THE masked man swathed in the flag of St George but waving a Scottish saltire was protesting against women wearing hijabs and burkas a week or two back, but on THIS day he was in the border town of Berwick upon Tweed, his face wrapped in a balaclava for a reason far more sinister than religious observance.
Members of the Scottish Defence League, an off-shoot of the far-right English Defence League, marched side by side through the Northumberland town with a group of English ‘tourists’ calling themselves North East Infidels, waving banners and mouthing provocative chants.
The irony was not lost on Berwickers who lined the route to oppose them.
“Many of the right-wingers had their faces covered, making their opposition to the hijab and burka seem somewhat anachronistic,” laughed Sandie Reed, one of the watching townspeople.
Hers was one of two telling observations following the discomforting sight of an anti-immigration march foisted on a quaint Borders town which changed hands a baker’s dozen times throughout history but whose citizens from either side of the water have lived in peace now for 500 years.
The other came from Northumbria Police Superintendent Peter Storey, the officer charged with keeping the peace when the tinderbox came to town.
“The residents of Berwick greatly assisted us,” he said. “Their conduct and patience was exemplary, helping a potentially difficult event pass safely.
“By successfully coming together, and through careful planning with officers from the Neighbourhood Team, the event passed without significant incident – a testament to the fantastic community spirit we’re proud to have in this town.”
Like any good copper, he did his duty; he didn’t take sides. My friend Sandie Reed, on the other hand did what she saw as her duty, by choosing on which side of the fence to sit.
“The incomers were very aggressive and verbally abusive and tried to leave the march to attack us,” said Sandie, whose lifelong trade union membership and high regard for the likes of Nelson Mandela and Ewen McColl leave one in little doubt where her political affiliations lie.
“The fascists came to our town from both sides of the border,” she later wrote. “They were outnumbered by the locals who didn’t want them. Northumbria Police were absolutely fantastic and the whole event was policed meticulously with all stages of the event planned well.
“Our side went on the principle of love, not hate, and did a lot of singing. We came not to abuse them but to make the point that WE are quite happy with the folk in our town, whether they were born here or not.”
Turning the other cheek is not always the preferable option and I do not pretend that incidents of mob violence are not as commonplace from Left as well as Right – anti-global and animal rights protests and political marches of all persuasions all too easily get out of hand.
But importing xenophobia and outright hatred of other ethnic groups onto the streets of an otherwise quiet, quaint market town is a threat to the whole of society.
Sandie Reed again: “The incomers were aggressive and verbally abusive and tried to leave the march to attack us. Acting under police instructions, we stood well clear. They had also been trying to take photos of some of us before and during the demo but were blocked by police officers.
“These despicable people will not be allowed to march through our town again.”
Sandie reserved one final criticism for “the one pub in town which let some of [the marchers] drink before the march”.
“Shame on them!”