By Belfast Plebian
Yesterday I decided to participate in an anti-internment demonstration in Belfast. I could not get to the starting point so thought to join at the midpoint in central Belfast. The demo I think was organised to do three things: to commemorate the August 1971 introduction of imprisonment without trail, to highlight the continuation of the same policy by less conspicuous means, imprisonment for long stretches of time under the guise of waiting for a trial date; internment on remand, and finally the abuse of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in other ‘special facilities’.
I am not big on the commemoration thing, a street demonstration is a very inferior way of coming to a coherent understanding of past political events, however the other two are very important just now because the democratic rights of common people are under sustained attack in the countries that first originated them, namely in the United States, France and Britain.
The comprehensive attack on democratic rights is turning into something ever more serious in most bourgeois democracies. Just last month the British Government passed into law something called the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA). The key provision creates a new procedure to permit the use of secret evidence and testimony against a defendant in any civil case in the UK. The new measure constitutes yet another negation of the democratic rights of the individual in relation to the powers of the State.
The new provision is called ‘a closed material procedure’ (CMP) and it means that a defendant’s barrister will have no right to question the evidence against a client if the CMP procedure is invoked by the State. The new courts will also now have the power to make use of evidence against defendants not previously disclosed to their legal team.
The JSA is a response to the case of Binyam Mohammed, a British citizen who was detained at Guantanamo. His legal team had forced a civil action against the British government for being complicit in his torture in 2011 and evidence came to light in court that showed that British police agents had secretly assisted in his torture and rendition. The judge in the case had ruled that the secret police material was admissible. Now this sort of secret evidence is to be totally closed to viewing.
The new act is a change to the already highly restrictive Public Interest Immunity procedure frequently used during the ‘troubles’ to keep evidence of crimes committed by the security forces from legal examination. From now on, even the presiding judge in a case will no longer have a say on what kind of evidence can be scrutinised by a jury. It means the abandonment of civil courts presided over by judges in favour of political courts manipulated government officials against selected defendants. In the closed material procedure only the government and its lawyers will be present before the judge. The defendant and their lawyer will not be present in court, they will not be permitted to see the evidence being presented if it depends on ‘sensitive security material’. Also the defendant is not entitled to know the reasons why the judge came to a decision. The Act is to apply to ‘all relevant civil proceedings’ in the High Court, Court of Appeal, Court of Sessions and the Supreme Court. The above is just one way by which the rights of people are being curtailed by government.
The problem you always have to deal with when defending basic democratic rights in the North of Ireland is that those who do so are habitually associated with republican inspired anti- British feeling, not just by the State officials but by the organised part of political Unionism. So as I strode into the city centre the first thing I noticed was a very large number of angry loyalists gathered at one end of Royal Avenue, who were obviously hell bent on preventing a so called ‘dissident republican’ march from getting into their beloved British city centre.
They had been gathering for hours and had reached two thousand strong by about six o’clock. I wondered why there were so few police officers on duty, only a tiny fraction of the number that had been on duty for the G8 demo and I wondered why so many loyalists had been allowed to gather unhindered on the very street that the anti-internment demo was supposed to pass along.
I mingled with the loyalists for about an hour; the mood was ugly and the loyalists looked well up for a street battle. A riot then kicked into full swing when the police asked some loyalists to move into a designated zone behind a makeshift barrier consisting of a handful of police land rovers. It was pretty obvious that there would be no anti-internment rally passing down Royal Avenue this evening. The loyalists were by now in full riot mode, getting tore into the police at close quarters, tossing bricks and bottles.
It was very striking just how many loyalists had turned out to stop what they considered to be a provocation by the ‘other side’ from holding a small political demonstration. The ‘other side’ were the despised Irish republican enemy without any equivocation or qualification. To be honest it has hard to see how the loyalists present could ever be reconciled to the State granting the same right to free assembly for republicans and reds in a city that they maintain is exclusively British and monarchist.
It does not look good for the ‘shared future’, with so many alienated loyalists regularly attacking the PSNI on the streets. The DUP and the Unionist Party are clearly feeling a rising pressure to resile from the rather forced agreement they made with Sinn Fein called the Good Friday Agreement.
The British government on its part has no big idea or plan to settle things with the loyalists. The big idea of bourgeois democracy I believe includes a principle best articulated by Abe Lincoln in the famous Gettysburg Address, that in a democracy in contrast to a monarch- aristocracy ‘all men are created equal’: meaning they are all entitled to the same constitutional rights as something universal.
Bourgeois democracy is built on two platforms: free and fair elections leading to a democratic government and universal democratic rights. Ulster Unionism currently bows down to only the one platform of bourgeois democracy, the free and fair elections platform part, and even this is qualified by the anti-democratic forced partition of 1920
When the great majority of Irish nationalists voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement it surely indicated that they were now ready to treat partition as an accidental error and not a terrible historical grievance perpetuated against them. They believed that by dropping the Irish constitutional articles on sovereignty, this act of political humility would be enough to lend a necessary democratic legitimacy to a perpetually insecure Unionism that would be great enough to allow for a future of peace and equality.
But Unionism accepted the offer ever so reluctantly and made no corresponding provision for Lincoln’s universal rights; unionist democracy just stayed thinking and behaving as in the past; an elected government should mean majority rule, and we the Protestants are the majority and our rights must come first. It should be recalled that the majority of unionists actually opposed the initial Trimble made Good Friday Agreement.
