Over 10 000 school students took part in the walk outs, rallies or in other forms of protest in the schools on March 5th.
No to war in Iraq. Protests in Northern Ireland
Over ten thousand school students protest against war
Youth Against the War, a campaign set up by Socialist Youth, the Irish affiliate of International Socialist Resistance, the international anti-capitalist youth organisation, called the action.
All the organisation in the schools was done by YAW and Socialist Youth members. Every rally was a YAW rally. The press coverage which included front page articles in the press, radio and TV coverage in the lead up to the rallies was for YAW. As a result YAW now has a mass base in many schools and is known across Northern Ireland. A week before the walkouts one YAW member held a meeting in a school in Newry. 350 turned up and 250 joined YAW – the problem with the other 100 was that there were no more membership slips to fill in!
In most schools the teachers were sympathetic and supported, or at least did not discourage, the action. However there was a vicious clampdown by many principals and by school authorities. On the day before the walk out many schools held special Assemblies warning students not to walk out. Some gave every student a letter for their parents saying the school would not allow them to walkout. There were threats of suspensions, expulsions and that school doors and gates would be locked.
On the day, many of threats were carried out. Many students were locked in the schools with teachers barring every exit. We are getting emails from students in schools where there was no action only because the were physically stopped from getting out. But in many other cases the intimidation did not work. Here are some examples.
In Grosvenor High School (East Belfast) the gates were locked. A Socialist Youth member led 200 students in a march to the barred exit where they held a protest against the war and against their imprisonment in the school. Next door in Orangefield Secondary School 200 students were chased around the playing fields by teachers but eventually managed to get out.
In West Belfast sixth formers in St Mary’s Grammar School got out but the rest of the school were stopped by teachers. The YAW/Socialist Youth organiser was on his way to the gate with a written speech when a teacher physically stopped him. The result was that hundreds of students ran out the back of the school, reaching the front gates by a mile long detour and didn’t go back.
Across the road teachers in the Christian Brothers School formed a chain across the entrance. Students escaped by scaling the school fences.
In one North Belfast school -Dominican College – the principal warned that anyone walking out would be suspended for three days or expelled. When approached by the press about this she denied that she knew anything about the walkout and that no threats had been made. When hundreds of students tried to walk out, teachers tried to stop them. After a stand off in the school drive several hundred got out – the attached photo of students waving YAW leaflets is of their protest at the gates with a teacher trying to order them back. Teachers managed to block several hundred others from joining them.
In Newry hundreds tried to get out of St Mary’s Grammar School but were blocked by senior staff who blocked the entrances with cars. Six students escaped by climbing the fence. They went to the town centre rally and received a rapturous reception. After the rally we organised a solidarity picket of about 70 students from other schools who stayed at the Abbey gates, chanting and cheering, until school closing time.
Despite all this intimidation, the walkouts were a huge success. Even a normally hostile press had to acknowledge that "hundreds"! of school students right across Northern Ireland walked out. The TV news covered two of the rallies, showing Youth against the War, and Socialist Youth members (the youth section of the CWI’s Northern Irish affiliate, the Socialist Party) speaking and showed pictures of some of the chanting pickets at school gates in Belfast.
Youth against the War and Socialist Youth had called for demonstrations in three areas where we already had a network of organisers in the schools and for walkouts and school gate protests everywhere else. Most campaigning work was put into Newry were new members of Socialist Youth had done very impressive work in building YAW groups in all the main schools. Despite threats from the principals in nearly every Newry school, and despite the lock in of several hundred students in Abbey Grammar, over 1000 marched to the town centre rally. Some students marched from schools in villages four or five miles outside the town. The atmosphere at the rally was electric and the political points about the war made by YAW and Socialist Youth speakers received a rapturous response.
In Omagh YAW and Socialist Youth organised marches from the main schools and held a lunchtime rally of around 400 in the town centre. Several hundred others who were stopped from getting to the rally held protests in the schools at the same time.
In Coleraine, YAW organised an after school march and rally in the town centre. Over 200 attended. This was organised by one Socialist Youth member in one school. As a result of the people who have now joined YAW the campaign now has a base in other schools and can move to organise a network of activists.
In Derry we organised walkouts in all the main schools. Most were lunchtime protests, but some went further. In the school where we have our main base we organised a strike for one lesson, rather than a lunchtime walkout. In other schools the students organised themselves spontaneously to march into the city centre. At lunchtime there were hundreds of school students in the Guildhall Square, where rallies in Derry normally take place, holding what was an impromptu protest. Had YAW had the resources in the run up to March 5th we could have organised a big rally in Derry. As it is, things are set for Day X.
In other areas, where YAW still has to build campaigns in schools, there were walkouts on the basis of the publicity alone. For example, the mother of two students in a school in Holywood, a few miles from Belfast, phoned YAW on the morning of the walkout to say her daughters were leading a walkout and were going to march to the centre of the town at lunchtime.
A feature of the day was the way YAW and Socialist Youth material was snapped up. Youth against the War members visiting the school gate protests did not have to give out the leaflets. Bundles were taken by the students who distributed them. In many cases organisers, who were only in email contact with YAW, had made their own Youth Against the War and No War for Oil placards and posters.
As information has come in after the walkouts it has become clear that most teachers refused to participate in the intimidation and the locking of gates. This was done by senior staff, principals and vice principals. We are approaching the teachers unions. Already INTO, which although mainly based in primary schools has some members in secondary schools also, has sent out a circular out instructing members not to take any part in physically stopping students walking out. Socialist Youth has been active in supporting the fire fighters in their strike action for better wages. The FBU are issuing a statement condemning the locking of schools gates as illegal in that it contravenes fire regulations.
YAW and Socialist Youth are preparing for mass walkouts from the schools on Day X to build on the successful action on March 5th.