The Irish Times view on political protests: Crossing the line

The right to demonstrate is essential, but it is not absolute

The home of Minister for Education Richard Bruton was targeted last weekend. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The home of Minister for Education Richard Bruton was targeted last weekend. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The right to protest in public is an essential aspect of our democracy and is recognised under the Constitution and in international treaties. That right is not absolute: it does not include a right to intimidate or to harass individuals or their families. Privacy is also protected. Recent developments, however, involving pickets outside ministers’ homes and the threat of interventions at hospitals and medical clinics by representatives of a US-based anti-abortion organisation, cross those lines.

The Fingal Battalion Against Austerity protested outside the home of Minister for Health Simon Harris some weeks ago while his wife and child were inside. He regarded the incident as intimidation. The home of Minister for the Environment Richard Bruton was targeted last weekend. These kinds of protests are likely to be extended to the homes of judges and public officials, according to the protesters.

At the same time, a US-based group called Sidewalk Activists for Life has reportedly begun recruiting and training Irish members. Women on their way into hospitals or medical clinics that provide abortion services will be intercepted and encouraged to change their minds.

The doctors and medical staff involved will be identified and placed under pressure. Similar tactics have led to exclusion zones being placed around clinics in the United States in order to prevent the harassment of patients and medical staff. Harris has undertaken, as a matter of urgency, to introduce similar legislation here to guard against intimidation and to protect the privacy of individuals.

Balancing rights and freedoms when competing social and political aspirations are involved can be difficult. In extreme cases, adjudication falls to the courts. As a template for behaviour, however, basic civility and decency should be observed and the privacy of individuals respected. There is no place for protests that intimidate women or distress children. If these organisations wish to protest, there is plenty of space outside Leinster House for them.

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