Beneath the giant memorial plinth at the north end of Dublin’s O’Connell Street, activists displayed their placards insulting at the U.S. president. One read: “U barking up the wrong Bush.” Farther down O’Connell Street, marchers held up other anti-Bush placards, including one that accused him of being “drunken and sly,” even though the president has been a teetotaler for more than a decade.
Any American tourist who happened to be in the Irish capital that day would no doubt have been surprised at the venomous anti-American sentiment on display at a so-called peace march. Isn’t Ireland a country with deep historical, social, economic and cultural ties to the United States?
Had those tourists been listening to Irish radio, they would have been stunned at the strident anti-American tone of some of the contributors. I certainly was when I took part in one discussion.
A young anti-war campaigner rejected my charges that the hard core of the anti-war movement, comprising the main of the Marxist-Leninist undemocratic left, was motivated by a visceral anti-Americanism. But just a few minutes after her denials, she launched into a tirade against Bush. She said that the U.S. was as undemocratic as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. She cited the controversial voting debacle in Florida during the last presidential election, the apparent disenfranchisement of “thousands of black voters” in that state, and the allegation that 3,000 Americans with Arabic names had been jailed since the Sept. 11 attacks. Her logic, of course, implies that Democrats are arrested in the dead of night and tortured in an effort to persuade them to pledge their fealty to the Great Leader in the White House.
Because I was in Belfast and she was in studio in Dublin, it was impossible to look into her eyes and judge if she was being sincere in her conviction that there was a moral equivalence between Bush’s America and Hussein’s dictatorship. On the airwaves she certainly sounded serious, even fervent, in her belief that the United States is as despotic as Iraq.
Readers may be outraged over such absurd hyperbole. But they should not be startled. In Ireland today there is a considerable and growing constituency that is not only critical of U.S. foreign policy, but detests America and all things American.
Almost three weeks ago, a group of American tourists where enjoying a drink in a bar in Derry city center. TVs that had been broadcasting Saturday sports programs suddenly cut to CNN and the coverage of the Columbia space shuttle disaster. The Americans watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded. Meanwhile, a number of local men at the bar started to gloat as the news filtered through that the seven astronauts had been lost. At least one of them shouted, “Go on, Osama,” in the apparent belief that Bin Laden’s terror network had brought down the shuttle as it reentered the atmosphere with a surface-to-air missile.
The irony is that this unsavory incident occurred just a couple of hundred yards from Derry’s ancient Guildhall, where just a few years ago thousands of citizens waving American flags cheered wildly in support of President Clinton as a gesture of thanks for his role in promoting the Irish peace process.
Another irony is that one of the American politicians sent out onto the British airwaves to defend the Bush Administration was Republican Rep. Peter King. On BBC Radio 4, King railed against the French and German anti-war stance and their veto on NATO support for Turkey. The congressman is perhaps Sinn Fein’s most important ally in Washington, D.C., and regularly accompanies Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness on their trips through the United States. What King was not quizzed about was the role Sinn Fein has played in the anti-war movement in Ireland. Adams, for instance, attended the anti-war march in Belfast and his party has been to the forefront of the anti-war coalition in Dublin. (This doublethink is not lost on moderate Irish voters, who see hypocrisy in a party that preaches peace but maintains the largest terrorist arsenal in Western Europe.) Sinn Fein has also called on the Irish government to ban U.S. military aircraft from using Shannon Airport and praised activists who vandalized aircraft with hatchets and hammers. How, then, does the congressman square his affection for Sinn Fein with his enthusiastic loyalty to the Bush administration’s line on Iraq?
The protestors in Dublin have the right to demonstrate against war, to insult George Bush from the steps of Parnell’s statue. They live in a democratic republic where dissent and debate does not land you in jail. But in their zeal to prevent a war, a conflict that would actually liberate the Iraqi people from a ruthless tyranny, the Irish peaceniks should remember this: no one gets to hold anti-government protests on the steps of the countless statues and plinths erected in Baghdad in honor of Saddam Hussein.
Fortunately, not everyone in Ireland follows the politics of appeasement. One veteran Irish peace campaigner, Chris Hudson, boycotted the march in Dublin. Hudson, who was a secret envoy between the Irish government and loyalist terrorists in the run-up to their ceasefire in 1994, said his absence was due to conversations he had with Iraqi exiles living in the Republic who had urged Irish people to stay away from the march, arguing that the only man to benefit from the worldwide anti-war demonstrations would be Hussein. One of Hudson’s closest friends, the Dublin filmmaker Gerry Gregg, also stayed away. Gregg, who won an Emmy for his documentary on Serb ethnic cleaning in Kosovo, quoted Churchill’s apt description of the peace/appeasement movement of the 1930s when asked about his feelings toward Ireland’s anti-war coalition: “mush and gush.”
Henry McDonald is Ireland editor of The Observer and an author of four books on Ireland’s Troubles.