Monday 11 August 2014

Belfast: Of Marches, Parades And Protests

We put away a serious Irish Breakfast Merchant style, then took to the rainy streets to clear our heads having put in a considerable amount of 'research' at various venues, a team effort that concluded at The Spaniard, the nearest thing to a Hamra bar to be found outside Hamra. Belfast's weekend nightlife has got SO much of Beirut about it - the same frenetic, buzzed vibe packed with shiny, happy people and dotted with oddballs, eccentrics and generally eclectic splashes of colour in the serried hordes of overdressed fellas and half-dressed Lovely Girls.

A glorious evening, not without its subsequent toll exacted on Mr Potato Head.

We started spotting coppers dotted around, our first thought being maybe TK Maxx had been turned over by some enterprising souls as we - and the rest of Belfast - were busy carousing. And then a column of white PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland) Range Rovers filed by, all black cages and white concrete roofs. Yes, I kid you not, concrete. They each weigh six tonnes and are designed not to be a pushover. These babies are riot equipped and if we didn't by now work out something serioo was up, the appearance of two water cannon tankers put things beyond all doubt.

I wandered up to one of the clearly hundreds of officers on duty, little clumps of them at every street corner, huddled in shuttered shop doorways away from the rain. What's the craic? I mean, it's nice of you chaps to be putting on the Range Rover Fan Club annual gathering but...

They were happy to chat: they were all on time and a half or double time, but none of them were particularly pleased at spending most of their Sunday arsing around in the downpour waiting for 4,000 marchers protesting internment (the controversial imprisonment of suspects without trial employed by the Brits during 'the troubles' in the 1970s) and the opposing marchers protesting the protests against internment.

'Put it this way, when I've finished being dressed up like a Ninja Turtle this afternoon, I'll pulling on me jeans and shirt and going for a load of pints an' try and catch up on me weekend,' one chap told us. They were all cheerful, approachable and open - pretty impressive PR for a force created out of the sectarian disaster that was the infamous RUC - and all clearly had no time for the marchers or their opponents, seeing it all as a throwback out of pace with the movement of the times.

'Who wants this? Who, our age - with a life and kids and a future - wants to go back to this?'

I have to say, I never thought I'd see the like on Belfast's streets these days. Roads blockaded with Rapid Response Unit Range Rovers, phalanxes of cops in high-viz gilets and bullet-proof armour festooned with batons, CS gas spray and radio handsets, the lot. 'Yeah, I know. Forget us, you didn't see us. This isn't Belfast, our beautiful city.'

Well, it's all a bit, you know, Gaza... 'Don't. We've got a cruise ship in full of Israelis. You couldn't write this stuff...'

We missed the march, or parade or protest or whatever it was they were calling it. Unlike last year, when 56 cops got pounced by a group of loyalist protest protesters ('swhy we're all deployed here so early this year, we've got over a thousand officers on extra duty today. What a waste of money we could be using for schools or hospitals, eh?) it went off peacefully with only a couple of minor injuries.

It all felt a little like a tourist attraction, but then again we were just tourists anyway. We heard an Italian tourist ask a copper, 'Which side is protesting?'

'Both, love. It's always both.'

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