As Obama heads to Northern Ireland for the G-8 summit, so will thousands of anti-capitalist demonstrators, posing a challenge for police used to high security. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.
ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland – As President Barack Obama heads to Northern Ireland for Monday’s G-8 summit, so too will thousands of anti-capitalist demonstrators, posing a challenge for police even in an area used to high security.
Over 5,000 are expected to attend a union-organized anti-G-8 rally in Belfast on Saturday, and hundreds more have pledged to march from the host town, Enniskillen, to the security cordon surrounding the Lough Erne golf resort where world leaders will meet.
Protests are part and parcel of global summits, particularly since the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting that saw days of serious violence on the streets of Seattle.
There are fears that anarchist groups could infiltrate the protests, as they did during the G-20 in Canada three years ago, where the streets of Toronto saw clashes between demonstrators and police.
Protesters have already been out on the streets of London, where 57 were arrested after running battles with police on Tuesday.
Amid this backdrop, Northern Ireland is mounting the biggest police operation in its history, with 8,000 officers on duty each day of the event, 3,600 of whom have traveled across from mainland Britain. The Irish government will also be deploying 900 police to the nearby border, according to Channel 4 News.
Officers have received training in the deployment of water cannons in the event that protests escalate.
They are aided by the local territory. The small, rural border town of Enniskillen has a population of only 15,000 and the spectacular hotel venue is away from the center, surrounded on three sides by the waters of Lough Erne, providing a natural defense.
Andy Rain / EPA
Riot police clash with demonstrators during anti G-8 protests in London, Tuesday.
“We’re not a bunch of low-lifes that are wanting to protest for the sake of protesting,” said Frank Duffy, one of the organizers of Monday’s “G-8 Not Welcome” march that includes environmentalists, anti-capitalists, trade unionists and peace campaigners as well as political activists from the republican and socialist movements in Northern Ireland.
“We are a broad-based community group. We want a peaceful dignified protest. We don’t want people to come here and cause trouble.”
Chief Constable Matt Baggott of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, assured reporters last week that the freedom to demonstrate would be respected.
“The right to assemble and the right to protest is ingrained in the way we do business and we have been used to this for many years,” he said. “Every facility will be made for people who want to demonstrate lawfully and peacefully in Northern Ireland, but clearly we will be prepared for every eventuality.”
One major complication is the threat from dissident Irish republican groups, who are still active despite the 2005 Irish Republican Army ceasefire secured after two decades of peace talks.
Paul Mcerlane / EPA
Police Service of Northern Ireland patrol Lough Erne on June 9. The body of water surrounds on three sides the golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where the G-8 Summit will be held.
In this instance it is police and the military that are under threat, rather than world leaders, as many Irish nationalists view them as occupying forces. Counter-terror officers will be key to thwarting any attack.
"This [threat] is aimed at essentially the security services in Northern Ireland...the police service and my colleagues who are seen as a way of achieving ambitions," Baggot said.
Enniskillen was the scene of one of the darkest atrocities of "The Troubles" between Protestants and Loyalists supporting British rule and Catholics and Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland.
Anger at the presence of British soldiers in Northern Ireland lay behind the 1987 bomb attack on a Remembrance Day ceremony – equivalent to Memorial Day in the United States – that killed 11 people and wounded 68 others.
“Dissident republicans are a bit of a sad reality and background of our day to day business,” said PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay. “We will probably see a number of different events, hoaxes, potential attacks on police officers. Those could well happen during the period of the summit but not near to the summit, more likely in some other parts of Northern Ireland.”
Protesters have voiced concerns about the scale of the police operation.
“We’re going to let our local issues be heard, but the police are obviously anticipating a worst-case scenario,”said Donal O’Cofaigh, another organizer of the “G-8 Not Welcome” demonstrations. “We are slightly concerned about the scale of the policing response, but we’re working with them locally and hoping that we can take it forward in an entirely peaceful manner.”
Although the police presence is large, it represents a shift away from decades of heavy involvement by the British army, which has been at the forefront of security in Northern Ireland since the early 1970s.
Peter Morrison / AP
The Lough Erne Golf Resort, Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, which is surrounded by water is due to host the G-8 summit.
“Northern Ireland is a very different place than when it was 10 or 20 years ago,” said Baggot. “We are the authority…we are the police, and the support from our military colleagues is logistical or very technical. So the military will not be involved in dealing with protests or issues such as security.”
Local residents and businesses have already made their own plans. In Belfast, shops, restaurants and multi-national banks are expected to close or shutter their fronts in case violence flares, the Belfast Telegraph reported. Plastic sheeting has already been placed over stained glass windows at Belfast City Hall where marchers will converge on Saturday.
Queen's University has said it plans to close all of its buildings over the extended weekend amid fears they could be targeted by militants.
The authorities remained upbeat.
“I am confident we have the right people, with the right skills, who can deliver this safely,” said Finlay.
NBC’s Michele Neubert, Alastair Jamieson and Richard O’Kelly contributed to this report.