Has August 9th Passed? - Internment Over
If the poor turn-out at Sunday week's rally in Dunville Park cannot simply be put down to poorly-organised mobilisation, then Sinn Fein have turned out to be the victims of Feile an Phobail's success story.
People voted with their feet, or rather their sore feet, having been out all night, if not all week, singing, dancing and partying in Feile events - or in festivities in Ballymacarett or Ardoyne. Seemingly, they decided that they didn't have to add marching to their CVs to prove their republican credentials, and if that is the case then it begs the question whether this annual rally is still necessary.
Prior to 1968 the only march in West Belfast was on Easter Sunday to the republican plot in Milltown Cemetery. In earlier, leaner times this was actually confined to the cemetery grounds itself when those few brave republicans who carried the torch of resistance between the generations battled their way through large numbers of RUC men. The next big demonstration was that organised by Maire Drumm and the women of the West when they broke the July 1970 curfew and cast aside British army barbed-wire barricades to deliver bread and milk to stricken families in the lower Falls.
Within days of the introduction of internment on August 9th 1971, the British army shot dead a number of people in West Belfast, including, Francis Quinn (20), Father Hugh Mullan (38), Francis McGuinness (17), Desmond Healey (14), Joan Connolly (50), Daniel Taggart (44), Noel Phillips (20), Joseph Murphy (41), Eddie Doherty (28), John Laverty (20), IRA Volunteer Seamus Simpson (21), John McKerr (49) and Joseph Corr (43). If ever a community was entitled to be angry, entitled to remember its dead and the circumstances in which it was bereaved, and to also commemorate its survival of British military aggression, then the commitment to an annual march and rally was the right course.
After August 1971 most of the Civil Rights Association's activities were directed against internment, but over the years as NICRA faded, as internment ended and the H-Blocks opened, Sinn Fein increasingly took on responsibility for the annual 9th August protest march. In order to avoid bloodshed and confrontation the rallies ended at Dunville Park, rather than in confrontation with the British army and the RUC at the edges of the hallowed centre of unionist Belfast.
When, during the British Queen's visit to the North in August 1977 Sinn Fein supporters tried to march to the city centre they were clobbered at Millfield by riot and snatch squads and were shot with rubber bullets. That same week the British army killed Jack McCartan, manager of the PD club in South Link, as he left the club premises; and they shot dead 16-year-old Paul McWilliams in Springhill.
So, the week around August 9th has usually been tense, with the street protests, including the banging of bin lids and the lighting of bonfires, being the pretexts for British soldiers and RUC men to vent their spleen on the Fenians, and the Fenians rioting in turn. On 9th August 1980 it was Michael Donnelly who died by plastic bullet in Leeson Street. On 9th August 1983 it was 'Kidso' Reilly whom the British army shot. In August 1984 it was John Downes whom the RUC killed in the middle of the actual rally outside Connolly House. But in addition to these fatalities there were scores of people who were seriously injured, or maimed, like the 14-year-old girl beaten outside Fort Jericho and left permanently disabled, or the 12-year-old boy on his bike in Beechmount who had his nose shot off by a bored British soldier.
Thus, the decision in 1988 to establish a festival of and for the community around 'internment week' and challenge the negative image portrayed by government and media was long overdue. But even at that, Feile has had to fight against media stereotyping and prejudice. What our critics wanted to see presented was a pallid version of West Belfast, shorn of its history, its experience, its republicanism, radicalism, internationalism, its pride and joy. Yes, you can have funding - Come and Party Under the Union Jack - or a white flag.
Well, we have fairly cleared most of those hurdles. And I would now argue that Feile an Phobail, through its commemorative lectures, debates and exhibitions, in its massive carnival opening day parade, and against the backdrop of the peace and political processes and the rising confidence of the nationalist community, has, in turn, displaced the need there once was for the 9th August march.
Local groups like Relatives For Justice and VAST ensure that the memories of those victims of state violence are never forgotten, that the truth about the circumstances of their deaths will come out. On Easter Sunday there will still be the republican commemorations to the patriot dead, and, in May, on the Sunday closest to May 5th, the date of Bobby Sands' death, there will still be the march to honour the hunger strikers.
But in place of the internment march Sinn Fein could organise a day of political activity and education in the form of seminars, debates, and pictorial and oral histories, and an evening of music associated with struggle.
I am not suggesting that we completely abandon the practice of marching and demonstrating because governments, executives, assemblies and administrations, by their very nature are programmed to lose touch and are programmed towards bureaucracy and often need a size 12 Doctor Marten's up the transom.
When we protest, when we use our muscle, let it be focused on the injustices of unemployment, homelessness, or on health and education matters, or on anti-racism, anti-sectarianism, or the immoral disparities in wealth between the first and third worlds.
And when we celebrate, when we dance and sing, let it be because we know it is possible to make our world a better place, and that we will make it a better place, despite all the critics and all the begrudgers!
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison