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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Belfast - Building A Mass Anti-War Movement: Tens Of Thousands March In Belfast on February 15th 2003

Davy Carlin • 30.03.03

I would like to reflect on my experiences and of lessons learnt while playing a part in the building of an anti-war movement in Belfast. The movement developed from a small but effective (although initially disorganised) instrument engaged in relevant propaganda and small scale mobilisations to a mass coalition which drove some of the main TV and media outlets to state that we had witnessed, 'the largest anti war demonstration of its kind in Northern Ireland's history.' Others simply called it 'historic', with many saying it was at the least the best protest Belfast had seen in decades, The vital role the Socialist Workers Party (SWP in the North) played in this was acknowledged by many individuals (including on The Blanket website - see A. McIntyres 'the Rally' and A. Fox 'A unity of purpose against the war') and by many other writers, journalists, organisations and parties as well as the Deputy Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade unions (ICTU) who took the unprecedented step of thanking both my comrade Colm Bryce and the SWP publicly and personally from the platform at the demonstration for our all work within the coalition.

Looking back at the last anti-war campaign against the war in Afghanistan in 2001 a lot of lessons had been learnt. Although that situation differed somewhat to this recent drive to war, there are many similar arguments being put, but organisationally those who initiated this coalition had learnt lessons from the previous campaign and set out to both win the argument and to build this movement in a completely different way. We knew also that we had to break down barriers from many that such mobilisations were just a pipe dream in the North so we knew that if we delivered, then a huge step would have been taken forward.

The experiences of the last campaign made those who were then for the first time setting out to attempt to build a mass anti-war movement come now to a firmer understanding both of the need to create and how to create such a movement within the political sphere of Northern Irish politics. The understanding was fivefold. Firstly to move out from 'the usual suspects' and to attempt to connect with the many thousands of others who were opposed to such a war. In doing so, those who wish to participate in 'political sectarianism (finger pointing and ridiculing of other parties rather than building the movement) or who wanted only a 'talking shop for abstract propaganda with 'fellow lefties' would find it increasingly difficult and backward because of the nature of their politics, in the development of such a mass coalition. Secondly to actively build and widen the movement with others who could agree on a number of fundamental aims and objectives. The coalition would include reformists and it would include revolutionaries (a situation that could be used on various issues where collectively would lend more practical and political weight on common issues for common good) - with a consensus agreed on the issue to each of our political limits so in effect building a broad 'United Front', in this case in opposition to such war albeit against the backdrop of 'N. Irish politics', but in the context of internationalism. Thirdly, while in such a broad coalition to raise the arguments as socialists as to the nature of war under capitalism and how we believe we as a working class can win real and fundamental change. These arguments done from fully working, engaging, organising and taking a leading role fully within the movement. Similarly as we had done just prior (and again learning lessons) with the Fire-fighters support groups which led to the Falls and Shankill road march (See 'When the Falls and Shankill marched as one', The Blanket, as well as various other reports of the 'West Belfast fire-fighters support group' in the build up to the march) which because of the nature of the march was termed again as 'historic'. Fourthly to attempt to relate wider forces to internationalism rather than political internalism while at the same time relating and placing local social and economic ills in an wider political context. This could be expressed more so given the recent development of the Social Forums and of the anti-capitalist movement which has thrown itself into the building of the anti-war movement. Finally to take the lead and actively establish local community, student, and workplace groups with others to form activists bases in various cross community sections of Northern society. Again to prove in practice that such issues can build and mobilise peoples in such sections of our community therefore raising and sustaining awareness and activism in key sections of society against the war.

