Who are the protesters picketing Ministers’ homes?

‘We’re protesting to let [Simon Harris] feel what it’s like, to be affected in his own home’

Members of the Fingal Battalion Direct Action Group.outside Minister for Health Simon Harris’s house last weekend. Photograph: Facebook

Members of the Fingal Battalion Direct Action Group.outside Minister for Health Simon Harris’s house last weekend. Photograph: Facebook

 

Despite calling themselves the Fingal Battalion, the protesters who gathered outside the homes of Ministers Simon Harris and Richard Bruton are neither from Fingal nor number anywhere near the numbers required for a battalion.

Instead the name appears to have been taken from the group of Irish Volunteers who fought the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ashbourne, Co Meath during Easter 1916.

It’s difficult to say for sure however, because members of the group mostly refuse to speak to the media to explain its origins or its goals.

What we know is they intend to continue protesting outside politicians’ homes.

Last week in a statement, it said the tactic would be used not only against Ministers but judges and other public officials (although they declined to say which ones “for tactical reasons”.)

On Sunday a group of ten members of the Fingal Battalion gathered outside the home of Mr Bruton, the Minister for the Environment.

A week previously, a dozen or so picketed the Greystones home of Mr Harris, the Minister for Health, while Mr Harris, his wife Caoimhe Wade, and their new-born baby daughter, Saoirse were inside.

The group’s full name is Fingal Battalion Against Austerity. They appear to overlap with, or least enjoy the support of other small groups such Wicklow Says No, and #BringItToTheirDoors. In many cases these groups appear to be little more than a Facebook group.

The protests have widely condemned from all sides of the political spectrum. One of the first to condemn the tactics against Mr Harris was the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, which is currently in dispute with the Government over nurse’s pay.

‘Intimidation’

Mr Harris said the protest outside his house was not legitimate. “I think the use of the word protest somehow gives legitimacy to what was, plain and simple, an intimidation - an intimidation of my family, my neighbours and my community.

“What happened to me and my family, to my wife and to my young baby, to my neighbours, was not protest, it was absolutely not protest,” the Minister said.

Not all of the protesters are known, but they included Eamon McGrath, Padda Murphy, Hazel McDermott and Gina Ward, all long-standing political activists forged by a mixture of republican politics and anti-water charges campaigning.

Explaining their actions to a garda, one of the protesters said: “There’s a resident in this estate who is health minister, and we believe that his actions have been disgraceful in his term as health minister.

“His actions have been affecting people all across the country in their own homes. So we’re protesting here today to let him feel what it’s like, to be affected in his own home.”

An examination of the social media accounts of those involved in the protests shows a pattern of agitprop overlap in which Facebook pages metastasise across campaigns and issues.

The Wicklow action was supported by groups such as Duleek Against Austerity, “Water Meter Alert”, “Eviction Alert”, “Anti Imperialist Action Ireland” , Abolish The Special Courts and the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association, to name but a few.

The protesters appear to be left-wing in persuasion: “There were no right wing elements involved in [The Harris] protest nor would they be tolerated at any of our events,” said one.

Support

However, many expressions of support online for their approach come from the right and far-right side of the political spectrum.

The same cluster of names appear again and again. Views are trenchantly-expressed, the language extreme.

Often, the videos posted by such right-wing quarters - not by those involved in the Harris or Bruton protests - feature gardaí being taunted relentlessly, told they should be ashamed of themselves, or called “scum”, where their partners, or parents are mocked.

Politicians and the judiciary are always “corrupt” and non-Sinn Féin republicans reserve special venom for that party. The media is hated and professional journalists completely distrusted.

For people with much to say online, however, these protesters are shy when it comes to being interviewed.

During the protest outside Mr Bruton’s house a man who appeared to be the leader of the Fingal Battalion refused to speak to The Irish Times.

“There’ll be no communication,” he repeated. When asked his name he pointed to his jacket bearing the group’s emblem.

