I Went to the G8 Summit and All I Got Was This Lousy Protest
It made the government's £50 million security bill feel like a rip-off.
This week, after years of anarchist big talk, months of meticulous police planning and weeks of everyone kind of ignoring it because of bigmouth Ed Snowden, the year's coolest party finally arrived. That's right: The leaders of eight of the world's wealthiest countries met in Northern Ireland for the 39th G8 conference on Monday. Inside the luxury Lough Erne resort in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, two days were spent discussing international tax evasion, trade and the war currently raging in Syria and its neighbouring countries.
However, the main media focus in the build-up to the summit wasn't on the issues raised by the G8, but on the massive security operation put in place to police the event. Naturally, the British government don't want important people being yelled at. But they might feel in retrospect that they went a little overboard, deciding that they didn't want important people being yelled at so much they were willing to spend £50 million to stop it happening. In the process, Enniskillen has been transformed from a sleepy county town into something more reminiscent of Belfast in the early 1970s.
That figure paid for an extra 3,500 police officers, 400 temporary jail cells, some 24-hour judges, a four-mile steel fence, security checkpoints on major roads, two unmanned surveillance drones and the installation of phone signal blockers and water cannons.
Weirdly, this absurd waste of money didn't do much to appease anti-G8 protesters, who had been planning to gather outside the venue to protest against such issues as the concept of capitalism and absurd wastes of money. Oh, and austerity measures (i.e. the government cutting funding to important services – like healthcare, disability benefits and education – so they can spend it on drones). To make things worse, due to the much-publicised security operation – and the fact that Lough Erne is in the middle of fucking nowhere – the number of protesters who turned up fell far short of the predicted 5,000. While there's a case to be made for the authorities' measures being a triumph of pre-emptive dissuasion, there was barely anyone there to actually police.
There were, however, a number of devoted anti-capitalists who made the trip into rural Ireland to have their voices heard. I jumped aboard a coach with protesters from the Socialist Workers Party and People Before Profit and made the journey to Enniskillen to find out what the government's £50 million had been used to protect Barack Obama from.
When I arrived, a mix of students, social activists and environmentalists were boarding the coach. The average age was around 50. I sat beside Lillie, a girl who runs arts programmes for people in psychiatric institutions. Behind me were two guys dressed as the priests from Father Ted. Clearly, a militia as terrifying as this deserves every bit of policing a government can – or, in this case, can't – afford.
Our first experience of the police presence came after we were pulled over at a checkpoint 30 minutes outside of Enniskillen. We'd been told to expect the police to board and search our bags, but it only took this officer a few rows to realise that our bus was more Coach Trip than black bloc, before sending us off on our way.
After a couple of hours on the coach, we arrived at a car park in central Enniskillen, where a few hundred protesters had already gathered. Most people were putting the finishing touches to their signs and trying to work out how to see while wearing those V for Vendetta masks.
With people protesting so many different issues, I decided to talk to a few to find out exactly what they thought the G8 should be concentrating on.
Withnail (yeah) and Jackie here were protesting “the sale of the NHS to private health companies, when about 180 MPs and peers in the Conservative Party have shares in private health. The government are diverting public money into private pockets, which is why we’re calling it pigs at the trough.”
Which was a fair point, but they didn't seem like the sort of people you'd need to monitor with drones.
However, not all of the protesters were using such profound metaphors. This woman, who was protesting the Irish equivalent of the bedroom tax, seemed to be claiming that Angela Merkel and Enda Kenny – the Irish Taoiseach – are involved in some kind of sapphic tax conspiracy.
While it might not have been immediately obvious from the sign, it was comforting to see that she was perfectly clear on her national stereotypes.
The anti-fracking campaign is the one with the most resonance in Enniskillen. An energy company called Tamboran Resources says it can extract enough gas from the ground beneath County Fermanagh to supply Northern Ireland for 50 years, but residents – wary of potential environmental damage – have come out in numbers to complain about the proposals. As such, it was given centre stage in the parade. Fracking obviously has its downsides (though, in fairness, it's manna to anyone who likes protesting and puns), but I wanted to find out why the County Fermanagh locals were so opposed to it. Was it the possiblity that fracking can trigger small earthquakes? Or are they worried that any dangerous chemicals involved may poison the local water supply?