We knew also as we had started to see those similar features creeping in as we had seen previously that we quickly had to move the anti-war movement away from the initial quite disorganised situation with the usual faces to a more organised and broader situation. We firmly believed for that to succeed that the SWP had to be at the centre of it, the rock from which to create a ripple effect to those thousands of anti-war peoples in wider society. Apart from this as we progressed, we in the SWP in the North raised other ongoing questions and understandings of how to relate to and actively involve different 'traditions' and organisations while attempting to mobilise not hundreds but thousands and indeed those tens of thousands of people against the war, as was being done in other cities. To do this we had to work initially against some who held such mindset as 'sure its different here in Belfast' or 'sure people will not come out as they are not interested etc.' So the SWP in Belfast initiated along with other individual activists and our supporters within the trade unions and communities the Belfast anti-war movement with similar being done through the Derry coalition. As written in a previous article on The Blanket, we initially mobilised 200+ people from a variety of groups from Catholic and Protestant areas to march through Belfast streets before Xmas. Again as in previous campaigns most of the organisational work, meetings, press releases, postering, leafleting etc. was done by the SWP and other individual trade union and community activists. We knew that to make Feb 15th big that we had to go after other groups who we felt would support the movement and to get their sponsorship for the demo.

Initially we approached all those groups and campaigns we were working with and who we had lent support to as well as others both within our local communities and trade unions. Once we had done this we knew we were going to have a demo at least several hundred strong but to have a real impact we agreed it needed to be thousands strong and that Belfast should not, could not, and would not be any different from those 600+ other cities who were to march in the largest co-ordinated global demonstrations in history. To do that we needed an organisation which had networks to tens of thousands of working class and their trade unions - that of ICTU. So with the strong base already built amongst layers of trade unionists and other activists who supported us, and an impressive list of scores of other organisations, trade unions, community, women and minority group sponsorship from a cross sections of society for our Feb 15th march, a meeting was then set up with the ICTU Northern Committee and eventually they agreed to lead it with ourselves heavily involved. We were also aware once ICTU backed it and by engaging with the mainstream media and raising the issues through local actions and high profile speakers that eventually such would be its momentum that other larger forces such as the churches and other political parties would wish then to show some, or more active participation. So we believed that in doing so we could move those of singular interests and such organisations to both lend support and for some to see the benefit (both practically and politically) of such a united stance on a particular political but common cause for common good.

As our priority was to mobilise as many people as possible comrades agreed that it was far better if the movement was lead by ICTU but with ourselves deeply involved within it (although we did and do have concerns). We were also confident that our work on the ground and our political understanding could win people over in the debates on organisation and the aims and objectives that followed, and by and large although differences, we won a consensus on these issues with the many other organisations we engaged with. It has to be said our members here although many young and those involved in politics only a few years have both conviction in their actions as Anthony McIntyre stated (The Blanket article 'The Rally') which saw SWP members from this city lay down in front of on coming Israeli tanks to let Palestinian women and children escape from possible slaughter', with many other such solidarity actions also not widely reported. We also hold a strong confidence in our politics and are very active on the ground. That combination for those who know us has won us some respect from many differing circles and quarters. With that confidence we also have no problem engaging in debate both to raise points and to have an understanding of others as I believe you cannot really hope to attempt to break down mindsets unless you really understand why one holds those mindsets.

