Well, here we are in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It's 1:00 pm our time and 8:00 am yours (EST). Yesterday, August 12, we marched with the Irish Northern Aid contingent down the Falls Road to Casement Park in West Belfast. We joined thousands of others in celebrating the lives of the ten hunger strikers, led by Bobby Sands, who died in prison in 1981. They were up against the British government and "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher in a fight to win recognition as political prisoners, not criminals. The movement was eventually successful, but not before the ten men perished.
Sunday's event took place in constant rain, but many people marched and many more watched. Speaking at the rally were long-time Republican activists including newly elected Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew, Bik McFarland, and Gerry Adams. The families of the hunger strikers were honored, and special attention was paid to the women prisoners of Armagh who lost their lives in the struggle to create a peaceful, free, just, and united Ireland.
Despite the ongoing rain, the gaelic football field stands at Casement Park were almost full. There was great music, including Seanachie (an offshoot of Black 47), Frances Black, and Christy Moore. If you don't know Christy, all I can say is that he is the north's Bruce Springsteen--great voice, great songs and lyrics, amazing politics of the local and international variety. "As I was driving down here, I saw hundreds of young Republican boys and girls with their pipes and drums," Christy said. "And on the other side were men with armored cars and guns. I asked myself, which side needs to decommission?" The last song we heard was "Companeros," about Fidel and Che, which Christy said was requested by one of the young lads in a local band that marched in the parade that day.
It was quite an honor to be able to walk with people who live in neighborhoods occupied by armed forces from across the Irish Sea. This is a particularly critical time in the Peace Process, the latest chapter of which began with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. The Republican movement, and especially the IRA, which has maintained a ceasefire for seven years, has worked hard to move forward on the issues agreed to in the GFA. These include the demilitarization of all sides (that includes the radical reform of the police force and the withdrawal of the British Army). But the agreement goes much further, with reform of the criminal justice system and the creation of local government institutions which for the first time mean all northern Irish people can have their interests represented. The new-born government has once again been suspended and the Republicans are very angry. By the way, the New York Times' coverage of this issue sucks. Any surprise? Besides getting your news straight from the source (try http://www.sinnfein.ie) the Guardian is a good straight news media outlet.
Gerry Adams, whom I've heard 3 or 4 times in the States, was not upbeat. He spoke about his relationships with the martyrs and how he returned to visit the H-Blocks which have been closed and are now overrun by green foliage. In his speech, Gerry did express a determination that has carried the movement this far. "Go home now and put on some dry clothes," he told the crowd. "The next day of our struggle begins tomorrow morning."
Enough polemic. You should also knowthat we two teetotallers have spent a lot of time in bars. Sorry, that's just where people meet, what can we do? Our first bar was the famous Felons' Club on Falls Road. Big, green, heavily fortified and friendly. We are currently at an internet cafe so Tom can send digital pictures of yesterday's rally to the Irish People newspaper in New York and Steve can write this. We are heading back to the Sinn Fein office-- to buy souvenirs--and will be back home on Thursday. We plan to visit the birthplaces of James Connolly and Van Morrison before we leave Belfast.
Tom & Steve