A month has now passed since the controversial British military ‘homecoming parade’ in Belfast. While there was considerable media hype in the run-up to the November 2nd military display, there was a noticeable lack of any in-depth analysis as to why the parade was organised in the first place.
Instead, the corporate media ran endless stories on the potential for
clashes between those who supported the parade and those who did not. In focusing on this angle, journalists were only regurgitating the spin of the PSNI and the larger political parties. In the days running up to the parade, talk of “troublemakers” and “dissidents” planning every manner of mayhem filled the column inches. When that mayhem failed to materialise, the media quickly moved on, without ever questioning what the true purpose of the military parade actually was.
So what was the real agenda behind the military display of November 2nd?
The answer is simple. Those who invited the British military into Belfast city centre used the cover of a ‘homecoming parade’ to further the long-standing strategy of Normalisation in Ireland. What, after all, could be more normal than the British army marching the streets of a ‘British’ city? It should be remembered that the original plan for this parade would have seen hundreds of armed troops marching, while military aircraft performed a fly-over across the city. What more powerful image of ‘normality’ could there have been?
This is the context in which éirígí announced its intention to oppose the parade when the idea was first mooted in August of this year. Had it taken place without opposition it would have represented much more than the illusion of normality; it would in fact have demonstrated a high degree of actual normality.
Thankfully, this did not happen. The parade was opposed, and not only by éirígí. By the time the RIR and other British military units marched onto the streets of Belfast a number of political parties, anti-state violence groups and other progressives had come out in opposition to it. At four separate locations across the city, hundreds of republicans and socialists attended protests opposing the triumphalist display.
While the parade went ahead despite these protests, it only did so by mobilising the entire spectrum of unionism and, in doing so, demonstrated the fundamentally abnormal nature of the Six County state. In the weeks running up to the parade, mainstream unionism in the form of the DUP and UUP, ex-British soldiers’ associations and the unionist death squads all worked tirelessly to mobilise their respective supporters.
In many unionist areas, the literal writing on the wall encouraged people to demonstrate their support for the British army and its exploits in Afghanistan and Iraq. In cyber space, a virtual call to arms was issued across social networking websites.
On the morning of November 2nd, thousands of supporters of the RIR lined the route of the parade. Among the crowds, the city councillors who extended the invite to the British army stood shoulder to shoulder with members of Britain’s death squads.
Notorious sectarian killers from Britain’s unofficial militias were lauded as heroes as they sauntered down the street just minutes ahead of their comrades in the official militia passed by. Members of the PSNI stood nonchalantly by as hundreds of thugs chanted sectarian slogans and hurled the vilest of abuse, as well as actual missiles, at the victims of British state violence.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of PSNI members manned a security ring around Belfast city centre to ensure that no protester could get close to the parade. Surveillance helicopters buzzed overhead, providing up to the minute information for the riot-gear clad paramilitary police on the ground.
While this show of combined strength was nominally in support of British soldiers returning from Afghanistan, it was actually intended to send a message to nationalist and republican Ireland. And the message was clear. Forty years after the civil rights movement was attacked by Stormont, the RUC, the B-Specials and the Paisleyite mobs, it was still business as usual.
Despite all of the superficial changes of the last forty years, it was clear on November 2nd that nothing has really changed. When faced with the prospect of peaceful protests against imperialism, Britain responded with the mobilisation of both its official and unofficial forces. The images of heavily armed PSNI members facing unarmed protesters while sectarian mobs howl in the background was reminiscent of the black and white footage of four decades ago.
In an ironic twist, those who hoped to further the Normalisation agenda have only succeeded in highlighting just how abnormal life in the Six Counties actually is. Those who planned a propaganda coup of ‘Ireland at peace’ instead got a propaganda disaster. The hoped for fly-by of the RAF was replaced by hovering surveillance helicopters. The hoped for television footage of crowds cheering the British army was replaced by footage of yobs jeering the relatives of that army’s Irish victims.
While the damage to Normalisation caused by November 2nd should not be overestimated, it would be equally wrong to underplay it. The events of that day clearly demonstrated how relatively small numbers of people can challenge the Normalisation strategy and, in the process, expose the continuing abnormality of the British occupation.
The challenge now facing republicanism is to follow November 2 with other initiatives to re-build popular opposition to British rule.