Iraq: Belfast and the countdown to war

Belfast-born writer Ronan Bennett has created a series of ten-minute films for the BBC about the countdown to the invasion of Iraq, which took place five years ago.

Ten days to war is currently being broadcast on BBC2 just before Newsnight every evening. You can also watch again courtesy of BBC iPlayer.

I’ve seen three of the four programmes broadcast so far – they’re very good. Bennett particularly focuses on the political, diplomatic and news spinning machinations which preceded the US-led attacks. He has also penned a ‘countdown to war’ article for The Guardian.

Seeing the programmes is bringing back a lot of memories for me. I was involved through Amnesty and in a personal capacity in helping to organise the two big anti-war demos staged in front of Belfast City Hall just before and after the war started in February and March 2003 and followed, with ever-increasing dismay, every twist and turn of the preparations for war.

What was clear to me – and millions of others in this country and throughout the world – was the duplicitous nature of the politicking which was taking our country to war, supposedly in the name of humanitarianism or human rights or preventing the spread of WMD or terrorism (the rationale seemed to change weekly).

Amnesty’s own research into human rights abuses perpetrated by Saddam in Iraq even found its way into one of the UK government’s infamous dossiers, used to soften up public and backbench opinion in the months leading to the invasion. We expressed our consternation that our findings were being used as part of the pretext for war by the same US and UK governments which had repeatedly previously ignored our calls to action. As AI Secretary General Irene Khan has recently observed: “When [in 1988] we published the reports about Saddam's gassing of Kurds, that's when we would have liked to have seen governments raise it with the Saddam regime.”

Working the phones to round up and coordinate platform speakers for the Belfast rallies was, in some cases, quite an eye-opener, and in other cases, merely confirmed my expectations about who was willing to stand up and be counted.

The notoriously splintered left-wing groups came together remarkably easily, with mutual past grievances mostly being put aside (at least temporarily!). The good offices of the the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and its northern Secretary Peter Bunting helped provide a unifying banner behind which others could group. ICTU Belfast staffer Alisa Keane did brilliant work on the logistics. Colm Bryce and colleagues from the SWP (and other groups) organised posters, postering and more.

The churches proved to be a rather trickier task. Some of the other anti-war activists felt we didn’t need them, but I was keen to have them on the platform, at as senior a level as possible, to demonstrate the breadth of opposition to the war (i.e. not just the ‘usual suspects’).

In terms of the February 2003 rally, first, there seemed to be a great deal of reluctance on the part of the four main churches to participate at all. Second, none of the four main church leaders seemed to be available. Third, they couldn’t agree on a joint statement or prayer for peace. In the end, we worked out that one local cleric would read out four separate statements of support. Phew!

By the time the ‘shock and awe’ had started in earnest, and there was a lot of pressure to ‘support the troops’ (David Trimble MP, Nobel Peace laureate, called on the organisers to cancel the rally in support of British troops), the churches had lost their appetite for anti-war demos and none could be persuaded to participate.

One prominent churchman explained his reluctance to me as being in response to a typically cheeky Eamonn McCann joke at the February rally (something about how the last time people had listened to a Bush, they had ended up wandering aimlessly in the desert for forty years!). The 15,000 strong crowd (BBC, not police estimates!) mostly had laughed (it’s the way Eamonn tells ‘em). The good reverend hadn’t seen the joke.

It also proved a tough call in organising a couple of singers to break up the speeches with a few songs. Again, a few of Northern Ireland’s best known local artistes turned out to have other engagements at the time (Saturday afternoon!) or perhaps their agents forgot to pass on my phone messages. To their credit, neither veteran folk-singer and peace activist Tommy Sands nor Brian Houston, Belfast’s answer to Bob Dylan, hesitated for a moment and did a great job of providing a musical focus to the events.

Anyway, we organised the marches and rallies, placards and banners were made, speeches were given, songs were sung, thousands responded (the biggest ever Northern Ireland demos about an overseas situation). Elsewhere, millions marched for peace, in defence of international law, in solidarity with the Iraqi people.

Of course, the war happened anyway. That had been decided on long before by Bush and Blair and the will of the people was not going to deter them.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. And the present and future for Iraqis, as well as for the many American and British (and of other nationalities) families who have lost loved ones as a result of that decision.

Nobody I know ever shed a tear for Saddam and his brutal regime (Amnesty had been campaigning on Iraqi human rights abusesd when Saddam was still an ally of Britain and America). In contrast, plenty have been shed for the oft-betrayed Iraqi people, but not as many as the rivers of tears which they themselves have – and continue to - shed.

To find out more and to take action on human rights in Iraq today, visit Amnesty’s main website.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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