Rioting erupted in west Belfast last night ahead of an unprecedented meeting later today [Wednesday] between Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and British monarch Elizabeth Windsor.
A crowd of more than 100 youths clashed with the PSNI at a shopping centre near the Falls Road and Broadway roundabout in west Belfast. Missiles, including petrol and paint bombs, were thrown at PSNI riot squads and their armoured vehicles. No injuries were reported.
Tensions had escalated all day following protests against the planned meeting between McGuinness, a former IRA commander, and Windsor, the commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces.
McGuinness, the North’s Deputy First Minister, has resisted appeals to call off his meeting, including a number from prominent Sinn Fein supporters. He said the meeting between two would mark another historic breakthrough for the peace process.
OPPOSITION WRIT LARGE
On Tuesday morning, nationalist protestors laid out a giant sign on the side of Black mountain outside Belfast against the planned handshake. Accompanied by a giant Irish tricolour flag, the sign read: ‘Eriu is our queen’, referring to the legendary goddess-queen of Ireland, Eriu, from which the island draws its name.
With each letter thirty feet in length, and the flag covering almost one-sixth of an acre, the huge mountainside message made international headlines. But just hours later, five men who were involved in the protest were set upon by a mob of over a hundred loyalists, many wielding clubs and hammers. The resulting clashes left three of the men badly injured, and the sign was destroyed.
Community activist SeanCahill said one of the victims was sleeping in a tent when he was attacked. “He was drenched in blood. It was just a frenzied attack,” he said. The man, from the Springhill area of Belfast, was hospitalised with a serious head injury.
Organisers of the protest described it as an “art project” and “a celebration of our heritage and culture” which had been supported and funded by the working-class communities of west Belfast.
“It is the culture of a Gaelic people... who give no allegiance to any foreign head of state.”
Following the loyalist attack, which they said was “purely sectarian”, they appealed for support. “While others are shaking hands with a foreign invader, true republicans have been beaten with hatchets, knives and left hospitalised. What happened to the Ireland of equals that we were promised?”
Community artist Gerard Kelly, who worked on the project with residents and children from Springhlll in the upper Springfield area, said thepiece was “just an expression of who we are”.
“The community wanted to do something to express our point of view, that Eriu is our queen,” he said. “I respect everybody’s right to believe in what they believe and I hope they respect my right to believe what I believe and what my community believe.”
Local unionist MP Nigel Dodds said the protest was “offensive” and “a futile gesture highlighting nothing other than their own failure”.
Today’s planned encounter has sharply polarised the nationalist community in the north of Ireland. While the Sinn Fein leadership has backed what they argue is a historic peace move, a number of prominent nationalists and republicans have protested against what they say is an orchestrated humiliation for nationalists.
eirigi’s Breandan Mac Cionnaith said he was not surprised by the move. He said Sinn Fein was only “paying lip-service” to demands by families of British state violence for justice and truth while acting “as a prop” for maintaining British injustice.
“The Sinn Fein leadership previously took the strategic decision to gradually and consciously move that party away from its former role as a vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland,” he said.
“One calculated outworking of that strategic decision in domestic terms has been the unprecedented acceptance and copper-fastening of partition by that party, and its consent to continuing British government control over part of Ireland, to such an extent that the party is now a willing and integral participant in operating the mechanics of partition and injustice.”
A man wounded in the British Army’s Bloody Sunday massacre said he’s “disgusted” that “so-called Irish republicans” will meet the British monarch.
Speaking at a march and rally in Belfast at the weekend, Mr Donaghy - the first person to be shot on Bloody Sunday - said it should never be forgotten that, 40 years ago, Windsor “decorated the Parachute Regiment with medals of honour for their part in the murder and attempted murder of innocent people on the streets of Derry”.
He added: “The Queen’s Jubilee and future engagements in Ireland should be treated with disdain.”
The march was also attended by Linda Roddy, whose brother was among those murdered on Bloody Sunday.
She told marchers: “Does Martin forget that the queen decorated the Parachute Regiment and that they remain decorated? Does he forget the role of the queen’s forces in Derry and the murder of innocent civilians and children such as Manus Deery, Annette McGavigan and many more?
“I hope you are happy with your new-found friends, Martin, for they are the employers of the men who murdered our loved ones.”
Fra McCaughey, the sister of Sam Marshall, who was murdered by a pro-British death squad in Lurgan in March 1990, said that “unless the British queen is going to announce next week that she will instruct her government and her forces to open up their secret files and set the truth free, then I and my family see nothing to celebrate.”
A commemoration in south Armagh heard even stronger denunciations of McGuinness. Provisional IRA founder Laurence O’Neill described his as “a Judas” and “a traitor”. He said that Mr McGuinness was “shaking the paw of the queen of England as a guarantee that will see her dream come true of Ireland remaining a cosy, peaceful colony”.
