Small voices that go unheard

 

The Dáil is in recess for the summer, and the people who protest outside its gates can take a break too. KATHY SHERIDANmeets some of those who turn up at Leinster House almost every day, trying in vain to make themselves heard

ON WEDNESDAY, as Molesworth Street in Dublin fills with fired-up disability campaigners, the limitations of our principal public protest space are lamentably plain. The mildest of Greeks would take one look at the intersection of Molesworth and Kildare streets and chortle. When the former is closed to traffic for big protests, Kildare Street remains a busy, dusty thoroughfare for testy, honking motorists, effectively a broad divide between the ruled and the rulers. It’s a convenient one for the rulers, if not the benign gardaí who spend more time pulling protesters from the path of vehicles than policing the gates.

John Barlow, a man with a black beret, a terrier and a disability positions himself on the rulers’ side of the street, musing that a mass electronic wheelchair assault on the gates might be a plan. After all, what guard wants to be seen wrestling with a wheelchair? But first they’ll have to crash the barriers, John, then play chicken with the traffic on Kildare Street.

Suddenly, he spots a well-known parliamentarian and bellows: “Jewish Blueshirt!” Even to veteran rebels that’s a shock. Alarmed, they give Barlow a wide berth, several of them defending the Blueshirt as a decent sort. A big garda catches Barlow’s eye. “That’s it, now. Fair’s fair,” says the garda. Civility returns.

Today we resemble Greece in one respect: a protest under sunny skies. It threatens to feel like a jolly day out. The ambience is chatty and relaxed, buoyed by the jazzy music that heralds the marchers, their wheelchairs and buggies – a sharp contrast with the quiet, moving stories of invisible sacrifice and suffering that mark the lives of many participants. Their big, noisy rally on the Molesworth Street side is distinguished by the swathes of Opposition politicians wading in to chat and collect literature.

ON THE LEINSTER HOUSE side, just outside the gates, about six or seven separate protests are in progress, most without a hope of ever attracting such political firepower or the kind of backdown that followed the disability rally, when Brian Cowen declared that no respite services would be cut.

The long-termers have neither the clout, the numbers, the upbeat music nor the organisation to maintain morale. Some don’t even have family support. Their doggedness is remarkable: neither encroaching age, the elements, apathetic passers-by nor politicians sneaking in the side entrance will wither them.

One has been going for nearly 20 years. Another has been ongoing since 2004, including a couple of hunger strikes. A third – which today involves about six young folk and a couple of older people, airing big placards and implacable certainty – has been running since March. A glimpse at the placards – bearing such messages as “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is abomination. Leviticus 18:22” – sends a pony-tailed passer-by into a frenzy. He rushes back and forth in front of the group, yelling repeatedly: “Off the streets, Nazi scum!” The protesters stare ahead. Gardaí leave the man to make his own distressed protest until he veers into the traffic. Then they lead him away.

The placard holders are members of one big family. When challenged by a pinstriped cyclist, 21-year-old Enoch Burke takes him on. “Well, where does Aids begin?” asks Enoch, following up with HIV figures from St James’s Hospital, to “prove” that homosexuals started it. “God help you,” says the cyclist mournfully. Enoch, who declined a place in medicine at University College Galway, is one of 10 children – all with biblical names – of Sean and Martina Burke from Castlebar, Co Mayo.

His brother Isaac is in third-year science in Galway. Esther is working for her HDip. Ammi hopes to study languages. The family belong to no particular sect. “We’re just a Christian church,” says Martina.

How do she and Sean find the time to support their large family and stand all day outside Leinster House? Sean, she says, was a qualified electrician, “and does a lot of different things now”. Martina, a qualified secondary teacher, “still does private tuition” for exam students. “Of course there are a thousand other things we could be doing. I could cry coming up,” she says, “but there’s a lot of unrest in the country, and the politicians are not representing the people.”

The Bible sustains them on the three- to four-hour drive from Castlebar two or three days a week, before they stand tall with their placards for up to nine hours a day.

While the big rally continues, Carmel Lorimer removes herself to the side. A reserved, soft-spoken former journalist with the Carlow Nationalistand a qualified social worker, she retakes her pitch as the crowds fade away, holding up a well-worn banner: “Minister for Agriculture and Teagasc lies to Dáil deputies to cover up corruption used to smash our family.”

It’s the same home-made sign that her father, Dr Owen Goodman, held aloft in the same spot two days a week for many years from 1991. His story goes back almost 50 years, when he was conducting research for the food-processing industry on behalf of Teagasc and, the family believes, false allegations were laid against him, leading to his dismissal. The nub of their complaint is that he was fired “without being given a warning, a reason or a pension”. There was “no formal appeals process”, says his daughter. “They have never allowed him to speak. What kind of state does not give a man who was unfairly and unlawfully dismissed the right to speak?”

