The Belfast demonstration in support of Marian Price on the 27th of May should give pause to the British government and to local politicians. The size of the demonstration; 4000 to 5000, and the number of young people involved shows the growing levels of concern and anger at the internment of Marian and a growing number of republicans – either by the withdrawal of licences for ex-prisoners or by the use of conspiracy laws and the deployment of M15 and the SAS.

That said, the force of the demonstration was blunted by the decision of the organisers to avoid all politics. The demonstration was organised by the family, had no political demands or banners, and focused on the extreme medical condition of Marian and on calls for a humanitarian intervention.

The problem with this approach is that the British have a very definite strategy in relation to the virtual internment of Marian and of other republican prisoners. They are concerned at the growth of republican sentiment and wish to intimidate those moving into opposition.  That concern is heightened by the coming visit of Elizabeth Windsor, but is not bounded to one event. They are not likely to reduce the pressure unless the campaign grows so big as to pose a threat to the current settlement or if Marian’s health becomes so bad that her release simply illustrates the punishment that faces anyone outside the partitionist consensus.

There is an alternative. An anti-imperialist campaign could attack the system that the British are trying to present as democratic and challenge the collusion of nationalist politicians both North and South. The central claim of Sinn Fein is that their presence in the northern administration represents a gain for nationalist workers.  The campaign can call on Sinn Fein to obstruct the normal course of business and demonstrate that in action by a campaign of civil disobedience. Many outside Sinn Fein, such as the trade union leaders, offer even more frantic support to the Stormont administration with the same arguments of reform. A campaign here could help to win workers away from pale-pink unionism.

The thousands at the rally, the many young people, were not there out of purely humanitarian concern. They were there because their own situation echoes the repression that Marian faces – trapped in a situation that promises equality and a better life but in reality delivers the same old sectarianism and repression.

Standing beside the state forces are Sinn Fein. A humanitarian campaign may avoid threatening them, but implicitly it does so by showing yet again their inability to deliver any reform and the reality that they collude with the repression. That implicit threat must be made explicit in a political campaign.

John McAnulty, Socialist Democracy (Ireland), 31 May 2012