Vigil expertly stage-managed but perhaps overproduced


The event may have been a masterclass in how to stage a demonstration, but it lacked spontaneity

Wow! Now that’s the way to organise a vigil.

Saturday evening in Dublin delivered a masterclass in how to stage a demonstration.

The “Unite for Life” vigil was stunning in its planning and execution. It left all other such events – and there has been no shortage of rallies around Merrion Square down through the years – in the shade.

The farmers, the students, the teachers, the anti-war protesters, the squeezed taxpayers, the angry pensioners, the anti-austerity marchers . . . this production relegated them to the ha’penny place.

But some things never change. There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and the gross overestimation of crowd turnout by protest organisers.

Eoghan de Faoite of Youth Defence, who was MC for the proceedings, informed the cheering masses that the gardaí had just told them 25,000 people were in attendance. By the end of the rally, that figure – according to one speaker – had risen to 30,000.

The organisers of the recent vigil for Savita Halappanavar were similarly generous with their figures. Saturday’s crowd was roughly similar in size. In the ratings PR battle for turnout, the honours are even.

But 25,000? It was reported everywhere. Garda numbers, apparently. Were they at the same gig?

We walked the course. It was an impressive crowd – stretching the length of one side of Merrion Square. But it didn’t go around the corner and traffic moved freely along the road at the far end.

Rock-concert vibe

There was a rock-concert atmosphere about the place before the vigil began. Hundreds of stewards marshalled the good-humoured crowd as music blared from the speakers. More than 100 free buses had been laid on around the country to take people to the vigil.

This wasn’t back-of-the-lorry territory. A proper stage had been erected, with a sound mixing desk next to it. A huge articulated truck, emblazoned with the livery of Horse Racing Ireland, was parked to one side. It carried a huge screen called a Jumbotron. This is usually seen at race courses so punters can follow the action from a distance. A second, slightly smaller Jumbotron had been set up midway down the street.

The concert vibe continued with the corral at the head of the crowd – a sort of anti- abortion mosh pit. This was disproportionately populated by young people. Political parties do this all the time. They like to push their photogenic youth in front of the cameras whenever possible.

A “sterile zone” ran along one side of the square, giving clear access to people who needed to move quickly through the crowd.

There seemed to be a hierarchy among the legions of high-vis vests. The main stewarding and security duties were done by men and women with “Frontline Security” and “Frontline Steward” on their bibs, some wearing microphones and earpieces, others carrying walkie-talkies. Then there were volunteers with “Sign the Pro-Life Pledge” written on the back of their vests. Others wore fluorescent vests with smiley faces on the front. Youth Defence members wore bright yellow hoodies bearing the message “Because Life is a Right, Not a Privilege”.

A barrier was placed across the road at the other end, presumably to stop people wandering into the path of oncoming traffic. But it also gave the stewards a chance to police those joining the vigil. Home-made placards and banners were not allowed into the demonstration.

Forbidden placards

A small group of disgruntled men stood outside the barrier. Forbidden signs which they were carrying included some large “Abortion Kills” placards, along with one reading “Which of your grandchildren will be a Fine Gael baby?”, and another saying “men abandon, women abort, State abrogates – thou shalt not kill”.

We asked why, given it was a public protest, people were not allowed to join in with their own banners. “There are four or five signs that have been agreed, and it’s been agreed by the right-to-life committee and that’s it. There are no unauthorised signs allowed,” said the steward, who declined to give his name.

Inside the barrier, in two small marquees, volunteers handed out thousands of candles in paper holders and distributed placards and pledge packs. There were stacks upon stacks of high-quality glossy posters and people were urged to take one.

The pledge pack contained five leaflets and a prepaid envelope, addressed to the Life Institute. One leaflet began: “If Fine Gael legalise abortion and break the pro-life promise it made in election 2011, I pledge the party will never get my vote again.”

The posters had two main themes. The first was “Love them Both” and featured a mother cuddling a baby, and the second was aimed squarely at Fine Gael. It made for a very impressive display when the protesters held them in the air. “Raise your banners and point to the cherry picker,” Eoghan de Faoite urged them, pointing to the camera overhead.

Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute got a huge ovation when she spoke. “Hello Dublin and every other country that’s here today!” she began, adding to the showbizzy feel.

“We are the pro-life majority and we will not accept abortion – not now, not ever, not in our country and not in our name.”

When the crowd finally dispersed, the buses were lined up and waiting. An impressive evening’s work, brilliantly orchestrated and clearly lavishly resourced. But perhaps overproduced: all the money in the world can’t buy edge or spontaneity.

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