the same afternoon, the RNU met at Connolly Station but were prevented by Gardaí from entering O’Connell Street; they then made their way up side streets to get as near as they could get to the Garden of Rembrance and ended up protesting at Dorset St/ Frederick St. North junction..
It was there at that junction too that the 32 CSM and RSF began their protests, whether by joint arrangement is not known.
The police at the corner of Dorset Street and Frederick Street had two lines of barriers and were standing behind them, preventing further movement towards the Garden of Remembrance. After awhile, orange smoke flares were thrown into the police lines and struggles broke out around the barriers as some of the protesters tore one line of them away from the police. The police here drew batons and used pepper spray on at least one protester. As the Queen arrived at the Garden of Rembrance (out of sight of the protesters), police in riot gear with batons drawn began to drive the protesters along Dorset Street, including those peacefully protesting with placards and flags, in the direction out of town; some of the protesters started to burn rubbish bags and to use whatever they could find to throw at the police, including bricks and stones.
The protesters were driven down as far as the junction with Eccles Street. The police in many instances were quite heavy-handed even with local bystanders, some of which were hurt and some of which appear to have been arrested. One cyclist and then two young women who were rapping were attacked by the police with choke holds and taken away in vans; rumour had it that 20 people altogether were arrested on Dorset Street.
That same evening, the Irish Anti-War Movement (closely associated with the Socialist Workers’ Movement), held their protest in O’Connell Street against the royal visit. Posters for the the “black balloon protest” event concentrated on the role of British Imperialism as a major partner in the US-led military coalition of invasion and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Speakers addressing the 400 or so during the event concentrated on those issues too and it was left to Ben Griffin, ex-British SAS soldier who had served in both areas of war, to make what might have been a subtle reference to Ireland’s own specific issue with the British state and monarchy, when he expressed his “solidarity with people who actively believe in peace and independence, as opposed to the wars and Empire represented by Her”.
On the 18th, the éirigí protest began with a rally on Thomas St. outside St. Catherine’s Church, across the road from where the British had hung, drawn and quartered Robert Emmet in 1803. The rally took some time in starting and organisers informed the crowd that they were awaiting speakers from the 6 Counties. As the crowd began to get restive, one of the éirigí members kept them entertained from the stage with ballads a capella. Eventually the rally began with speeches from éirigí leaders and a member recently elected as a town councillor to Newry, but also from a Dublin City councillor (Ciaran Perry, independent socialist), a representative of Fírinne (organisation seeking a public enquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan) bombings and Eugene Mc Cartan of the Irish Communist Party. They also had a short performance from the singer-songwriter Pol Mac Adam.
It was approaching two hours after the originally-advertised time for the rally when they formed up and about 500 marched along Thomas St. towards the Castle. Apart from the éirigí supporters, there were also small groups of socialists and republicans such as the the anarchist WSM (whose banner had been confiscated earlier) and the IRSP, along with independent socialists and republicans.
As they reached the junction with Patrick Street, with Christchurch on the far corner, they were confronted with double lines of Gardaí blocking access towards Dublin Castle or down towards the Liffey. To the right, penned into a side street off Patrick Street, the flags of the 32-CSM (who had earlier briefly neared the rally before marching away again) could be seen on the other side of another double row of Gárdaí. A few speeches were made at the junction and then a netful of black balloons was released. As the march dispersed soon after, many to take the long circuitious routes back across the city, the dreadlocked Ciaron O’Reilly, one of the famous Shannon Five, began a speech about Bradley Manning, the US Serviceman currently in jail awaiting trial for allegedly supplying Wikkileaks with thousands of secret US forces documents.
Although protester violence was a minor element in the protests as a whole, it has been raised as an issue by some commentators, as have the intentions and composition of the protesters. That some people, whether from a political perspective or the social one of the downtrodden inner city poor, should want to use these occasions to wreak revenge on the police should surprise no-one. But is that deserving of such condemnation? The police serve the ruling class and have dished out violence on a mass scale to many protesting groups, most noticeably in recent months to the protesting students, one of whom they even knocked unconscious and threw into the street . And violence and contempt is meted out on a smaller basis but often day by day to those who were neglected in deprivation and infested with heroin in the 80’s and have been ignored by the Celtic Tiger since: the inner city poor. In some of the protests, a small group of drug addicts took part, one of their number struggling to stay awake. In the protest on the 17th, a group of local schoolchildren – sitting on the ground near one of them, I could see his school uniform trousers, perhaps a hand-me-down from an older brother, had been taken up at least eight inches on the inside and stitched there, to be let down as he grew taller.
Some of those elements needed to be controlled for the overall good of the protest and, in the eírigí protests they were, without being asked to leave. In the short term, that seems the right way to handle the situation (in the longer term, education, training, organisation). Up on Dorset Street, those elements were encouraged by some to mix it with the Garda “robocops” and one must question the justice of doing that, with no political or civil rights organisation ready to support them when they are arrested or go to court.
THE OVERALL ACCOUNT BALANCE
To look on the credit side of the account, it was important that the visit did not go unopposed. Those protests salvaged the pride of nation and class to an extent and will be remembered for many years, even if not appreciated by many now. Had they not occurred, the shame and demoralisation would have driven the wide anti-imperialist movement further down into despair.
There was some joint action in places and, albeit too little and too late, that may be built on for the future.
The most significant positive result of the protests, apart from the fact that they actually took place, was that Sinn Féin must now lose any standing it had left among genuine Irish Republicans. Not only has it abandoned its claims to socialism (apart perhaps from the radical social-democratic niche abandoned by the Labour Party which SF appear to be trying to slide into), and to anti-imperialism (Adams welcoming Obama’s forthcoming visit), the party cannot even be said to have stood up for Irish nationalism on this occasion. The haemorraging of its youth support is set to continue and even some of its old-timers, who have already swallowed so much, are going to find their party’s statements and inaction sticking in their throats.
