Protest and be damned: water activists demonised

Opinion: ‘Incidents have been exaggerated to portray opponents of the current political order as little better than terrorists’

A protester is pushed  away from blocking Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s car outside the Mansion House, Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

A protester is pushed away from blocking Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s car outside the Mansion House, Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

A friend of mine was once convicted of disorderly behaviour for head-butting the toecap of a policeman’s boot. The crime happened in central London in December 2010 during a student demonstration against tuition fees. He was originally told he’d be charged with affray, an offence carrying a sentence of up to three years.

On the advice of his lawyer, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge and escaped with a fine. His associates all told him he was a lucky lad.

Just a month earlier, “The largest student protest for a generation” (Irish Times) marched through Dublin on the same anti-fees mission. An upbeat account in a European “news portal”, VoxEurop, suggested that the students had “giv(en) the lie to general opinion that the economically stricken nation has taken swingeing austerity measures with passive resignation.”

Dublin demonstration

During the Dublin demonstration, another friend (it must be the circles I move in) was dragged by gardaí from a sit-in at the Department of Finance, apparently unconscious. RTÉ footage did not contradict this impression. A week later, teenager Vanessa O’Sullivan told a gathering outside Pearse Street Garda station: “This day last week I was knocked unconscious by a garda . . . All I am guilty of is walking inside a public building and sitting down.”

In the Sunday Independent, Gene Kerrigan wrote that: “Mounted police were deployed to coerce the crowd within five minutes of the department’s lobby being occupied. Within another five minutes, personnel carriers arrived with riot police. The newcomers had shields, visors and dark Robocop uniforms. Within another five minutes, the lobby was cleared. The Irish Times noted: ‘Some of the protesters exited with evidence of a beating on their faces.’”

Gardaí now surrounded students sitting on the pavement. Kerrigan continued, “They stood poised for violence, their riot truncheons raised over their shoulders . . . A number of dogs were deployed, barking and straining at their leashes . . . Video shows gardaí leaning over and lashing at the seated students,” he wrote. Later mounted gardaí, whooping as they went, launched a cavalry charge on Merrion Row. Kerrigan observed: “No one died. It could easily have been much worse, even fatal, had someone fallen in front of a running horse.”

Other relatively recent incidents of Garda liveliness during demonstrations could be cited. The violent dispersal of a H-Block protest outside the British embassy in Ballsbridge in 1981. The break-up of a May Day demonstration on Dame Street in 2002. A dozen incidents at least at Rossport gatherings of Shell to Sea. Etc.

None of these events is recalled in the media or political mainstream as examples of police misbehaviour. Insofar as they are called to mind at all, it is of violent protesters leaving gardaí no option but to do what needs done to “restore order.”

The evidence suggests that if there is an ominous aspect to violence during political demonstrations it arises at least as much from the behaviour of gardaí as of demonstrators. But that’s not what the official portrait suggests.

Instead, protesters of one sort and another are depicted as violent extremists. I gather that George Hook, the history man, informed Ruth Coppinger on Monday that we in Ireland today are not living in pre-revolutionary France, so as to deter her, possibly, from summoning a convoy of tumbrils to cart Newstalk presenters off to the Dalkey guillotine. Or consider the Sunday Independent report that, “Enda Kenny intends to play down the extraordinary and unprecedented texts sent directly to his personal phone.” The abuse, it seems, was “terrible”.

Terrible threats

The Taoiseach may have been determined to make nothing of the terrible threats, but Sindo newshounds could reveal that he had taken “the Fine Gael parliamentary party into his confidence during a recent discussion about growing threats to, and intimidation of, Government TDs”.

But all of that – and there’s much more – is in the ha’penny place compared to the lofty communiqué from Fergus Finlay in the Irish Examiner. “A republic is no longer a republic if democracy does not matter.” That sort of thing.

The point of Fergus Finlay’s argument was that, “The Jobstown protest was an exercise in fascist intimidation, led by people with no interest in democracy”.

Fascist. Not just bully-boys or opportunists, but fascists. That Paul Murphy! Who’d have thought it, and him so baby-faced? Few of us favour throwing water bombs at Joan Burton or at anyone else. (Although I cannot help remembering that Mary Harney didn’t make half the fuss when she was hit by a paint-bomb.)

The “clashes” and “threats” over the past few weeks don’t amount to a hill of beans. The incidents have been grossly exaggerated to portray serious opponents of the current political order as little better than terrorists.

Meanwhile, the role of the law-and-order arm of the State is prettified to an extent which renders it unrecognisable.

The Government and its supporters are inviting the people to look at themselves in a distorting mirror.

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