A (controversial) sort of homecoming
Belfast is not a city unaccustomed to parades. From the orange of the Twelfth to the green of St Patrick’s Day to the pink of Pride, we delight in and despise them in all their hues.
Yet this Sunday, Belfast’s streets will experience one of the oddest combinations of related marches and counter-marches that I can ever recall. At its heart will be the colour khaki.
Troops from the Royal Irish Regiment will hold a “homecoming parade” through the centre of Northern Ireland’s capital to mark their safe return from the battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Loyalist supporters of the parade will march from various Protestant heartlands in the city to demonstrate their backing for “our boys”. Republican protestors will similarly mount marches and demonstrations to show their opposition to the British “war machine”, whether at home or abroad. It’s a policing nightmare and a potential recipe for large-scale public disorder.
The organisers of the central parade – the Ministry of Defence – say that it’s not meant to be “triumphalist”. While, to some eyes, the marching band and military flypast might appear to give the lie to that claim, it is clear to all that the troops’ day out can’t be triumphalist. There is no triumph.
If anything, the “homecoming parade” is a public demonstration of relief at getting out alive from a devastated Iraq and a spiralling-out-of-control Afghanistan. Of course, it is also a public appeal not to despise the troops for simply doing the bidding of politicians in London and Washington. In cities across Britain returning soldiers have been heckled, jostled and spat upon by members of the public opposed to their overseas missions.
This Sunday in Belfast it could be a whole lot worse. The protests and counter-protests by republican and loyalist activists may well demonstrate political immaturity and intolerance of each others’ viewpoints, but both reactions were, frankly, wholly predictable in a part of the UK which has seen an average deployment of some 30,000 troops on the streets for much of the last forty years.
If the military has shown its own limitations in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving behind chaos, corruption and criminality, its political masters have shown little more aptitude for organising pomp and circumstance.
After World War II this country held VE and VJ Days, celebrating victories in disparate theatres, over implacable foes, in popular wars. Sunday is no VI or VA Day. These contemporary wars are not over and there is precious little victory to celebrate.
Homecoming parades are a poor substitute for our local troops and medical support staff who, on rotation, will likely soon be sent back to the maelstrom, with no clear end in sight.
Sunday’s Belfast parade and others like it being held throughout the UK may offer some degree of comfort and solace to returning troops and their families. I well understand these emotions. My nephew, a US marine, returned home earlier this year after a 12-month tour of duty in Fallujah, scene of earlier massive attacks which left behind large numbers of Iraqi dead. Upon his return to safety in hometown America, the overwhelming emotion of my sister and brother-in-law was not reflection on Iraqi suffering, but purely one of understandable relief at the return of a son.
When this is all over, there likely will be no victory parades. There will be only a British military reputation sadly tainted by flirtation with torture, and a foreign policy tainted by indifference to the international rule of law and association with the large-scale taking of civilian lives – all in the wake of discredited (at home and abroad), hawkish US leadership.
So, excuse me if I am not cheering the “homecoming parade” on Sunday as it walks through my home city. Neither will I be with the counter-demonstrators drawn from the ranks of Irish republicanism rather than the wider anti-war movement.
I’ll be at home with my family, thinking of the soldiers of all nationalities who didn’t come home and the ordinary Iraqis and Afghans who died in theirs.
UPDATE: the MoD has announced this morning a cancellation of the military flypast planned for the Belfast parade in "appreciation of the sensitivities surrounding this element of the parade".
FURTHER UPDATE: Sinn Féin has announced a modification of their protest plans to similarly help reduce the prospect of trouble.
Hopefully both these changes will help to ensure that the rights to peaceful freedom of expression and association are protected in Belfast this weekend.
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