Dispatch

G Is for Grab Bag

On the march with the motley crew of G-8 protesters in Belfast.

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.

At the rear of the march, members of Eirigi, a splinter republican group that opposes the peace process in Northern Ireland, demanded "Imperialists out of Ireland." Rows of police in bulletproof vests and special G8 caps watched on silently, occasionally flanked by bemused-looking shoppers. Security forces adduced the potential for dissident republican violence for Saturday's heavy police presence -- anti-ceasefire republicans have become increasingly active; in March, for instance, police in Derry intercepted a van with four live mortar bombs. 

An extra 3,600 police have been shipped in from the rest of Britain for the summit, in what has been billed as the biggest policing operation in the history of Northern Ireland. As the march passed peacefully on the ground, helicopters buzzed overhead. Armored Land Rovers lined the streets around Belfast City Hall. Nearby, four armed police stood guard outside a Starbucks. "There's more police here than protesters," said one anti-capitalist activist who asked not to be named.

While clashes between police and black-masked anarchists have become a fixture of global summit meetings, when the police in Belfast were called into action this weekend, they were dealing not with anti-G8 demonstrators but with local loyalists, as those who support British rule over Northern Ireland are known. Since the end of last year, loyalists have been protesting a decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag from City Hall on designated days, rather than all-year-round as was protocol previously. Decreasing numbers of loyalist protesters have attended the weekly Saturday vigil outside the gates of City Hall, but on Saturday around 100 gathered again. (Unfortunately for the optics, the Union Jack actually did happen to be flying over City Hall during their demonstration.)   

As the Big March for a Fairer World reached its end at City Hall, loyalists were heard shouting "Ulster is British" and singing "The Billy Boys," a football fight song with sectarian connotations sung to the old U.S. Civil War tune, "Marching Through Georgia." But these groups had little sympathy for the rest of the crowds on the streets of Belfast. Loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson, who was present on Saturday, said some loyalists saw the anti-G8 protests as "anti-British" and wanted to be sure they were there to make their presence known.

Police worked to separate loyalists from anti-G8 demonstrations as Pamela Dooley, chair of the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which organized Saturday's march, and who took the stage to tell demonstrators that the protest was a defining moment in history. "As we meet here today, over one billion people on the planet are living in extreme poverty and are facing starvation, malnutrition, and early death," she said.

Despite Saturday's tension, the mere fact that the G8 summit is taking place in Northern Ireland -- even surrounded by miles of barbed-wire security fence in a remote part of the country -- attests to how much has changed since the Troubles ended. Just four miles away from the Lough Erne resort where Barack Obama, David Cameron, and other world leaders are meeting is the market town of Enniskillen. Here, in 1987, a massive IRA bomb killed 11 observers at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony.

The visiting world leaders have not ignored the symbolic significance of the meeting's setting. On Monday, in a speech delivered at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, Obama hailed Northern Ireland's peace process as a "blueprint" for conflicts around the world. The U.S. president acknowledged that tensions remain between nationalists and unionists, particularly in deprived parts of the country. "The terms of peace may be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of peace is up to each of us," he said.

Peace -- and security -- have dominated discussions in Northern Ireland ahead of the G8, largely drowning out policy concerns. "From the very beginning, the G8 was treated like we had got the Oscars. Visiting politicians have been treated like celebrities, and the narrative has all been about how do we protect them," said Niall Bakewell, Northern Ireland activism coordinator with the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Dr Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in the school of criminology, politics, and social policy at the University of Ulster, agreed, noting that "the security around the G8 and subsequent policing of the protests has drowned out the real issues under discussion in terms of tax and Syria."

The days ahead should provide an opportunity for such debates, with indications that both Syria and tax evasion will feature prominently at this year's summit. One issue, with both local and global implications, that campaigners had been hoping to put on the public agenda ahead of the G8 is fracking. Fermanagh, where the summit is being held, has emerged as the battleground between opponents and supporters of the controversial mining technique in Ireland.

On Saturday, Bakewell and other environmentalists walked behind a purpose-built model of a fracking drill hole. While attempts to frack elsewhere on the island have largely come to standstill, Australian exploration company Tamboran Resources has a license to drill for gas in Fermanagh, just a few miles from where the summit is taking place. Tamboran is expected to start fracking operations there next year, with many fearful that the anticipated 1800 well bores could ruin the picturesque county.

The Northern Irish government has regularly cited tourism as a major argument in favor of hosting the G8 summit. Earlier this month, North Ireland's minister for enterprise, trade and investment, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party, told students in Enniskillen that "this historic event will be a catalyst in the ongoing development of Fermanagh as an immensely attractive and high quality destination to visit in Northern Ireland." With unemployment above the British average and vacancy rates in shops among the highest in the country, the region needs any boost it can get. But few seem so sure of the summit's tourist potential. "Who books their holidays based on where the G8 was?" asked Bakewell. "Nobody, that's who."

This week may be unlikely to provide a significant economic boost to Northern Ireland, but its political leaders will hope to bask in the afterglow of an orderly, peaceful event long after the G8 wagons leave town -- so long as the locals cooperate.

PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

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