From a conversation in a pub to international recognition, the Limerick branch of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign developed into a impressive public awareness outfit.Back in 2005 for Focus73 Stephen Rigney found out how they did it.
It’s great what can come out of few hours spent in the pub. Take the Limerick branch of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), for instance. Sean Clinton and his friend Paudy Power were having a few pints in Limerick’s Locke Bar and got around to talking about.
“We never knew before that we shared each other’s interest in Palestine and that we were both upset about what was happening there,” says Sean of that night. “We decided to do something and once we discovered the IPSC in Dublin, we set up a branch here straight away. We hadn’t really a clue what we were doing, but we took it from there!”
From “there”, the Limerick branch evolved into an impressive political awareness campaign. Since its 2003 establishment, it has twice built and flattened houses in the centre of Limerick; received international attention for its campaign to declare Limerick a “Caterpillar Free Zone”; handed leaflets out to visitors at the National Ploughing Championships and to trainloads of rugby supporters on the way to Dublin matches; and featured on two local radio programmes, not to mention hosting regular visits by international activists and running weekly stalls in Limerick.
And then there’s the visit by President Bush in 2004, when members hung a ten foot banner hung from King John’s Castle, urging the president to end his support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a stunt which featured on TG4’s evening news.
The group’s motivation is to ensure that Palestine remains on the agenda in Limerick. “We want the Palestinians to know that they are not alone,” says Sean Clinton “We are constantly putting the issue [of Palestine] before the public. It can be hard to know how effective any one action may be, but people gradually become informed and the awareness sinks in sooner or later.”
Of course, it helps if you come up with the odd audacious event. Like having carpenter Paudy build a house on Limerick’s O’Connell Street on a busy Saturday afternoon and then get what Sean calls “the most ginormous bulldozer” to pulverise it, meanwhile telling passing shoppers that Caterpillar D9 bulldozers operated by the Israeli army were inflicting similar destruction on the homes of Palestinians in Rafah and other refugee settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.
The campaign to declare Limerick a Caterpillar free zone owes its inception to the memory of Rachel Corrie, a young American peace activist who was killed by an Israeli D9 as she tried to protect a Palestinian home from demolition. In an effort to force Caterpillar to quit supplying these destructive machines to the Israeli army, the branch asked Limerick City Council to pass a motion boycotting Caterpillar equipment.
Although a vote on the motion is being held up by legal issues, the campaign received a lot of support from individual councillors, thanks in no small part to the network of personal contacts members of the branch have built up with the City Council.
For branch chairman Sean O’Connell, the value of the campaign lay in the publicity it generated, both locally and abroad. “The campaign went worldwide and put Limerick on the map as a place concerned about human rights,” he says. Similar campaigns are being repeated across the US which look to Limerick “as a model and as an example of a city taking a stand.”
The Caterpillar campaign resonated with locals too. “People would come up to our stalls and say ‘you’re the Caterpillar lads. What’s that about?’” says Sean O’Connell. According to the group, the public sympathy for the campaign was such that the council’s e-mail system was overwhelmed by messages of support.
One problem which faces any group working on issues with high media profiles is the way in which the coverage of events can affect the public’s response. Lack of media coverage often means that events fade quickly from the public consciousness.For Sean O’Connell, “it’s up to solidarity groups to keep plugging the issues so people don’t forget. On the other hand we have to be ready to respond quickly when something big happens.”
The end of the Palestinian occupation and the time when the Limerick IPSC can allow the issue to fade from public consciousness, remains tragically far away. Until then however, the group is determined to keep plugging away to keep Palestine on Limerick’s agenda.