Although we had done all the ground work by the bringing together of scores of groups and by building and advertising widely the Anti-War Movement demo for Feb 15th we believed three things were important in building that base against war even more, as dependant on the active memberships of the relative organisations or campaigns we knew it would effect the strength of any mobilisation call. Firstly we had moved the stage on from a number of trade union branches, and a few trade unions along with quite a few active rank and file trade unionists lending participatory support to now that of the Northern Trade union leadership 'active' role in the mobilisation of their rank and file. Secondly the role of the youth and students we felt was important especially when one has an understanding of their role in other antiwar movements of such a scale. We therefore decided to help initiate an independent youth organisation in Belfast that organised its own actions, meetings, and publicity with it not having ideological conformity as a prerequisite for joining as like other youth groups, but as an broad based student activist coalition against war. So then Schools Students Against War (SSAW) was established. The group held its first meeting a few weeks ago which had over fifty school student representatives from at least fifteen schools around Belfast which was due to the initial hard work of my young comrade Dan Buckley and also John Price along with others who helped get it off the ground. They organised their own protests such as that recently shown on television and within the printed press of their actions outside Belfast's US consul while the BBC did a short TV slot on their activists and activities. They also held a recent inter school debate with leading pro war assembly politicians against members of the Belfast anti-war movement which had over three hundred school students in attendance and have now helped organise school strike action for March 5th (although the majority of walkouts will be initiated by SSAW in Belfast, again the working together for a common cause for common good again was our priority). Such was and is their activity and again their publicity they were one of the five speakers on Feb 15th Belfast demo, so agreed by the coalition in their capacity representing all of the students of the North of Ireland. Again with such growing support amongst School Students Against the War combined with many other sponsors, the Student Union leaderships of Ireland were then approached for support and have since sponsored and then called for students to mobilise on mass in support of the coalition. The final point was to actively build local anti-war branches in our local areas through meetings and activity (to date hundreds have attended our local meetings around the city), with myself as per previous on The Blanket being involved in the West Belfast anti-war branch (There are various reports on The Blanket of West Belfast anti-war branch activity in the build up to the march) which had amongst its local supporters trade unionists, socialists, republicans, community activists, independents and locally established campaign solidarity groups and others at its first meeting of fifty activists held on the Falls Road. We organised together a feeder march down the Falls Road with up to one thousand people to the main parade in the city centre on Feb 15TH. The march had members of the Socialist Workers Party, Irish Republican Socialist Party, Sinn Fein, and the Workers Party amongst other such Republican and Socialists groups. Again it was raised that it had been many a year that seen such a gathering of differing parties marching down the Falls Road in one march. We were also joined by many various trade unionists, community workers and organisations, campaign groups, families and many other individuals and independents. We initially held a rally at the start at the bottom of the Whiterock chaired by my comrade Brian Kelly, a contributor to The Blanket and a member of the SWP who played, as with many others, a vital role in the organising of the feeder march. The speakers were Michael Ferguson Sinn Fein, Feilim O hAdhmaill, Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) and myself representing the Belfast Socialist Workers Party (SWP) so with that we then took to the Falls Road for the feeder march. The march, loud lively and colourful was applauded and cheered firstly by residents on the Falls Road then also numerous hooting of horns. Passing by on our march a huge banner also hung from the roof of the Falls Road women's centre reading 'Don't attack Iraq, join the feeder march from the Falls Road', as we continued our way to the now massing people at the main assembly point.

Other local community anti-war groups have also been established around Belfast again holding successful meetings and engaged in activity. We have also set up work-based branches in Belfast with around one hundred lecturers signed up who are holding a 'teach in' in Queens University with also teacher, civil servant and other work based groups set up in Belfast Other feeder marches were also organised by other activists in the anti-war movement and coalition. With one in particular having its own historical significance - that of the four day march from Derry to Belfast which retraced the civil rights march over thirty years prior but going the other way. Some of those who helped organise and who were on the original march also helped organise and marched on this one including Eamon McCann. I joined the first day of the march from Derry to Dungiven on the Wednesday taking time out from the Belfast organising. I was kept entertained by the wit and humour of my comrade Ryan McKinney along the way as I watched as McCann took to the fore in inspiring others through out the first eighteen or so mile trek, with Colm Bryce giving an excellent meeting that evening on the whys of our journey and the why nots for war.

So the Derry march, the Falls Road feeder march, the main Belfast march and rally have made it like many before that a day that I will remember such as, our day of anti capitalist action in Belfast city centre, Genoa, the Falls and Shankill march, and much more. As we marched up Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre some shops and bars were closed with some signs on their window stating solidarity with the marches while others read that they were closed to let their staff attend the march and rally. As we continued through the city centre I first heard, then seen, my comrade Colm Bryce leading the chants at the front of the Derry march who unbelievably had arrived after their four day march at the same time as the West Belfast feeder march. As they sat down on the road at one intersection I brought the West Belfast march to a stand at another intersection. We now chanted as one - both the Derry and the West Belfast feeder marchers, while across the road thousands of others cheered and applauded us. Then my comrade Barbara Muldoon - who was standing up on a wall amongst those masses keeping them informed with her loudhailer - pointed out to the people in one hand and the mike in the other, joined in with the chants in unison with us and so followed thousands of others who had amassed at the Art College. Now thousands called out 'Free Palestine, Free Palestine, Freeeeee Palestine' as flags waved and voices echoed as one all around Belfast as they had done similarly around Genoa - it was both an unbelievable sight and sound not witnessed in such a form and scale in Belfast city. Again a throw back to memories past as I seen Barbara on the wall leading the chants at the Art College and Colm similarly so on the Derry feeder march. I remembered Barbara linked to one of my arms and Andrew King linked to the other as we continued to march forward at the front of the march through the Gas, the water cannons, the baton charges and the attacks by the right wing paramilitaries in Genoa on the day they murdered Carlo Guilianni. Similarly I remember marching with them on the Saturday as well as with Colm, Ryan, Tom, Dan and many others who were in Genoa and who also now played a vital role in building this march. It was the Saturday's atmosphere in Belfast which for a second threw me back to the Saturdays atmosphere in Genoa - we were in Belfast but like Genoa it was a day of international unity. It seemed that for that one day that we had brought for a short period the spirit of Genoa back with us to the streets of Belfast.