Majority rule was in fact the democratic cry of the Southern Confederacy; those states commanded a popular majority in favour of maintaining things as they stood, and in 1860 this so happened to include slavery. The best of them who were not slave owners fought in the name of a democratic majority rule, a right of self- government in the seven and then eleven Southern States. In their minds Lincoln was the opponent of democracy, the Tyrant of the Federal Union. The task of educating the American people in 1860 as to the essence of bourgeois democracy, that it was about more than not just having an elected government but was also about universal rights fell to Lincoln. The example of the American Confederacy is good reason why self-government in the name of a majority is not always for the better.
I am not suggesting that British Unionism in Ireland is in favour of slavery; in fact it has always favoured free wage labour and private property. What I am suggesting is that it has no stomach for digesting the bourgeois principle that all men are created equal, and this is at the very heart of the matter and largely explains why there is so little of what is termed normal democratic politics to be seen in the here and now.
It should be said, this is not unique to Ireland, it appears almost everywhere in variations. Across the Middle East the overthrowing of the military dictatorships in Iraq, Libya, Egypt were superseded by democracies that insisted on the unalloyed sectarian viewpoint of the majority must rule, there is no room for universal democratic rights. Marxists in particular need constant reminding that just getting to the normal state of bourgeois democracy and keeping it going is a massive undertaking in itself.
Karl Marx in1860 thought that if the side of Lincoln were defeated it would be a massive blow to the historical advance of the working class in Europe. Leon Trotsky argued in 1933 that the smashing of bourgeois democracy in Germany would be a much greater blow to the international working class than the Stalinists at that time imagined. It is all too easy to downgrade the democratic rights side of the socialist programme in pursuit of the maximum or even the transitional demands of the socialist programme.
I decided to move away from the town centre and try and join up with the anti-internment demo at another place. I was told that the demo would most likely be rerouted along Millfield, a street that connects North Belfast to the lower Falls Road. As I took to my heels the police decided to do a pincer on the hundred or so mainly nationalist youths still standing at the juncture of Castle Street and Royal Avenue. They came at us from two directions and forced us up into Castle Street.
It was then that the nationalists realised their chance of joining the demo in the city centre was gone for this time. Some of them began chanting the familiar old anti police slogan SS-RUC, others mentioned groundhog day and moved away – the police had capitulated in the face of loyalist fury said others. I walked up to Millfield and waited and waited without really knowing what was happening, the wait lasted for a couple of hours
Eventually, at about nine o’clock the head of the demo appeared, it was a substantial demo of about 1800 people; they looked tired but not demoralised. The 300 hundred or so people waiting for them to arrive cheered and clapped like supporters standing at a football match. They joined the demonstration and it proceeded to snake its way up the Falls Road to the final destination point in Andersonstown.
I did not stay to listen to the speeches; I guessed they would be of a traditional republican hue something that I have heard many times before. I had still some walking to do to get back home, the buses were not operating, it was eleven thirty when I finally made it back to the house, an intended hour spent at a demo had turned into a seven hour marathon.
Making a political assessment of the significance of the demo is a little more difficult than with loyalism. The demo was the biggest one that has occurred in Belfast organised by diverse republican and residents groups not aligned to Sinn Fein. The very subjective impression I got was that those on and those supporting the demo were drawn mainly from the very poorest segment of Belfast society, the loyalists gathering was composed of working class people too but they looked more prosperous in their general appearance.
They were certainly the sort of working class people who in earlier days used to be solid behind the IRA and Sinn Fein. The fact that Sinn Fein has lost some of its urban working class support is not that significant in electoral terms because the party has definitely replaced that support with those who used to be sympathetic to the political party of steady decline the SDLP.
A feature worth mentioning is the age profile, previous republican demos that I have witnessed were staffed by well seasoned not to say aging types; the bulk of the people on this one were under 30. What was positive was a genuine will not to get drawn into a sectarian street battle with loyalists. One young republican that I spoke to was worried that loyalists had come out to block their way. Why, he asked, do loyalists fight against things like demanding an end to interment on demand, something that oppresses them as much as it does us?
I think the organisers of the demonstration will be pleased with what they got and they will likely try to build on it by staging more of the same. However it might still be the case that the marked increase in the numbers of young people participating may actually just be a response to the rising tide of loyalist provocations generated by more and more loyalist street activities. It is too early to say if this represents a turning point against Sinn Fein within the old core republican community.
A couple of other things are worthy of note. I have listened to a good number of nationalists speak well of the PSNI of late for standing up to loyalist threats of violence, a nationalist expectation that the police will continue to perform well may well lead to a big let down in the near future with unpredictable consequences for those politicians who are trusting them the most.
It was also evident that there were no socialist currents either on the parade or around the fringes. They have abandoned all thought of unfulfilled democratic tasks in pursuit of socialism for today, or rather what they consider to be socialism. The assessment they make of the recalcitrant republicans is one they hold in common with hired pundits who work for the capitalist owned press; that they are dreadful atavistic nationalists whose time has thankfully gone.
I don’t really share this mode of thought because it is too undifferentiated; all of the recalcitrant republicans are not unthinking militarists. ‘The Irish News’ referred to all involved as ‘dissident republicans’ but it was certainly more diverse than that expression suggests. Today basic democratic rights are being shredded all too readily, the prospect for socialist advances are very poor in both Ireland and Britain and politics at this time of austerity is favouring the right wing rather than the left wing – just look at the advance of UKIP compared to the abject failures of the socialists to the left of the labour Party.
The pressures of being in government for the foreseeable future are sure to test an inexperienced Sinn Fein’s capacity for political survival and in the absence of anything even vaguely resembling a socialist movement in the North of Ireland the social conditions may well favour a surprising republican revival.