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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 7, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

    The Numbers Game

    Harry McGee

    Everytime there is a demonstration in the country, the authorities experiences crowd trouble.

    No, not violence, though we occasionally see that rearing its ugly head – remember the misbeggoten Free Ulster riot some years ago.

    The problem I’m writing about is a far more basic one. It’s to do with headcount and with basic sums.

    It’s nothing new. If everybody who claimed to be inside the GPO was actually inside the building during Easter Week of 1916, it would have needed to have the capacity of Croke Park.

    Likewise, anytime thatI have seen a demonstration in Dublin or Cork or Galway, the official (and all ohter) estimates of the crowd  always seems a mystery.

    We got it again this morning. The gardai estimated that 70,000 people took part. Ictu estimated at least 150,000.

    And this is important. If the lower figure is correct, then the union demonstration was a bit of a flop. If the higher figure applies, then the Government has been back-footed.

    So what’s the technique for counting crowds involved in a demonstration. The protest against Iraq in 2003 is a good example. The gardai first estimated something like 40,000. But was subsequently revised upwards to over 100,000 when the sheer size became apparent. But was 100,000 accurate? Sure, we don’t know.

    Essentially (and correct me if I’m wrong) I believe the call is made by a senior garda who has experience with crowds.

    But the problem is this: When so much turns on the size of the protest, why can’t we have a better way of assessing crowds.

    I have some difficulties with public demonstrations; particularly their potential to be manipulative in the worst emotional way. But they have a function.

    But clearly the purpose of them is to mobilise people to demonstrate on the streets of the capital and other cities for a cause.

    Surely, there’s something very wrong when nobody can say for sure if 70,000 people turned out nationwide (or less even?) or 150,000 or more.

    • Eoin says:


      Interesting article on dealing with the problem here:

      The only accurate way to have estimated numbers would have been to use the webcast that ICTU streamed from O’Connell Street. If anybody has a full recording of it then a rough headcount could be determined.

      I checked it occasionally myself – the crowd was quite patchy in parts and they were in no greater hurry either – big on volume, low on density.

      I did laugh from disbelief when I heard the claim of 70k with 150k nationwide.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      The simplest way to count the numbers is to stand in the one place and count in clumps of ten or so an average density of the march as it passes while noting how many pass in about 1 minute. Then time the rest of the march. I did this with the Limerick one and got 4/5K. The figures will be rough but you shouldn’t get disparities of one being 70K and the other 150K.

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