Around 500 people attended the commemorative rally for local IRA Volunteer Sean O’Callaghan on Sunday including leading Lurgan republican Colin Duffy, former Sinn Fein Assembly member Davy Hyland, and Breandan MacCionnaith of eirigi. Former IRA hunger-strikers Tommy McKearney and Gerard Hodgins were also present.
Mr O’Neill said republican grassroots had been “conned, betrayed, sold down the river and told ‘not a bullet, not an ounce’”.
“Shame on those who sold us out. We were told the lie that the war was at a stalemate -- yet the IRA had 20 tons of weaponry in bunkers all over Ireland.”
The rally was also addressed by former Sinn Fein Assembly member Pat McNamee and former party representative Jim McAllister.
Mr McNamee said: “Don’t tell us that securing the current political arrangements in the North was what the republican struggle was about. Don’t tell us that a better partition is what people suffered and died for.
“Sean O’Callaghan gave the best years of his life for an independent 32-county republic. He wouldn’t be attending the garden party or any other Royal meeting this week.”
Many British and unionist political figures have also argued that the handshake amounts to an acknowledgement of British rule.
Norman Tebbit, a leading Tory and a former cabinet colleague of Margaret Thatcher, claimed the move was an acceptance by the former Provisional IRA commander of the failure of its campaign.
“I am glad that Mr McGuinness appears to have now accepted on behalf of IRA/Sinn Fein the sovereignty of Her Majesty over Northern Ireland, and I hope that this is a step towards a public recompense and confession”, he said.
Bethan Jenkins of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party described McGuinness as “naive” for going ahead with the meeting, while the right-wing Daily Telegraph claimed that McGuinness had been successfully “decommissioned” by the British establishment.
“Other than moving into Buckingham Palace and curling up like an old green corgi at the foot of the queen’s bed, I’m not sure how much more Sinn Fein could do to indicate that their war has been lost and the surrender terms penned by the British,” said unionist commentator Alex Kane.
The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson said the handshake was necessary if Sinn Fein man wanted to continue to share power at Stormont. “If Martin McGuinness is to be the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, he needs to recognize that her majesty is head of state of the United Kingdom,” he said.
Depsite the exceptional wave of hostility and disdain against him, Mr McGuinness defended his decison to meet the queen. He said it would be an opportunity “to propel the peace process forward to a new unprecedented level”.
Only a “tiny number” of people had disagreed with the move, he said.
“This is me stepping up to the plate, this is me moving forward to be involved in an event which I hope sends a very clear signal to people about the importance of reconciliation, and the importance of us working together to ensure that the disasters of the past are not visited on the children of the future,” he said.
He said it was important for him to extend the hand of peace and reconciliation.
“I’ve shaken the hands of many unionists over the course of this peace process, but it’s obviously physically impossible to shake the hands of every one of those hundreds of thousands.
“So symbolically, when shaking the hand of Queen Elizabeth, I’m extending the hand of peace and reconciliation to all my unionist brothers and sisters.”
He said he would face a challenge on Wednesday, “but it’s a challenge I will rise to.”
Mr McGuinness said massive strides had been made during the peace process.
“The unthinkable in the past has come to pass, so other things that may be unthinkable now I believe will come to pass in the future,” he said. “But the next phase of this has to be a phase of reconciliation.”
He resisted pressure to limit the fallout from the meeting by asking Buckingham Palace not to release photographs of the event. An official royal photographer is expected to be present to capture the handshake. McGuinness said that it would be “cowardly” if the moment he shook Windsor’s hand was not captured on camera.
“Once I decide to do something I don’t hide behind doors, I don’t seek secrecy for anything I do. I and the people I represent have the confidence to step out front and be upfront about our actions and how we believe those actions can contribute to making the place we live in a far, far better place than it is at the moment,” he said.
Mr McGuinness indicated that he considered Windsor and her husband to be among those who are victims of the conflict -- Louis Mountbatten, an uncle of Windsor’s husband, died in an IRA attack on his boat off the Irish coast in 1979.
“I represent people who have been terribly hurt by British state violence over many years. I also recognise I am going to meet someone who has also been hurt as a result of the conflict, and someone who is very conscious that in many homes in Britain there are parents, wives, children, brothers and sisters of British soldiers who were sent here who lost their lives in the conflict.”
He still had not decided how he would address Windsor, but that it was unlikely to be “Your majesty”.
“These are not the sort of terms I use when I speak to people,” he said.
Mr McGuinness also rejected those who say his decision to meet Windsor effectively recognised her as head of state.
“I am not a royalist. I am not a monarchist, I am an Irish republican... the person I recognise as the head of state is President Higgins,” he said.
He hoped the meeting would symbolically demonstrate to unionists that they were valued and respected and to give them a “glimpse of what a reunited Ireland would look like”.