BY TONY HUNT AND PAMELA HOLMES
BELFAST, Northern Ireland - The British colonial rulers in Northern Ireland are falling flat in their attempt to reverse nationalist gains by exploiting sympathy for the 28 people killed and more than 200 injured by a car bomb in the town of Omagh August 15.
The growing nationalist confidence was underlined by a week of cultural, sporting, social, and political events in the republican areas of Belfast August 2-9, as well as the historic agreement in Derry August 3 between the Bogside Residents Group (BRG) and the rightist Apprentice Boys. The Apprentice Boys made significant concessions in the organization of their annual sectarian parade. This forced London to ban or reroute sectarian marches through other small nationalist communities.
On August 18, a group calling itself the Real IRA [Irish Republican Army] claimed responsibility for the Omagh bomb. The group later announced a cease-fire. Meanwhile, London and the capitalist rulers in the south of Ireland have taken aim at democratic rights. Using the bombing as a pretext, on August 19 the Dublin government announced proposals they called "extremely draconian." Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said the measures, if approved by an emergency session of the Cabinet, would include restricting the right to bail for suspected "terrorists," allowing judges to infer guilt if a suspect refuses to answer a question, and extending the potential imprisonment of suspects without charge from 48 to 96 hours.
Sinn Fein, the party leading the struggle for a united Ireland, condemned the bombing and called on those responsible to cease their activities. In response, the big-business media called on Sinn Fein's leadership to cooperate with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) - the heavily armed police who enforce British rule - in the hunt for the perpetrators. "I'm not an informer," Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness told BBC TV in response.
A group called the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which opposes the April 10 agreement on the future of Northern Ireland, was fingered in the press for the bombing, a charge the group vigorously denied. The son of one of its leaders was arrested with four others August 18 under London's Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows detention without charge for seven days. Michael McKevitt, the companion of longtime Irish fighter Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, has been accused of masterminding the bombing. Both deny having anything to do with the bombing.
Events underline nationalist confidence
"The British government has been unable to break you people of republican Belfast and throughout Ireland," declared Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams at a rally August 9 in front of Belfast City Hall. Thousands had just marched there in a demonstration, 27 years after the British government imposed internment without trial in the north. The event marked the 30th anniversary of the opening of the most recent phase of resistance in 1968 and the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion led by the United Irishmen, headed by by Wolfe Tone, a Protestant leader of the Irish freedom struggle who was inspired by the 1789 French revolution. "It's taken 30 years to get this far and we haven't gone away. A lot of people died to get us here," said John Macstravick. "We were prevented from marching to the city center until a few years ago."
Eighteen-year-old Stiofan Macleid, said, "There's more chance of a united Ireland now than there has been for a long time. We are definitely more confident today."
One among a group of four 11- and 12-year-olds, who asked for their names not to be used, said, "The Brits should be arrested because they killed a lot of our people. They said they wouldn't be on the streets but you see them every day. They come up to the schools all the time... and get bricked!"
International delegations from Britain, the United States, and the Basque country joined the march. A delegation from Cuba carried the banner of the local Cuba Solidarity Group. Their revolutionary greetings to the rally were enthusiastically received. In town all week for the West Belfast Festival, the delegation was led by Alfredo León, from the international department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. A full-page interview with León was featured in An Phoblacht/Republican News, a newspaper that reflects the views of Sinn Fein, and a shorter interview appeared in the local AndersonTown News. Adams spoke at the August 8 unveiling of a memorial to four Irish Republican Army volunteers - including Bobby Sands, who died leading a hunger strike for political status for republican prisoners in 1981. Until a cease-fire in 1997, the IRA waged a military campaign to end British rule. Addressing the 1,000 in attendance, Adams pointed to the 200- year continuity of struggle for Irish freedom. "The United Irishmen first raised the equality agenda.... They brought the flag from the barricades of Paris," he said, pointing to the Irish flag. "The unity of orange and green under liberty, fraternity, and equality."
Former political prisoner Martin Meehan addressed a "30 Years of the Struggle" forum in North Belfast August 5. He is the chairperson of Saoirse, the organization calling for the release of all political prisoners.
At "West Belfast Talks Back," Sinn Fein leader McGuinness told the audience of 500 that "Unionism is in the greatest crisis it has seen since partition.... The Unionist vote is in decline and the nationalist vote is rising and it's scaring the daylights out of the Unionist leadership." However, the Sinn Fein leader put the biggest responsibility for the continued second-class status of Catholics in Northern Ireland on the British government.
Brendan MacCionnaith, leader of the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition, said, "This year the Orange card was played at Drumcree and it was torn up," describing events in Portadown. That's where the rightist Orange Order was humiliated after its triumphalist march was halted by London.
The BRG had prevented a potential conflict in Derry from becoming a rallying point for loyalists - those loyal to the union with the United Kingdom - to retake the ground lost on the Garvaghy Road. MacNiallais called on the Apprentice Boys to now engage in face-to-face dialogue. On the Apprentice Boys' August 8 march there was only one violent incident, when an RUC cop pulled a gun on a group of nationalist youth. Republican News paid tribute to the discipline of nationalists.
Release of political prisoners
Under the terms of the April 10 agreement, some 420 prisoners are eligible to be released within two years. The first releases were expected by the end of August. Speaking at the August 9 rally, Martin Meehan urged nationalists not to be complacent and to maintain actions in the streets. "Not one prisoner has been released in the occupied six counties," he added. "There are still six prisoners incarcerated in jails in England. Use that as your marker."
During the Annual Prisoners' Day at the Felons Club August 7, a panel of speakers reviewed the history of prison struggles. Their accounts highlighted London's constant failure to break Irish fighters and the leadership role of women prisoners and family members. Chris Moran of the Committee Against Strip-Searching explained that six women prisoners in Maghaberry jail are strip-searched when leaving to go to court.
The brutality of the British occupying forces was also highlighted at a "Forgotten Victims" event. Many of the 300 in attendance were relatives of 400 people killed by British troops and RUC since 1968. Bill Rolston of the Relatives for Justice group explained that for London "there are two classes of victims. One are `real' victims and the others are victims of the RUC and British army. A lot of effort has gone into forgetting these victims, both by the British state and the media."
"The RUC has to go," Sinn Fein president Adams said at the August 9 rally - a view echoed on signs in nationalist areas.
Responding to Unionist demands that Sinn Fein declare that the "war is over," Adams said in a newspaper article that "the war will be over when all of those who have engaged in war - and some are still engaging in war - stop; when the British army of occupation, which still maintains a huge presence in republican areas, begins demilitarizing instead of militarizing; when all the prisoners are free; when there is justice and equality, and when we have a proper policing service."
Pamela Holmes is a member of the Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union in London. Paul Davies from Manchester and Jim Upton from Montreal contributed to this article.
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