Protestors Ring a Warning Bell Over Northern Ireland Peace Talks
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND — THE women link arms, sit down in the middle of the road, and refuse to move. Around them, an angry crowd hurls stones and abuses at grim-faced policemen trying to clear the area.
It is Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and the scene could have been taking place on any given day throughout the past 25 years.
Traditionally Catholics, denied a strong political voice in the British-ruled province, have taken to the streets to air their grievances -- nowhere more so than in this 80-percent Catholic city. Here, clashes between Catholic civil rights activists and the police led to British troops being deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1969.
But on this afternoon last week, it was just days before sensitive peace talks between political parties in Northern Ireland and Britain. The demonstrators were protesting the arrival of British Prime Minister John Major in the city center. Before the day ended, 13 people were arrested for public order offenses and seven others were treated for minor injuries.
Despite initial concern over whether the talks would start tomorrow as planned, the conflict has not been enough to put them off.
But it does ring a warning bell for anyone -- Catholic or Protestant -- who thought physical conflict was at a permanent ebb since the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary groups declared cease-fires last year. Protestors plan another demonstration tonight.
Most of the demonstrators are members of Sinn Fein, the political party wing of the IRA that seeks to end British rule in Northern Ireland. They came onto the street to tell Mr. Major that, despite talk of peace, he is still not welcome in this mainly Catholic town.
But the protest also sends a message to the Sinn Fein hierarchy that people are not ready to compromise with Britain and forget 25 years of Protestant Unionist rule and discrimination.
One of those taking part in the Londonderry protest is socialist community activist Bridie Deeney. She is pleased her city is continuing its reputation for street protest against what she calls ''Britain's occupation of the north of Ireland.''
''The protest was intended to be peaceful, and if the police hadn't gone in heavy-handed and started pushing people around, it would have been,'' she says. ''I don't agree with people who say there is no need for protest now that the British are talking to Sinn Fein. They should know that people still feel strongly about Britain's treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years.''
While welcoming the fact that Sinn Fein is coming in from the political wilderness, people like Mrs. Deeney are worried that too much may be sacrificed in the name of peace. ''We just want a settlement, but we have to be sure that it is a just settlement with equality of treatment for all. People are afraid we will talk and talk and at the end of it the nationalist Catholic side will be no better off than we are now,'' she says.
Martin McGuinness, who will lead the Sinn Fein delegation, is well aware of these fears. The tensions within Sinn Fein were obvious after the Londonderry protest.
Party president Gerry Adams immediately accused the police of inciting a riot and going back on an agreement that peaceful protesters would not be interfered with. But Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's national chairman, adopted a softer attitude, saying both sides were to blame.
Mr. McGuinness says he wants the talks to cover all issues, including eventual British withdrawal. For its part, the British government has to convince skeptical Protestants that Sinn Fein is serious about wanting peace.
But both sides know that, at the end of the day, whatever Sinn Fein and Britain agree to will have to have the approval of people like those who made their feelings known on Londonderry's streets.