Others in the group of ten protesters, some of whom kept their faces covered, also refused to talk about their grievance with Mr Bruton, although a post on the group’s Facebook page complained of Government plans to introduce a carbon tax.

Throughout much of this demonstration members of the media and gardaí comfortably outnumbered protesters.

Two gardaí sat in an unmarked car occasionally snapping pictures of the group while a good-natured sergeant explained to them that he was only there for everyone’s safety.

Ashamed

Some passing motorists beeped their horns in apparent support. One driver shouted the protesters should be ashamed of themselves. Some of the group went to shout back at him but were stopped by their apparent leader.

Throughout the demonstration, the atmosphere remained calm. At about 4pm, with most of the journalists having departed, the protesters drifted off.

Eamon McGrath, one of those who protested outside Minister for Health Simon Harris’s house last weekend.
Eamon McGrath, one of those who protested outside Minister for Health Simon Harris’s house last weekend.

One man who was present at both demonstrations was Mr McGrath. Last October, Mr McGrath left his home in Greystones in Wicklow and went on tour in Cork and Kerry seeking “a conversation across the nation” about the legacy left by Ireland’s economic crash a decade ago.

In a nine-minute video filmed as he sat on a stone-wall that was later posted on Facebook, Mr McGrath reflected on his journey, disappointed that so “many people have gone silent”.

“This trip is a conversation across the nation but no one has rang that phone. People need to be supported. On that, I’m going to have a cup of tea and hope I’m in a better form,” he declared.

Mr McGrath urged people to rise up and put politicians under pressure. His video garnered 22 comments, including his own, mostly of the “well done”, “well said” and “fair play” variety.

Mr McGrath has taken part in previous campaigns during which he was arrested for alleged public order offences.

Smiling and genial in nature, Mr McGrath declined to be interviewed when he was approached at his home in Greystones last week: “Not interested. Not interested. No. No,” he says, politely, “No disrespect,” he responded.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Mr McGrath, with his mobile telephone in hand, declares himself to be “a disgruntled Fine Gael supporter”, before he goes on to argue “the State control the media”.

Mr McGrath says his solicitor, Tara, is on the line: “You see,” said Mr McGrath pulling on his cigarette. “I’ve all these witnesses. You need them around; you don’t know what youse lads would say.”

“How are you doing?” says the voice on the mobile, pleasantly. “Go easy on that lovely man.”

The Irish Times offers greetings. “Are you listening to this Tara? Are you getting this recorded?” Mr McGrath asks. “I am,” says Tara.

Accountability

Asked why he had supported Mr Harris in the past, Mr McGrath says: “That’s for you to find out.”

“I do not do anything discourteous. I have respect for everyone. Now sir, on that note, I’ll bid you good day,” Mr McGrath says.

He adds: “But do you think what’s happening is right? Do you think that when people have to emigrate to save the lives of their children, that’s right? And where’s the accountability?”

Elections do not offer political accountability, he argues: “No, no, no. Is there accountability? Is there accountability? I can’t comment but I know who I am and what I represent. The rest of the world don’t. Good day to you!”

Balbriggan-based Gina Ward, who was arrested during anti-water charge protests and was injured in one, was another of the Greystones protesters.

Leaning out of a first floor window of her townhouse maisonette in a well-kept estate in the north Dublin town, she calls out, “hello” in response to a knock of the door last week, as a small dog yaps rapidly.

“Would you talk to be about your political philosophy and activism?” asks The Irish Times.

“No thanks.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive.”

It was an interesting demonstration at the Harris home, we offered and she agreed, adding “but no thanks”.

“Will there be more?”

“No thanks,” she said, closing the window.

Last week, Mr McGrath was back campaigning, posting a video of a protest on Wednesday, staged inside the Round Hall of the Four Courts. Gina Ward was there, part of the Women’s Direction Action Movement.

The group’s tactics of targeting politicians’ homes have been used by group’s on the other end of the political spectrum.

On Saturday night, about six right-wing activist claiming to be from the Yellow Vest movement protested outside the apartment complex of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Like Mr Burton, the Taoiseach was not at home at the time.