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Demonstrating for Peace
no more sommes!

FEBRUARY 15th 2003 was a significant date in the history of the worldwide opposition movement to the headlong rush towards war. In London, some 1,000,000+ folk – the largest public gathering since VE Day in 1945 – turned out to tell Tony Blair to back away from war.

In Glasgow, Mr Blair brought forward his speech at the Labour Spring Conference by four hours to avoid meeting with the 80,000 antiwar demonstrators who gathered outside the SECC armadillo building.

Antiwar demonstrators in New York had to put up with obstacles thrown in their way by the city authorities. The City banned a parade on the grounds that it would be a ‘security risk’. Nobody knew who would turn up, the NYC authorities claimed, so in would be too much of a strain on the police department. Funny though, that no such restrictions are to apply to the annual NYC St Patrick’s Day parade!

As it happened, well over 200,000 turned up to protest against the war. Many were subjected to intimidation and petty harassment by New York’s ‘finest’ as they travelled through the streets to the rally outside the United Nations building. This attempt at silencing the voice of protest was an utter failure.

I took part in the antiwar protest rally in Belfast. Some 20,000 marchers gathered in the bright sunshine at the Cathedral Gardens before parading through Royal Avenue and Donegall Place to the City Hall. I was a bit too late for the parade, but managed to catch up with the rally just as it started.

David Kerr carrying the Betsy Ross flag on the Belfast antiwar demonstration, February 15th 2003.The demonstrators were quite a mixed bunch. There were young and old, Protestant and Catholic, respectable middle class ladies, disreputable looking punks, and all sorts in between. I spotted a prominent Young Unionist in the crowd as well as David Ford, the leader of the Alliance Party. Gerry Adams the Sinn Féin leader was also in the crowd, although I didn’t see him. It was good to discover that the leader of an organisation that launched a three-decades-long war in our own country has apparently been converted to the position that political leaders ought not to start wars. Perhaps he might yet find time to declare that the war his colleagues in the IRA launched some three decades or so is finally over!

There were banners present from the GMB union, the T&G, Unison and the Fire Brigades Union and the Quakers. A variety of leftist sects were there too. I spotted banners from the Socialist Party, the SWP, Workers’ Party, the SDLP and the Communist Party of Ireland. Close-up of the Betsy Ross flag as carried by the author on the Belfast antiwar parade.

I did my bit too. I carried a Betsy Ross flag – 13 stripes and 13 stars to celebrate the true spirit of America – the founders’ classical republic rather than the interventionist Wilsonian empire that George W Bush presides over today.  The flag provoked some curiosity and bemusement by some fellow protestors. One chap thought it was a European symbol sewn on to an American flag. I explained the wise words of Thomas Jefferson – about Americans not going abroad in order to ‘seek monsters to destroy’ and Washington’s farewell address in which he warned of the dangers of ‘entangling alliances’.  On the pole I had marked the URLs of Americans Against World Empire and Antiwar.com - two patriotic American antiwar groups that are definitely not leftist!

One fellow demonstrator, himself an American, approached me, wondering where in the States I was from. He was quite surprised to hear that I was actually from Belfast. He was delighted, though to see the old Betsy Ross flag carried proudly at an antiwar demonstration. He had considered flying the current US flag upside-down but decided against this as he thought it might have been disrespectful. As a conservative libertarian, he had read Gary Allen’s None Dare Call it Conspiracy he was opposed to US international interventionism.The Betsy Ross Flag - symbol of the America of Jefferson and Washington rather than Wilson and Bush - flies over the faces of the crowd.

The sound system was rubbish. It was impossible to hear most of the speakers any more than fifty metres from the (not so) loudspeakers. Some wee girl in a school uniform and a Protestant clergyman were totally inaudible. They may have a lot of wise things to say, but if so, they were wasting their breath. The only speakers I could hear were the Nobel laureate Mairéad Corrigan Maguire and the Derry journalist and leftist activist, Eamon McCann.

Ms Maguire spoke movingly of her own personal trip to Iraq where she had met victims of US smart bombs during the last conflict. Mr McCann stole the show with his passionate rallying cry of ULSTER SAYS NO to war in the Gulf. This was a conscious echo of Ian Paisley’s speech at the same venue in November 1985 at a mass protest against the infamous Hillsborough Pact between Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald.

Mr McCann spoke eloquently of the way that vast amounts of money can be found for bombs, tanks and missiles but none for roads, railways, hospitals and clean water. He was at pains to point out that this was not an anti-American demonstration. He was glad that millions of Americans would also be taking to the streets against war too.

All in all it was a great day. The organised left may have prepared the protest, but they did not dominate it. As far as I am concerned it is not just a right but also a patriotic duty for people to question the actions of our governments. Despite the smears, lies and slanders of the likes of Blair, Bush, Rumsfeld and Harney, many people in Ulster, Britain, the US and Éire are not convinced by the rhetoric of war. Ulster suffered when we fell for that line before in 1914 during the crisis that led to the Great War. Then the flower of Ulster’s manhood was cut down at the Battle of the Somme. We say never again! No more Sommes!

David Kerr


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