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Monday 24 April 2017

A royal mess: We meet the people who want to spoil the Queen's visit

With Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barack Obama both due to visit Ireland next month, our career protesters on the republican and far-left fringes must feel that all their Christmases are coming at once. Not all of us are looking forward to rolling out the red carpet, says Will Hanafin, who meets some of the ideologues gearing up for a summer of discontent

Michael D Higgins will join a long list of world leaders, including US president Barack Obama, that have made a state visit to Britain during Queen Elizabeth's reign
Michael D Higgins will join a long list of world leaders, including US president Barack Obama, that have made a state visit to Britain during Queen Elizabeth's reign

Will Hanafin

If you have a residual hostility to the Queen of England, I recommend a trip to the Players Lounge in Fairview for a cure. It's unusual to sup a pint of Diageo-owned Guinness surrounded by 70 TVs either promoting Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 school series or featuring tweedy English types giving racing tips, while a 60ft banner barring the British queen hangs outside.

However, despite the anti-Windsor window-dressing outside, it feels curiously like England inside. As I scan the rows of framed soccer and rugby jerseys I really want to whip out some sterling, ask the barman for a pint of bitter and look for the ubiquitous jukebox that every British boozer has. It's only when I see a mural of the Dublin Gaelic football team on the back wall that I'm transported back home.

It's safe to say that there are more inconsistencies in pub owner John Stokes's arguments than there are holes in a colander. After all, the Fairview boozer must transmit more British telly programmes than ITV would in a year. His son Anthony has been a professional footballer in the UK for years and he freely admits to screening everything from tiddlywinks to baseball to keep punters happy.

Stokes had just been through the Liveline wringer when I meet him at the Players Lounge and he's feeling bruised. Some would say people were pointing out the bleeding obvious to him -- but he doesn't see it that way. He's at pains to tell me that he's not a member of any republican outfit. He doesn't really need to be. He possesses the basic requirement for any armchair republican -- an enormous sense of grievance even when he's in the wrong. "I am an Irish republican and am opposed to the British occupying army. I supported the hunger strikes but I'm not political," he says.

While having a cigarette in the smoking area he grumbles about Liveline, claiming that many supportive people were ringing up but they couldn't get on air. He goes all misty-eyed as he tells me about his relative John Stokes who was shot by the Black and Tans in Cork.

When I interviewed him he was just about to take the Queen banner down and was all incredulous about why it had to be done. In reality he was snookered by the gardai, who simply applied the licensing laws. The guards raised public-safety concerns and also objected to the pub's application for late-licence exemptions, unless it was removed. With his livelihood threatened, he had no option but to remove it.

Stokes thinks the erection of the banner had a lot of public support. "English people are coming to me, saying fair play to me. The Queen doesn't represent English working-class people."

In John's world, his difficulties are all a conspiracy by Lord Snootys who just don't get it. "The kinds of people who have been complaining are the upper-class people who wouldn't drink here anyway. The people from Malahide. They wouldn't like it," he says.

So what's his rationale for putting up the banner? "The Queen is a war criminal and the timing is not right. The British are still in the six counties."

He's adamant that he wouldn't hurt a fly. "I don't support any human life being taken -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever. I remember watching the Vietnam War on the telly as a child and being really upset."

Whether the Queen was keen to sample the delights of the pub, which recently offered a double whammy of a Tina Turner impersonator and rebel band the Players Brigade, is another matter. It was also the scene of a shooting last July which left three people injured.

Big-hearted John insisted he wouldn't bar Queen Elizabeth if she came to Ireland in a private capacity. "I'm against a visit by her as a head of state," he says. "I would have no problem if she walked in in jeans."

The Players Lounge is a base for Glasgow Celtic supporters, as John's son Anthony Stokes plays for the Scottish team. Surely a bit of sectarian tomfoolery wouldn't go down too badly with that demographic. "Look, it was a bit tongue in cheek. I know a printer and he did it up for €500. But I'm a republican and this hassle is a small sacrifice."

He laughs to himself as he wonders what the next move will be. "Some fella's going to walk in dressed as the Queen now! That's what'll happen next," he laughs.

Mr. Stokes certainly has a constituency to keep happy. I went back to the Players Lounge the following Sunday to see the Celtic supporters in action and it was standing room only as the crowd watched their team play arch-rivals Rangers on the 70-inch screens. Before and after the game the Celtic jersey-clad fans were kept happy with rebel ballads by the Players Brigade. During extra time Rangers brought on Senegalese player El Hadji Diouf and he faced an audible chant of "ooohhh, ooohhh, ooohhh" monkey noises from a certain element in the pub.

Would anything make Stokes change his mind about the Queen's visit? I reel through a succession of people such as Martin McGuinness who have no objection to the visit, but he's having none of it. "It's not up to him," is the stock reaction.