He was in his early 40s at the time, and Carmel an “idealistic” 12-year-old. “Even then I knew men who were sacked should be able to speak. And I watched grown men come in and say if it weren’t for their wives and children they’d stand by him. And some did.”

It got them nowhere. It is a strange affair that a man characterised by his daughter as “most reasonable”, a man with a UCD doctorate who once lectured in Johnstown Castle, should find himself suddenly without an income, forced to grow and sell vegetables to support a family of eight. “He survived through his skill,” says Carmel.

She joined her father at the gates in 2005, on a patch that from time to time has included her mother, her brother and sisters. Owen is 87 now and Carmel – who turned 58 this week – has become the family’s public symbol of protest now that the last of her three children has gone off to university.

Almost every Wednesday she gets the 6.15am train from Coleraine, arriving in Dublin at 10am, and often stays as late as 6pm.

Do people ever suggest she’s mad? “Well, as my father would say, we’ve tried everything else,” she says mildly. They have tried the law, and political representations at the highest level. The publicity is intermittent but ongoing.

“I don’t know any different way,” she says. “How can you give up when the alternative is to allow them to walk over you? Until this is resolved, it means the State can take your name and livelihood and explain itself to nobody.”

She is encouraged by indications that, after the many shocks from various establishment pillars in recent years, people are more inclined to believe strange stories like theirs. She will haunt the gates for a long time yet.

Nearby, Peter Preston guards his home-made triptych – “Child Sacrifice; Children First” – from collapsing in the breeze, just as he has done since 2004. A likeable 56-year-old from Donnycarney, who “smokes like a trooper and likes the odd pint”, his story began in 1999 when his daughter Danielle was attacked with a glass in a pub where, he claims, a prominent politician often took a drink and where under-age drinkers were served “under his nose”. The attack left Danielle – then a mother of one, working as a secretary with ambitions to study accountancy at night – with 25 stitches in her face and three to her boyfriend’s head. Preston’s contention is that subsequent investigations were riddled with cover-ups, intimidation and bullying.

Although the criminal case ended with a guilty plea, an 18-month suspended sentence and £3,000 compensation to Danielle, a civil suit “had to be dropped”. He makes allegations of a High Court conspiracy, of powerful people and Garda informants being protected, and accuses one prominent individual of returning High Court files and transcripts with gaps and changes.

He talks compulsively, at breakneck speed and in dense detail. But he is never less than pleasant and respectful, and he has a knack for remembering journalists’ and politicians’ names. Preston has gone on two hunger strikes outside Leinster House, the first lasting 64 days – in a tent – and ending in hospital. Beforehand he worked as a labourer for his brother, but the case consumed him, leaving him unable to concentrate. A lapse on the job left him with broken fingers. The hunger strikes have left him vulnerable to tiredness.

Isn’t it time he gave up and took his life back? “If I wasn’t out here, I’d have taken the law into my own hands,” he says. “And I’ve no life to get back to now anyway.” His marriage is over, though he still lives in the marital home. He lives on disability benefit, while she works nights, cleaning in the tax offices.

And Danielle? “She’s grand. She has three kids now. She’s on a community employment scheme. But her whole life would have been different,” he says haltingly. “This began with my daughter, but not now. It’s about all our children, community and society – and they all know that in there,” he says, pointing at Leinster House.

He chats amiably to a neophyte protester with beard, Panama hat and sandals. Peter O’Hara’s first 10-hour outing last week taught him to take a folding chair this time.

The 55-year-old psychiatrist from the midwest drove up from home this morning, arriving just after 10am with his placards to protest against aspects of the Civil Partnership Bill. His issue is with the provision that effectively forces a co-habiting couple into a decision to opt out or otherwise after five years. He’s afraid young people haven’t noted this. Up to now, he says, such couples have had a choice, moving towards marriage or not but, crucially, doing it at their own pace.

O’Hara’s contention is that the cohabitant rules of the Bill will interfere with this freedom of choice. His argument is rational, even persuasive. But most people would be happy to make their case among family and friends or via letters to newspapers (he’s had one published in this paper) and leave it at that. What is not clear is the motivation that impels a man to make several placards, buy a little chair, pack a lunch in a knapsack and drive to Dublin to sit unappreciated outside Leinster House for hours on end. He will say only that he thought about all this “a long time ago, and I thought marriage wasa mistake – then I got married and it was a mistake”.

He enjoys the cut and thrust of an argument. As the big march is in progress he takes a sandwich from his knapsack and chats to the other Peter in the sunshine. And when the chat runs out he returns to his little chair and his old edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.