BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Maria Lourenco traveled from London to Belfast for Saturday's demonstration against the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Wearing a harlequin green hat and intermittently blowing on a whistle, she marched down Royal Avenue holding a homemade banner that read: "Sorry for the inconvenience we are trying to change the world."
It was a suitably tongue-in-cheek message for a good-natured if soggy day out in Northern Ireland's capital, ahead of the meeting of world leaders which began on Monday about 75 miles away, at a golf resort on the banks of Lough Erne in rural county Fermanagh. The devolved Northern Ireland government is hoping that the summit will showcase the region internationally, but for many protesters this weekend was an opportunity to have their voices heard -- although, at times, the din of local politics threatened to drown out them out.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland, not exactly inexperienced at dealing with large, rowdy demos, had warned of swarms of protesters descending on the streets of Belfast for the trade union-organized Big March for a Fairer World, evoking memories of clashes between police and protesters ahead of the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005. But the hordes never materialized: most estimates put the number of marchers in Belfast on Saturday at around 1,500 to 2,000.
The rain did little to dampen the spirits of the jazz band that played "Ain't Misbehavin'" as the eclectic crowd set off from Belfast's Custom House Square a little past noon on Saturday. Among a sea of slogans and placards were men in lurid orange jumpsuits protesting U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center; communists marched behind a banner demanding "Workers of All Countries Unite!" Other protesters walked in solidarity with the crowds in Istanbul, calling for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to step down. There were also some local concerns on display. Five middle-aged protesters solemnly carried a banner in memory of the 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre, in which 11 civilians were killed by the British Army in West Belfast over the course of three days.
While Northern Ireland is relatively peaceful these days, recent months have brought an uptick in the region's long-simmering sectarian tensions, with bomb threats, attacks on police, and tense demonstrations raising fears of a return to the bad old days of the Troubles. Dropping one of the world's most high-profile summits into the middle of this combustible mix seemed like it could have been an invitation for Northern Ireland's various political actors to take advantage of a rare global spotlight.
And yet banners for Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that fought the British state for 30 years and now shares power with pro-London unionists at the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont, were conspicuous by their absence. Once known as the political branch of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein leaders, including former militants like Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, have tacked to the center since entering government, sometimes to the frustration of their longtime supporters. The G8 has proved problematic for Sinn Fein, however: though its leaders have welcomed the summit, many rank-and-file are opposed. Some notable Sinn Fein figures were among the marchers, including former Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall Ó Donnghaile. Sinn Fein is, after all, still a very left-wing party and many of its members are opposed to U.S. foreign policy and free trade.