As I leave, he tells me he's going to have to come up with another protest against the Queen that's "acceptable to the gardai". I've no doubt it'll be as subtle as the last one.

While Stokes has no political affiliation, card-carrying republican splinter groups are certainly gearing up for an early summer of discontent. In particular, Republican Sinn Fein and new kids on the block Eirigi are engaged in a toe-to-toe struggle to see who can be the most unreconstructed republican boors. RSF are facing competition from socialist republicans Eirigi -- a group that has featured prominently on the protest circuit of late. One of their members, Louise Minihan, was convicted of assault and criminal damage earlier this year after spraying red paint on former health minister Mary Harney. Minihan is a former Sinn Fein member.

Eirigi and RSF have been tick-tacking with their protests of late. While RSF demonstrated outside the Dail on March 9, Eirigi were outside the British Embassy on March 13. While the two groups are clearly competing, they clearly both come from the republican gene pool. The same sparkling copywriting genius can be found in the campaign slogans of both organisations. Eirigi are going for the snappy "No British Withdrawal. No Royal Visit", while RSF have opted for the equally catchy "British Queen Not Welcome".

Queen Elizabeth's visit is Republican Sinn Fein's biggest chance for profile-building in years. They have been picketing the Dail and the British Embassy since March and have also organised protests in Galway and Wexford. They also man a weekly stall outside the GPO on Saturdays to get signatures for a petition opposing the Queen's visit.

RSF are linked to the Continuity IRA, one of the dissident terror groups that are still engaged in violence. In 2009 they claimed responsibility for the murder of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll. He was shot dead when he went to respond to a call for help in Craigavon, Co Armagh.

I spoke to RSF president Des Dalton about their attitude to violence. The conversation is a chilling reminder of the doublespeak we associated with Sinn Fein for so many years. "We uphold the right of Irish people to national freedom and the right to bear arms. We have stated that publicly. The conditions for those attacks are still in place."

While the protests have already started, are dissidents considering taking it further and considering an attack on the Queen? "It's not a matter for us -- we're a political party. Other groups, because of the position she holds, regard her as a target."

The sabre-rattling continued as Dalton also raised the sceptre of the 2006 Dublin Love Ulster riots. "It's like Willie Frazer and the Orange march. The establishment got it wrong. The political mindset there ignored realities on the ground. I actually think they got it wrong this time as well."

On that occasion Republican Sinn Fein organised a counter-demonstration against the Dublin unionist march and this quickly escalated into a full-scale riot, looting and assaults in the centre of the city.

RSF also held demos during Prince Charles's two visits to Ireland. "The visit happened very quickly," Dalton says, "but we held a protest in Dublin, as the central part was a reception in Dublin Castle. We also had a picket in Lismore when Charles and Camilla stayed there."

Dissident republicans are using the Queen's visit to differentiate themselves from Sinn Fein, which isn't officially opposed to the trip. "As the Provisionals move into the political mainstream, they speak less and less to the idealistic younger generation. Sinn Fein have always fulfilled that role and now don't. Sinn Fein are now playing the old soldier, with Martin McGuinness issuing warnings to people. They don't feel there'll be any protest," said Dalton.

"Sinn Fein have gone further than the Workers Party or Fine Gael by enforcing British rule as crown ministers. We don't see Stormont as a step to a free and independent Ireland."

If Dalton is to be believed, groups such as Republican Sinn Fein are mopping up young people in the hope of creating another generation of irredentist republicans. "Overall, there's a trend in the last number of years of increased membership. The age profile is lower. We're strong in places like Lurgan, Craigavon and Dublin in recent times. In Leinster alone there's been an emergence of four to five new cumann," he said.

These boasts about recruitment are probably overblown. Whatever about the claims of growing membership, the RSF Dail demos have been tiny so far. Even they admit it was "in the region of 20 people".

Speaking outside the British Embassy, Eirigi spokesman Brian Leeson didn't seem that hopeful of mustering a crowd for their protests against the Queen's visit. "Republicans across the city and country need to build on today, to ensure that Windsor is met by hundreds . . . and hopefully thousands of protesters when she arrives in Dublin," he said.

Both groups are being monitored closely by the Garda Special Branch in advance of the Queen's visit.

Of course, Queen Elizabeth's visit isn't the only big one happening next month. The Queen visits from May 17-20, while US President Barack Obama will be here shortly afterwards. So for our career protesters, all their Christmases are coming at once.

The addition of Obama to the schedule has put the republicans in an ideological spin. "At the moment we don't have a position on the Obama visit," says RSF's Des Dalton. "The US isn't maintaining a presence in Ireland. In the past -- in the case of George Bush -- Republican Sinn Fein participated in the Gulf war protests and we oppose the US in Afghanistan." On their website, Eirigi have been castigating the US over the Libyan attacks.