On the debit side, there was a massive attack on the people’s civil rights that to date remains largely unanswered. Intrusive political ‘vetting’ of local people by the police went on in Ballybough, near Croke Park. Freedom of movement of citizens and, in many areas of local residents, whether on foot, public or private transport was massively impeded and constrained by the police. Students’ exams were peremptorily rescheduled in Trinity College. There was a restriction of the right to poster before the visit and a complete ban during it, imposed by Dublin City Council and by DCU. Posters which had been legally applied for and permission granted were torn down by police in at least some areas and posterers harassed.
ID checks were widely carried out by the police and even people’s camera memories checked. Even tourists were harassed and on occasion their ID documents were demanded and details noted. Activists were pulled over while driving and their cars searched and, on occasion, placards and banners confiscated. There were a number of incidents of even the tricolour being confiscated in different areas (and in at least one incident, captured on camera, being placed in a garbage truck). Many protesters were prevented from reaching the areas where the protests were taking place. Some protesters and even onlookers were arrested.
Organised opposition to the British queen’s visit was scattered, outnumbered and, in most cases, outflanked or preempted to a degree.
The revolutionary movements of nation and of class have suffered a psychological blow and the feeling of shame will need to be redeemed.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
To paraphrase Marlon Brando speaking in his boxer role in On the Waterfront (1954) to his gangster brother (Rod Steiger), “we cudda bin contenders”. We could have. We could have brought out bigger numbers, have had a greater visual impact for weeks in advance, have moved more people to sympathise with the protests and mutter about the cost, the inconvenience, the lack of civil rights attendant on the state’s security operation. We would have emerged with greater morale and something of a groundswell upon which we could then build greater resistance to the state and its plans for us. We could even perhaps have had civil rights defenders present. We could have made things much more difficult for the state than we did.
From the moment the visit looked certain, we could have had a wide swathe of citizens wearing badges and t-shirts and with car stickers expressing opposition to the visit. The city could have been covered in many more posters and stickers and slogans than was the case. Face Book groups could have multiplied. Many events could have been held in the run-up to the visit, raising consciousness and militancy, preparedness. Innovative and eye-catching events and stunts could have been organised both before and during the visit. Working-class areas around the inner city could have been leafletted and meetings held there. Preparations could have been made to take into account the barricades and checkpoints. Cheap noise-making gadgets could have been mass produced for the protests (as simple as two or three tin cans strapped together and to be struck by stick or piece of metal, one for each person). The inventiveness, energy and enthusiasm of all those with an anti-imperialist consciousness could have been liberated.
For those things to happen, we would have needed a joint committee on which the various interested organisations and hopefully some non-aligned individuals would had had representation and whose decisions or recommendations would have been supported by word and deed across the whole bandwidth of opposition to the visit. From that, smaller working groups could have worked on their areas of expertise or particular interest.
For the socialist persective to be represented adequately the participation of the non-republican socialist organisations and individuals, including the anarchists would have been important. The SWP current took part in a small way with their supporters well away from areas near where the Queen was scheduled to visit, while the Socialist Party declined to organise or to take part in any protest at all, apart from a short and somewhat jokey contribution in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) from Joe Higgins, one of their two TDs (parliamentary representatives).
The unfortunate positions of the SP and the Workers’ Party with regard to the Six Counties have been known for decades but the SWP used to have a clear anti-imperialist line on the issue. From what could be seen during the British Queen’s visit, that seems to be weakening. The WSM’s participation in Dublin was also minimal and last minute and perhaps signals some ideological difficulty of their own.
Without the kind of build-up referred to above and united leadership, gathering in all the possible oppositional strands, why should we expect a high turnout from a population already demoralised by the attacks on them and our apparent inability to resist with any effectiveness?
Ní neart go cur le chéile, the Irish proverb goes; however Republican organisation did not unite with Republican organisation, socialist organisation did not unite with socialist, and neither of these wings of the spectrum of the political opposition to the Irish state united with the other. Once again, we failed to set aside differences, even if temporarily, to unite in action against the common enemy. When some of us finally did so, it was too late and we were too few to make a difference.
“Our foes were united and we were divided –
we met and they scattered our ranks to the wind.”
Well, not quite. But they did prevent us having anything like the impact we wished to have.
AND WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW?
It is not too late to make some important gains from this. If we have not learned the lesson of unity against the system, perhaps at least we have learned to appreciate temporary tactical unity and to work for it when events require it. And perhaps as a first step, we can all unite to make a demand of the civil rights sector that it carry out its supposed function or, if should it be unable to do so, that we set up our own alternative, working across party lines. We could start by setting up a commission to take statements regarding civil rights violations during this visit. What we do now may offer us some protection the next time. The state carried out this operation for a particular specific purpose but it will not fail to employ the same tactics against us again. Let us be ready.
Anti-Royal visit video (RNU):
German news video
BBC news video
RTÉ news video
Videos of protests
Listen to the Garda officer in charge who says he "never heard of them" (the UDA). Well, Officer, it was people like them with British Intelligence assistance who laid the no-warning bombs that later exploded with slaughter in Dublin and Monaghan streets and it was your Asst. Chief Commissioner at the time, Ned Garvey and who worked for British Intelligence, who handed over the wreckage to the RUC for forensic examination! Still collaborating, Gardaí!
Photos, reports and comment
Radio interview with two descendants of 1916 rebels