As we eventually got the thousands of people under way through the city centre we were able to see just how big the march really was. On the march I caught a glimpse of Tom Prier and Gordon Hewitt chanting and happy after the work they had put in like many others for this brilliant day and also Mark Hewitt leading the sit downs and chants with hundreds of protesters. As we mobilised at the City Hall the marchers were still coming out from the original starting point at Art College. As we stood there for what seemed like ages we were told that there were still thousands more still waiting to get to the rally at City Hall. Eventually the speakers spoke: they were Peter Bunting of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) who as I stated took the unprecedented step of thanking the SWP for all our work in bringing the rally together. Then came Jamal Iweida (President of the Belfast Islamic centre) and Mairead Maguire (Nobel peace Prize winner). To huge rapturous applause and cheers came the speech that all the media picked up on as Eamonn McCann stood at the front of the city hall and as Ian Paisley had done eighteen years prior boomed our 'Ulster says no' (to war). I knew as the flags waved and the masses cheered that that event and those words in that context would and are now etched firmly on my mind. Finally before the musicians came on School Students Against the War (SSAW) that cross community school group we helped initiate spoke as representatives for all students around the North which was a testament of all the work they had put in to raise this amongst students around the North.

It was truly an amazing day which as Socialists we had worked for to bring about and once again valuable lessons have been learnt through our initial work in building for the rally. Now that such a rally has taken place more groups and organisations should get involved. The ruling classes are still preparing to rain down slaughter on an already impoverished people. We need to now argue for and organise mass non-violent direct action, for strike action, occupations, for mass resistance at home and internationally. We need to continue to move the movement forward against this war while in tandem arguing and discussing how to bring an end to it. Socialists need to be at the fore of the movement arguing for, initiating, being active in, and taking the lead in local, community, workplace and student groups while from the very start being up front about one's politics, therefore in doing so always raising as to how we believe as socialists that we can bring an end to such war. It is this combination as the movement grows where both our practical activity and ideological understanding can be forwarded from that central position - 'within' and as an 'intregal and leading part' of the movement. Thus providing the potential of first relating to and then winning larger layers to that understanding of how to end such wars and the system that breeds them.

Within such a 'united front' of a common aim there will always be that 'tug-of-war' between the reformists and the revolutionaries as to the direction of the movement. This is only natural due to our different ideological understandings which can at times cause misuderstandings, animosities or even setbacks with searching for common aims for common good. It is therefore vital that socialists not only continue to raise our political points from that revolutionary understanding within the heart of movement but as vitally we need to continue to organise practically within our party as revolutionary socialists.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

7 April 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Adams Will Tell Bush He's Anti-War
Eoin O'Broin


Stand Firm
Davy Carlin


Anti-War Human Rights Activists on Trial


First We Take Basra, And Then We Take ...Basra Again
Anthony McIntyre


Belfast - Building an Anti-War Movement

Davy Carlin


28 March 2003


"Stop the Deportations of the Irish in America!"
Sean O'Neill


The Horse's Head
Anthony McIntyre


"Sprint to Baghdad"
Karen Lyden Cox


Bombing Basra to Baghdad
Anthony McIntyre


Operation 'Coxswain' Continues





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