John Steinbeck once said that it was in the nature of man as he grows older to protest against change, particularly changes for the better. In Ireland it's not the old who protest against change, it's the ideologues.

For most of us, the twin visits are a good thing. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II is seen as a cementing of the peace process and of good relations between neighbours. Barack Obama's Irish trip is a welcome confidence boost in these grim economic times. Enda Kenny is clearly giddy with excitement. He says Obama's visit is a "very significant statement of confidence . . . that the President of the United States decides to come to Ireland in May."

Tourism chiefs are hopeful of boosting visitor numbers. Business leaders and the IDA are optimistic about job creation. Communities around the country are also lobbying for invites to be accepted. Most political parties are onside and, as mentioned already, even Sinn Fein won't be opposing the Queen's visit.

But any outbreak of tolerance and optimism is too much for some people in Ireland. We already see the fringe republicans have advanced plans for protests but the rest of the 'down with this sort of thing' brigade are also limbering up for action.

There's only one problem for these picketing ideologues. Which one do they protest against? The convergence of the Queen and US President's visits is causing much angst among these protest groups. As we speak, hours are being spent debating in smoke-free pub backrooms about whether to protest solely against the Queen; or just against Obama. Some are arguing about demonstrating against them both, bundling them together as a sort of imperialistic two-for-one deal.

With such a deluge of figureheads, the decision to protest could come down to a game of rock, paper, scissors . . . or should that be Rockall, paper, scissors?

While most citizens see the Queen's visit as a symbol of reconciliation and Obama's as a glimmer of hope, this isn't a view shared by the Dail's left-wing version of Statler and Waldorf -- Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett.

Joe and Richard don't just look at a glass being half empty or half full. The remaining water is enslaved in a glass prison created by the thirsty forces of international capitalism which have drained the rest.

I asked Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins if he was going to welcome Barack Obama when he visits next month. "It's bread and circuses as far as the new government is concerned. We will point out in whatever forum that Barack Obama hasn't changed American foreign policy. That was clear when Israel started slaughtering people in Gaza."

Ah, Joe! Surely if Obama was to address the Dail you'd be on your best behaviour? Well, think again. "If Obama is addressing the Dail -- if he is -- I, as a representative, would like the opportunity to address him back. I'm sure the new government don't want a debate. Shannon Airport is still being used to service two invasions. There are a lot of fundamental issues that haven't changed."

If there's a cloud with a silver lining, Joe clearly just wants to be under the cloud. He believes Barack Obama isn't just coming here for the weather and is really only courting the Irish-American vote for next year's presidential election. "Obama is standing for election next year and he sees Ireland as assisting him, and he will be courting the Irish-American vote."

While Joe Higgins is determined to be a Socialist Party pooper, People before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett has little time for niceties either. "Obama is a different kettle of fish to George W Bush in that he's not an instigator of two brutal wars, but we've been extremely disappointed that he hasn't ended the war in Afghanistan." President Obama, take note! Richard Boyd Barrett says you must do better.

"We intend to make a point -- a statement -- about the United States's continued support for Israel. Suffice it to say we will also make points about Afghanistan," he added.

Boyd Barrett is placing the Queen's visit further down his protesting pecking order. "It's not high up on our priority list. The visit is a waste of time and money and it's a diversion from issues to address. Obviously we are not fans of aristocracy."

Joe Higgins obviously believes you should never turn down an opportunity to demonstrate -- however tenuous the link. "The Queen represents the British state in the same way as Blair or as Cameron. She should get the same as any British representative of the state -- mass mobilisation and peaceful protest."

But surely Ireland is rapidly becoming the world leader in pointless pickets by assorted lefties and malcontents for no particular reason? Higgins protests. (Well, he would, wouldn't he?) "Irish people need to demonstrate a lot more! It's a matter of democratic right to demonstrate," he says.

Is there anyone Higgins would welcome to our shores? Surely the peace-loving right-on Dalai Lama, who visited this month, is someone he'd be happy with? "The Dalai Lama? Not really, no. The Dalai Lama doesn't represent a democratic revolution in opposition to the Stalinist repression of the country -- it should be the people's revolution. We would like to see movements of people power instead."

Does it bother Higgins that the potential sight of some tieless wonders in the Dail being observed by the world's media shouting at Obama about imperialist atrocities might possibly deter American investment here? "Nonsense! There were protests against Ronald Reagan in 1984 about the covert policies of arming the Contras. Corporations are here because it's a substantially profitable base for them and the education system produces a well-educated work-force and they've access to the European Union."

While it's easy to portray our far left and republican protesters as pain-in-the-ass Citizen Smith types, they do have the potential to cause trouble next month. The State is probably hoping that the Queen's visit will be greeted with benign indifference by the populace, and Obama with 'yes, we can' type enthusiasm.

I wonder, but let's hope I'm wrong.

L

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