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.