“It’s just a racket – it’s short-term thinking," this man with a tap on his head told me. "There are three industries here: farming, fishing and tourism, and all three are under direct threat from fracking.”
I asked him if he was worried that fracking would be overlooked in favour of wider, more well-known issues, such as austerity and the conflict in Syria.
“I’m not worried it will get lost in the mix, no. It’s going to affect so many people here. What people don’t realise is that the whole Island is at risk from fracking; pollution doesn’t know any borders.”
After a few hours that consisted mostly of listening to protest bands, sharing rollies and drinking increasingly warm Carlsberg, it was time to assemble for the march.
These guys had brought along a huge bomb that had “Drop Debt Not Bombs” written on its side, which was a solid enough slogan but just made me think of too many nights spent watching pillheads in "Drop Beats Not Bombs" T-shirts hugging the walls at DMZ. I also wasn't sure what a jester and Osama bin Laden had to do with the debt, or why you would light an aircraft bomb with a giant match. But I had better things to do than work out the symbolism of cut-price party shop costumes, and wandered off to talk to some more demonstrators.
Like this guy, the reincarnation of Jesus. I asked neo-Hesus whether he was intimidated by the heavy police presence, or maybe even a little scared of what would be waiting for him and the other protesters at the end of their march.
“Not one bit. I’ve been tortured in prison by these guys before and I’ve been arrested by the Vatican.”
And what was that for? I asked.
“They arrested me for saying I was Jesus Christ. It wasn’t easy, and I know today isn’t going to be easy, but these guys need to learn that their time is over.”
As the parade wound its way along the three-mile route to Lough Erne, the numbers swelled as more people began to join. Toyoshige Sekiguchi, an anti-capitalist Buddhist, had spent the last nine days walking the 80 miles from Belfast to Enniskillen to promote nuclear disarmament, and was waiting for the parade a mile from its destination.
However, not every spectator was there to support the protesters. This little guy had come exclusively to fuck with the anti-capitalists (and potentially because he saw that video of Obama calling Kanye West a jackass and thinks he's cool).
After a good two hours of unopposed marching, we finally reached the first clear sign of proper police resistance: a huge steel fence in the middle of our path.
Everyone was exhausted from the march, so we all sat down and watched the speakers take to the stage. Eamonn McCann from People Before Profit channelled his best Ian Paisley gusto to tell the crowd to never surrender to the G8. In a rousing speech, he mocked the paranoia surrounding the G8, asking why eight of the most powerful people on Earth needed to hide behind 7,000 police officers.
Away from the road, the steel fence tapered down to a line of barbed wire that stretched for hundreds of metres. On the other side was an open field, then another fence, then a hedge. On the other side of that hedge, the police loitered around in riot gear.
Risking the wrath of some police who were a good 200 metres away from them, these two set the assorted media into a frenzy of camera flashes as they hopped just over the line and waved their flags and fists around, while shooting hesitant glances back at the timid throng.
Soon, a few more people joined in and trampled down enough of the fence to allow large numbers to cross over. Everyone then raced to the other side of the field to taunt the police up close.
The most revolutionary move of the day came when these two women climbed this fence – the only thing separating them from hundreds of riot police. They stayed up there for a good ten minutes, posing for photos and chanting, "Up with the craic, down with the frack!”
When someone yelled, “Are you going over, or what?” the one in the luchador mask replied, “We’re on the fence on that one.” Everyone laughed. Except the police, who clearly aren't amused by location-based puns.
The police warned the crowd to retreat behind the barbed wire, but the protesters were having far too much fun jeering at them over the hedge and positioning themselves in front of the press pack's cameras. This continued for around 20 minutes, until word spread that buses back to Belfast and Dublin were about to leave. So, in the end, it wasn't the police or the drones or the fence that quashed the protesters' furious rebellion, but the innate human fear of missing the last bus home.
As we boarded the coaches, there was an overwhelming – and perhaps misplaced – sense of achievement. In their minds, the protesters had shown the world that, contrary to what the government and media imply, you don't have to be an anarchist intent on destroying stuff to legitimately question the system. Unfortunately, the sense of anticlimax that comes with walking for hours to shout at police from a long way across a field doesn't feel like a victory. At no point was any protester within two miles of a G8 leader.
But one thing they can certainly find comfort in is the fact that the £50 million security operation ultimately did more to ridicule the government's fear of its own people than to crush their protest.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
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