Protesters use Cork Cabinet visit to make their voices heard
What is surprising about the Cork dissent is its intensity and the number of topics people are aggrieved about
IFA president Joe Healy confronting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a farmers’ protest outside the Cabinet meeting in Cork. Photograph: John Allen
The decision to bring the weekly Cabinet meeting on a summer sojourn to Cork was taken partly to increase the visibility of the Government, but also served to allow the Taoiseach to press the flesh on the European elections and the plebiscite for directly-elected mayors.
None of these three endeavours went particularly to plan in what transpired to be a May Day for Leo Varadkar.
Firstly, the Cabinet was mobbed by angry farmers upon its arrival at City Hall in Cork. Varadkar appeared to be the target of the fury, with one protester shouting: “where’s the beef, ya vegan?”
Tractors circled the venue as Ministers tried to get to grips with the farmers’ siege. Tánaiste Simon Coveney was earnest in his attempts to explain the Government’s plan for the Brexit-stricken sector, but failed to convince the group who had surrounded him.
At one stage a bull appeared in the midst of the throng, much to the alarm of gardaí. It didn’t seem to bother Minister of State Finian McGrath, who held the reins in one hand while posing under a banner that read “Leo the Lamb”.
Secondly, a planned walkabout with MEP Deirdre Clune was then cancelled due to “scheduling delays”. The canvass was ostensibly to petition the people to vote for a directly-elected mayor, but it would have been an undoubtable boon to Clune’s campaign for re-election to the European Parliament.
And thirdly, an 8pm town hall meeting on Lapp’s Quay was suspended after a number of protesters interrupted the event.
The Taoiseach had just taken to the podium when a protester demanded a minute’s silence in memory of two homeless men who had died in Cork. Within minutes four people had stood up from their seats at various points around the room, shouting at the top table.
Broken its promise
Protests against any given government and its policies are a feature of democracy, and should be expected. What was surprising about the dissent in Cork was the intensity of it, and the breadth of the topics which people were aggrieved about.
There was anywhere up to 350 farmers, for example, and their message was clear: they say the Government has broken its promise to protect their livelihoods and the first day of reckoning will be on May 24th at the ballot box for the local and European elections.
At the Clayton Hotel for the town hall meeting, a small group of campaigners over the CervicalCheck controversy gathered in the front rows of the meeting, although they did not interrupt proceedings.
Members of the Connolly Youth Movement stood in front of Varadkar and Coveney and said that Fine Gael had brought in a programme of austerity which targeted “the most vulnerable in Irish society”.
They complained about the crises in the health service and in housing, and about “EU and US militarism”.
“If this persists, I will have to cancel the meeting,” said Deirdre Clune, who was moderating the event.
Heckles of “do you have a job? Are you on the dole? Go away and get a job” were heard.
Varadkar, Coveney and Clune huddled together at the top table in an effort to figure out how to get the escalating situation under control. The meeting was suspended, but resumed shortly afterwards.
The Taoiseach was applauded as he condemned the attempts to disrupt a political meeting.
“Trying to shout other people down, or trying to shut down our meetings, is profoundly undemocratic, and goes against the basic principle of free speech and is untrue to what happened in 1916 when we fought for our freedom and independence, and is untrue to all of the efforts of our founding fathers.”
When Varadkar left the event he was greeted by a handful of people with placards demanding action on climate change.
He was heckled as he was bundled into his car, with one protester shouting: “Is that an electric car?”
Combined with the recent protests outside Ministers’ homes, including recurrent protests outside the home of Minister for Health Simon Harris which were widely condemned, the mood on the ground for Fine Gael looks ominous.
Party members in Leinster House are concerned about what fate will befall them at the local and European elections, but they are also worried about the plebiscite on directly-elected mayors.
Once the aggravation had subsided at the town hall meeting, those remaining voiced their concerns about the mayor plan. Those present raised questions around the cost to the country, the salary attached to the mayor, expenses and accountability.
Some said the Government had not moved fast enough to inform the public why they should back the proposal. “I suspect it is too late,” said one man.
Mr Coveney agreed that the Government had “one shot” at the campaign which they had to get right.
Regardless of what happens on May 24th, the fear may be that the events in Cork could be a taste of what the Government faces when the looming general election is finally called.