Dissident republicans bypassed by history: The Santos family are the future... and this is our past
Whether it's jeering the PSNI in Manhattan or nearly wiping out a Filipino family in an ambush in Belfast, dissident republicans have been bypassed by history, writes Henry McDonald
They were singing contentedly all the way up Bedford Street, wearing their Ramones T-shirts, on their way for the last bus home at the side of Belfast City Hall. It was last Friday night and the Filipino family of three – mum, dad and teenage daughter – were humming the anthems of Stiff Little Fingers as they left the Ulster Hall.
It was one of those touching little scenes that give you hope for this city: hard-working people who had come from the other end of the earth to make a life here, enjoying a concert from a band whose songs such as Wasted Life and Alternative Ulster emerged from a darker time in our history; whose music and lyrics were cries of protest against the fear, the hatred, the carnage and, yes, the boredom of the Troubles, with its lock-down of life.
In spite of coming from thousands of miles away, that family were still as captivated as I was by the tunes of the Ulster punk era that provided the soundtrack to my own teenage years.
Like myself, the happy trio had slipped out of the gig early and it must have been around 10.30pm when they headed for home. At around the same time, another Filipino family experienced a completely different kind of Belfast, the one from a past which groups like Stiff Little Fingers and their followers protested against when it was then a daily, horrible reality.
Marvi Santos and three of his children were travelling along the Falls Road when anti-peace process republicans from the New IRA detonated by command wire a mortar bomb device aimed a police patrol. The Santos family were driving back from a party when their car was hit from shrapnel as fragments of stonework from the City Cemetery.
Mercifully, none of them was badly injured, or worse, although all four of them were treated for shock.
As the Santos family recovered from their ordeal, up to six officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland were probably packing for, or were already on their way to, New York for Monday's St Patrick's Day parade – the largest celebration of Ireland's patron saint outside of this island.
The six were guests of New York police, whom they had become friendly with during last summer's World Police and Fire Games, which were staged in Northern Ireland.
The invite was seen as yet another milestone along the evolutionary path towards normalisation. In the past, after all, organisers of the New York parade have chosen IRA on-the-runs as chief marshals of the march through Manhattan, while some Irish-Americans involved in the annual celebration of all things Irish have tried to stop the PSNI's predecessors in the RUC from obtaining weapons from American military industries.
Some marchers on the St Patrick's Day parades past have openly demonstrated their support for the Provisional IRA.
Yet, at the 11th hour, it appeared, via some speculative reporting, that the PSNI six would not be marching after all along Fifth Avenue and other famous New York thoroughfares. Supporters of the anti-ceasefire republican line were pressurising organisers to cancel the invite. Only Sinn Fein's intervention (the party has now signed up for policing and justice within Northern Ireland) prevented what could have been a last-ditch effort to snub the police.
Those Irish-Americans who might have been persuaded to bar the PSNI six from taking part (leaving aside the recalcitrant hardcore who will rigidly back armed violence) should perhaps take note of what almost happened to the Santos family just a few days before in Belfast; to recall how similar incidents during the Troubles resulted in the deaths of nuns, schoolchildren and families returning from holiday.
They might reflect on the words of West Belfast MP Paul Maskey, who represents the overwhelming majority of people in the area and who roundly condemned the attack that not only almost killed police officers, but nearly wiped out a family of immigrants who are doing in Northern Ireland what millions of the Irish diaspora have done for centuries: leave their home thousands of miles away to build a better life for themselves; to, in effect, replicate the American dream elsewhere.
Yet, having said all of the above, it could be argued that the PSNI should not have participated in New York's St Patrick's Day. In a few months' time, police officers will take part in another colourful parade – this time through the centre of Belfast.
The PSNI walks in the annual Gay Pride march from the art college to the City Hall and is a force that has been seeking to build bridges of the LGBT community across a society still blighted by homophobia. It is the same kind of bigotry that has barred Irish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from the New York St Patrick's Day march for several decades now.
How do the police explain their decision to take part in such an exclusionist spectacle (one that even New York's mayor refused to walk in this year) to revellers and activists at Belfast Pride?
Such are the contradictions and paradoxes of post-peace process Northern Ireland.