Big stages – Big security – Small minds

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General view of the anti-G8 march in Belfast City Centre, Northern Ireland on the eve of a meeting of world leaders in Co Fermanagh


(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

On Monday morning as the city’s clocks ticked towards eleven a chunk of Belfast began to breathe and move again.

For hours it had been wrapped in a kind of suffocating and smothering security blanket.

During these G8 days, we are watching unprecedented policing –security that in the eyes of many will have been over-the-top.

This is a ‘what-if’ operation shaped by worst case scenarios.

It is about hoping for the best while at the same time preparing for the worst.

For decades, this city lived in the shadow of threat and on Monday it had a President on its patch.

So, in some places, everything stopped or moved in the slow wheel turns and steps measured and dictated by security need.

The express train from Holywood to Belfast was anything but.

When it wasn’t stopped, it travelled at snail’s pace – at 5mph between the halt at Sydenham and Central Station.

More than once the conductor apologised, but what could he do on this day and in these security circumstances.

On the way to the station I noticed a Durham Constabulary police van in a convoy of vehicles – another reminder that this operation is not just about the PSNI and Northern Ireland.

This is big stage, and in that wider frame, there is much more to think and worry about.

Many of the world’s most-powerful leaders are here and, until they leave, absolutely no chances will be taken.

So the police numbers and other ‘hidden security assets’ in this operation are designed as a deterrent – to frighten off any threats or violence.

“Boredom equals success,” a senior police officer commented – meaning a lack of incidents will mean this huge policing mission has been accomplished, but these days are about so much more than security and all its paraphernalia.

On Monday, just minutes after the Obama convoy sped off from the Waterfront Hall, I bumped into the former Presbyterian Moderator Norman Hamilton in a city centre coffee shop.

He had been inside the hall for the President’s speech – a “magic and brilliant” moment to use his words.

“There were some very pointed comments about the road still to travel delivered in a warm and encouraging way,” he told me.

In what he had to say, Obama was pointing and pushing this place towards its next steps, talking both to our young people and to the conflict generation, reminding them in his many references to the walls that still divide us of an incomplete and unfinished peace.

The President name checked Sylvia Gordon of Groundwork NI and the initiative in a north Belfast park to begin to open up those walls by making a gate for people to walk through.

It is a project that involved many, and we shouldn’t take these things for granted.

There are still small minded people including some who want to unpick that good work that is happening in north Belfast and elsewhere.

“People need to understand the difficulty that we have trying to promote this work,” John Bunting of the North Belfast Community Development and Transition Group told this website.

“There are people in our community taking risks and there are people who don’t want to move on,” he continued.

“The gate is not the only initiative.

“You have shared housing on the Limestone interface, the Cityside project, the Duncairn Partnership and the ‘Events for All’ initiative,” he said.

He is describing jigsaw pieces in a process of peace building, but there are bigger challenges on that road Obama says we still have to travel.

The past, the needs of victims many of whom have been forgotten, marches, flags, shared housing and education as part of a shared future are things that still need to be discussed and agreed.

So, a part of these G8 days is about what this place still needs to do to develop and build its peace.

On Saturday outside the City Hall I watched a peculiar interface take shape as visiting police officers created a human wall between loyalist flag protesters and the bigger anti-G8 rally.

Some loyalists taunted those ‘mutual aid’ officers with chants of PSNI/IRA scum.

It was small minded and unthinking and it undermines the genuine concerns of the PUL community.

There are big issues still to be addressed, and they won’t be decided on the streets.

The leaders of loyalism and unionism have negotiated on bigger issues.

They need to talk these things through with others – these issues which are the unfinished business of the developing peace.

Much of the focus of recent days has been on security as Northern Ireland hosts the G8 Summit.

It has been a world stage, and there has been world attention on a place that is seen as peace success story, but we need to remember something.

Obama is right when he talks about the fragility of peace, and John Bunting is right when he describes the risks involved.

Beyond these headline days made by the presence of world leaders this place needs to think about how it completes its peace.

We have all seen and smiled at that fun picture of Gerry Adams holding Sammy Wilson’s arm up during a Mexican wave inside the Waterfront Hall.

On a more serious note, it’s time for the leaders of this place to put their hands up for the next challenges.

It’s not about self-interest and playing to small crowds.

It’s about doing what leaders are meant to do.

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. johnhowcroft on


    i think we have to remind ourselves that the real peace lays way beyond the headlines of world leaders or those that are content to mop up the plaudits.

    Whilst the plaudits and the soundbites of those leaders are important, it is nevertheless those that are fostering and nurturing peace on the street between real people and neighbours, whose commitment to peace goes beyond the aspirational.

    These are the people who are truly playing with the ‘high stakes’, that those more risk adverse amongst us, having realised the risks involved to themselves, would not even bother taking a chair for the game or would simply walk away from the table.

    Its one thing saying about the progress leaders like John Bunting has made, but another thing to stand beside them and face those same risks!

    That is the challenge for our society!

    Whilst i agree the journey is not complete, it will require a new allignment of the pro-peace process diaspora to put those final pieces of the jigsaw in place.

    Is society up for that journey?

    • John – you will have often heard me speak about a high peace and a high politics that hasn’t found its way to the ground. Leaders have to set an example. If it’s not working at the top of the hill, it won’t work at the bottom of the hill. So, at many levels, people have to decide if they want to finish this journey and complete the peace. And, you’re right – about standing with the risk takers. It’s too easy to play to small crowds and small minds. This process needs big thinkers and, I still argue, international help to take the next steps.

      • One question Brian. Why should we treat the words of marketing award winning ‘Brand Obama,’ with anything other than contempt?’

        Please remember he is the commander-in-chief of a blood-soaked empire responsible for epic crimes against humanity.

        The narrow political spectrum, as exemplified by the local politics-corporate media club ‘love-in’ over the past number of days, has been nauseating; and further brings into sharp focus the gap between it and the many ordinary individuals taking to social media and elsewhere to declare ‘Not in My Name.’

  2. The saddest part of Obamas speech was when he made reference to groundwork and lady Sylvia. Anyone from outside this country would swear we were all mad to entrust bonfire management schemes and peace wall projects to a firm of LANDSCAPE GARDNERS.
    Pity only help our children !!

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