Extinction Rebellion: Theory and practice of non-violent protest

Garda worked around this week’s radical action to ensure it yielded no martyrs

Gardaí remove demonstrators during an Extinction Rebellion protest on the day of the Irish budget outside Leinster House. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Gardaí remove demonstrators during an Extinction Rebellion protest on the day of the Irish budget outside Leinster House. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA


As gardaí lifted them from outside the gates of Leinster House on Tuesday evening, Ireland’s climate rebels sang “Gardaí, we love you, we’re doing this for your children too.”

In the storied history of civil disobedience, it was hardly the 1968 Democratic convention.

However, it was in keeping with the tactics used by Extinction Rebellion Ireland (usually styled as XRI) across its week of action in the capital this week: non-violent, good-humoured and almost playful.

When blocking traffic at O’Connell Bridge on Monday, organisers told protesters “We do not want to piss the public off, they are our friends.”

The protesters ran an open camp in Merrion Square, with facilities for education and children’s activities, and – perhaps inevitably – a yurt for meditation.

Their actions have earned countless column inches this week – but just who are XRI, what are their aims and tactics, and what should we expect next from this insurgent group?

At the start of the week, The Irish Times printed extracts from an XRI document which promised “arrestable events”.

“Ultimately, it is part of Extinction Rebellion’s aim to get people arrested,” the planning document said. “If the courts keep hearing the same message from us, that message will get through and more people will demand the urgent and radical action that is required.”

Gardaí at Merrion Square as Extinction Rebellion activists obstruct traffic in the area. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Gardaí at Merrion Square as Extinction Rebellion activists obstruct traffic in the area. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Chained to gates

Ultimately, the arrests did happen – five of them – early on Friday morning, after protesters had chained themselves to the gates on the Merrion Square side of Leinster House. They were later released without charge.

The Houses of the Oireachtas decided on Friday not to participate in an Open House event this weekend due to the threat of disruption. However, the protests largely played out across a series of bubbly photo opportunities, including a “fashion show” in a Penneys store to protest against the impact of fast fashion.

It is in marked contrast to the UK, where police used battering rams to effect pre-emptive raids, and over 1,000 activists have been arrested.

In fact, activists believe that there is a very deliberate policing strategy of non-confrontation at play in Dublin. Rather than removing or arresting protesters blocking traffic, gardaí have simply diverted traffic around them.

Activists argue that at its core, Extinction Rebellion Ireland is a non-violent and inclusive organisation

Gardaí have been unfailingly polite and friendly, particularly seeking out younger protesters and chatting to them, and praising their conduct in the press.

Unlike in England, there seems to be an emphasis on not bringing things to a head. “There’s an absolute policy of non-arrest,” one activist said.

If XRI had hoped the Garda would create martyrs for their cause, they would have been sorely disappointed.

XRI, like other iterations of the network around the world, is a leaderless movement composed of autonomous “Affinity Groups” (AGs). It is loosely based on the ideas of a sociologist called Erica Chenoweth, who theorised that if 3.5 per cent of a population can be convinced to take part in non-violent protest, governments will respond.

Each AG can plan and carry out its own direct actions, which are decided upon by consensus vote, or by delegating decision-making to individuals. An exhaustive 11-page document produced by XRUK, advises members on organisational techniques. Predictably, this can become more than a little convoluted: “Teams are in a structure where larger teams have sub-teams within them, and sub-teams can have their own sub-teams and so on, like Russian dolls.”

Willingness to be arrested

Irish activists have also organised specialist groups which give media relations training, legal advice and counsel on how best to interact with gardaí and the public, including techniques for de-escalating conflict. Activists are asked to grade themselves on their willingness to be arrested, and this is taken into account when planning direct actions.

The group is driven by a conviction that radical action is needed to avert climate catastrophe.

“This is humanity’s last stand; we need to get it done,” one activist said this week, describing the XRI mission as “a giant, epic challenge”.

Many are seasoned activists, who believe a new departure is needed. Mainstream approaches based on incremental change achieved by engaging with the great policymaking machine of governments have disappointed, they say.

Aisling Wheeler, a member of an AG based in Munster which organised an action outside the Department of Climate Change on Friday said: “People have been trying to talk to governments and corporations about this for 30 years, and nothing is happening. Nothing is working.

“I have been working on this for 18 years: writing petitions, making submissions to county and national development plans, I’ve worked in environmental education, I grow all my own food, I don’t fly, I don’t eat meat. I do all these things and nothing happens.”

One of the central tenets of XR is non-violence; however there have been disagreements within the Irish organisation about just how this is interpreted. People have been removed from Facebook groups, and their posts deleted, for “discussing slightly more”, as one source put it.

Other discussions on messaging apps occasionally turned to how the predicted climate-driven societal breakdown will result in violence, and how XRI has to “be prepared for that”. Many activists have reacted strongly against this. There have also been internal discussions about what constitutes violence; would, for example, sabotage of machinery involved in fossil fuel extraction be seen as violent?

While these debates have taken place, activists argue that at its core, XRI is a non-violent and inclusive organisation, focused on engaging people and working progressively towards a solution for climate change. This has clearly been on show in their activities in Dublin this week.

Paid activists

Some discord has also arisen over finances. A small number of activists – fewer than five – are paid a small stipend, drawn from fundraising activities.

One source said the amount paid was equivalent to minimum wage for a 30-hour week, although hours worked are significantly longer than that. This would equate to just under €300 a week, although sometimes that is split between activists.

This too has caused division. At least one person left the national organising body over the issue, on the basis that payment of anyone in a non-hierarchical group was problematic.

A significant financial contribution was due to be made to this week’s protests from the UK branch of XR, but that never materialised, with sources suggesting logistical issues were to blame.

The key question for many is what will XRI actually achieve. Cara Augustenborg, a UCD environmental scientist, who is also an adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Climate Change, and a member of the council of state, believes XRI will shift the parameters of the debate in Ireland.

While she believes some aspects of their policy goals are unrealistic, she reasons: “You need the extreme view that makes the moderate view more palatable.

“If someone is fighting for a very radical change, they’re unlikely to get it. But then, if another group comes in and is prepared to compromise, then they might be more likely to get it. It gives people a spectrum and something that was once more radical becomes more moderate,” she said.

Ultimately, she says that “What they’ve done is a really good thing – and I think it will influence voting habits.”