In scenes reminiscent of Northern Ireland’s three-decade-long conflict, police sealed off streets across Belfast, as global leaders arrived in the region for the Group of Eight summit.
Dozens of police Land Rovers stretched across the main routes into downtown Belfast as the city prepared for President Barack Obama speech in its Waterfront Hall today. Armed police dressed in riot gear patrolled the area as helicopters circled.
Streets in the city were largely deserted, as Obama and his family traveled from Aldergrove airport on the edge of the city to the docklands. In all, about 7,000 police officers are on duty for the summit, with unmanned drones patrolling the airspace across the region. Unlike previous meetings of world leaders in Scotland and Italy, protest so far has been scant.
“We have a different mindset about protesting,” said Ann McCaul, as she waited outside the venue to catch a glimpse of Obama. “We don’t want the bad publicity because we get enough of it already. We want to use the G8 to bring something positive to this place.”
In Enniskillen, where the two-day summit will take place, fewer than 10 demonstrators turned up a camp site, Irish state broadcaster RTE reported. About 1,000 people attended a protest organized by labor unions in Belfast yesterday.
By contrast, about 200,000 people attended G-8 protest in Edinburgh in 2005. In Italy, in 2001, more than 300 people were injured in riots, and a 23-year-old protester died in Genoa, after being shot by police.
For Belfast’s 280,000 citizens, the concerns so far have been more mundane, as they sought to navigate closed roads around the city.
“I’m not sure it will be good for Belfast, it’s very quiet today,” said Darrach Teague, 36, a recruitment consultant. “I had to leave at 7:30 this morning to get into work because of all the security. It’s been a hassle.”
With Obama’s Belfast speech finished, the focus will now turn to Enniskillen, 70 miles away, a town of about 14,000 that was ripped apart by a bomb in 1987, in an attack that came to be known as the Poppy Day Massacre. About 3,500 people died in Northern Ireland since the violence, known locally as the “Troubles,” began in the late 1960s.
Bombings, kneecappings and shootings largely ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. Still, dissident republican terrorists are still targeting police officers and, around Christmas, the region was paralysed by a wave of loyalist demonstrations, protesting against restrictions on the flying of the British flag.
“There’s still much work to do,” Obama said today. “Peace comes dropping slowly.”
A G-8 protest is due to take place in Enniskillen at 6:30 p.m. this evening. Demonstrators will be kept far from the meeting venue, the Lough Erne Golf Resort, fenced off for the occasion. Opened in 2007, a five-star hotel set in 345 acres of land, is now controlled by Lloyds Banking Group Plc after the lender called in the developer’s loans.
In his speech in Belfast today, Obama recalled meeting Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, the resort’s former touring professional.
“Rory offered to get my swing sorted,” he said. “Which was a polite way of saying, President, you need help.”
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