Where now for Dublin's Occupy protesters?

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

THE OCCUPY DAME STREET protest, in Dublin, is a “semi-sovereign state”, according to a placard pinned to a makeshift hut in front of the Central Bank of Ireland. “The Central Bank has no jurisdiction here,” it asserts.

The question vexing many, including nearby retailers, councillors, the Garda and now organisers of St Patrick’s Festival, is whether anyone, anywhere has any jurisdiction over the camp.

As the biggest festival in the Irish calendar approaches, the occupiers have been asked to remove their camp in time for the parade on March 17th, which the festival’s organisers estimate will bring 500,000 people into the city centre.

The parade’s route will take it along Dame Street and past Central Bank Plaza, which in other years has been filled with spectators.

In a letter delivered to the camp last week, Supt Joseph Gannon of Pearse Street Garda station asked for the protesters’ “assistance and co-operation in removing” the camp. This was to facilitate the parade and to “ensure it passes off without risk of injury or harm to members of the community and visitors”.

The occupiers met on Wednesday night to discuss the request. After several hours, says Steven Bennett from Dún Laoghaire, a member of the camp since it began, the occupiers agreed they would discuss the request with the Garda. “We can’t really comment on the St Patrick’s Day situation,” says Bennett. “It’s a closed communication, so we should really only talk to them for the time being.”

Having begun as a group of tents in the plaza, Dublin’s Occupy is now more akin to a shanty town of small shacks and sheds fashioned from wood and plastic sheeting. A central, larger dwelling has couches, cooking facilities, storage and a seating area complete with a whiteboard for planning events and meetings. All have been donated by the public, says Bennett.

Occupy Dame Street emerged as part of a global wave of protests where people were gathering together and camping out to occupy symbolically significant patches of real estate.

“It was established in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, with what was happening in Tunisia, Spain, Greece,” says Bennett, who has come in from Dún Laoghaire for his shift at the camp. He was formerly employed in the IT sector, and has been part of the Occupy camp since the start. “We take it in turns to stay here during the day or do nights. People say we are anti-capitalist, but we’re not. There are capitalists among us. It’s just Ireland’s capitalism is so bloody corrupt.

“There are about 15 people here most nights. That can swell to 25 at weekends.” About eight people are here as we talk, on Thursday morning. “We hold general-assembly meetings every evening where anyone can come along. We discuss a broad range of issues. We’ve held marches and various events.”

They have four core demands: that the IMF stay out of Irish affairs; that the bank bailout being paid for from public funds be lifted; that Irish oil and gas reserves be kept in Government control and that there be real participatory democracy.

The winter months were hard, he says, and numbers dwindled. “Weekend nights can be chaos down here, people out of their heads on E and booze. In contrast we’ve had great support; people coming and telling us to keep it up.” As we talk several passing cars toot their horns in apparent support.

Nearby traders are at their wits’ end, however; they say the camp has stopped people coming to the streets around the plaza. Alan Cooke, owner of John J Cooke silversmiths, on Fownes Street, says business is down 35 per cent since October. He has written to every statutory body and public representative he can think of about his despair at the lack of action over the apparently semi-permanent camp blocking pedestrians’ way. He has had little more than an acknowledgment from most, he says.

“Traders and local businesses in the immediate vicinity are struggling to survive this recession. There are many jobs at stake, and most businesses do not want or need this added problem . . . Only a handful occupy the encampment by day and even less at night. The whole thing is illegal . . . from a planning point of view, littering, fire safety. Everyone seems to be steering clear of confronting them, because no one wants trouble to erupt – which is exactly what they want.”

No one should be denied their right to protest, he says, “but a handful of protesters should not have the right to deny innocent people making a living, keeping people in employment and paying taxes.”

Noel Coyne, owner of Bedford Stuy Barbers, also on Fownes Street, says his business has not been badly affected. “I have a loyal base of customers. I would have supported what the demonstration was set up for, but it seems to have attracted all sorts of loons. It’s not what it was six months ago.”

Neither the Central Bank of Ireland nor Dublin City Council accepts responsibility for the decision about whether the camp should be allowed to continue. The council points out that the camp is not occupying any public footpath and that the plaza is owned by the bank. The bank says that it owns the plaza but that it is a public space. As long as nobody is harmed or put in danger by the camp, “we are not at present inclined to take action to have them moved away,” it says.

Dermot McLaughlin, head of Temple Bar Cultural Trust, says he has huge sympathy for the traders. The plaza is a public amenity and should be available to all members of the public – whether to walk across, sit in when it’s sunny or use for meetings, he says. “There should not be any permanent structures obstructing that,” he says. One of the two bodies must be responsible for the plaza’s upkeep and insurance and for maintaining a public right of way.

The Independent councillor Mannix Flynn, who describes the protest as “past its sell-by date”, raised it at the council’s economic and planning strategic policy committee last week. It is examining the issue “as a matter of urgency”. “The council is not very proactive on these things,” he says. “It won’t act unless they receive a complaint.”

An “official complaint” has now been received about alleged planning violations by the erection of semi-permanent dwellings, according to the council. “That matter is being investigated,” says a spokesman.

Whatever may happen around St Patrick’s Day, however, the occupiers say their protest, which they call a process, has just begun. “This place, outside the Central Bank, will continue to be the focus,” says Bennett. “Of course we have sympathy with the traders, and we do see that the public has lost access to the plaza. But we feel the gain, in having this focus for a process towards real fundamental change, is greater than the loss.”