Those who favour peaceful protest have most to fear

 

THE RIGHT to peaceful protest is under threat from two sides, writes FINTAN O’TOOLE

The first threat is from those who want to use it as a launching pad for their own egotistical stunts. While it may have been wildly exaggerated, the argy-bargy at the Dáil a week ago was utterly foolish. It was wrong in itself and also rather ironic. Many of those who want to protest against Government policy are angry about the unfair treatment of public servants. To express that anger by placing other public servants (gardaí) in an impossible situation is frankly idiotic.

This kind of stunt is also entirely counterproductive. It guarantees that the coverage of a demonstration will not be about the concerns and intentions of the vast majority of those who took part. It will be about the actions of a tiny minority.

More importantly, however, violence disenfranchises both the majority of actual protesters and most of those who would consider taking part in a march. Again, there is an irony here. What makes people most angry about the present situation is the feeling of disempowerment, the sense that huge decisions are being made about our lives by a government that has no political or moral mandate to make them. Yet those who see mass protests as an opportunity to provoke confrontation reinforce this sense of powerlessness. With no mandate from anyone, they try to impose their own meaning on other people’s anger.

Aside from all of this, the simple political reality is that the vast majority of Irish people will not take part in a protest if they think it will turn violent. You can call this fear or caution or an innate sense of respectability. But I think it’s also about dignity. The anger people feel is rooted in a sense of indignity, the humiliation of being sent in to clean up other people’s excrement. If a protest is to give them anything, it has to be the experience of standing up straight and reasserting their dignity. Silly stunts trivialise that desire.

But the other threat to the right to peaceful protest is hysteria about the very notion of people taking to the streets. Here is the official statement issued by the Oireachtas last Tuesday evening after the now-infamous skirmish: “A small scale protest took place outside the gates of the Houses of the Oireachtas building this evening. A small number of protesters attempted to gain access to the confines of Leinster House, however, contrary to media reports, they did not gain entry to the parliament buildings or its grounds but were stopped by the gardaí. This incident in no way impinged on the business or workings of the Irish parliament or government.”

Yet this small incident that had no effect on anything was transmuted in the telling into a “storming of the Dáil”, a “riot” and a harbinger of anarchy and murder. Almost every discussion of it included some reference to Greece and the murders of three bank employees. By Sunday, the Sunday Independent was leading with “Gardaí train in secret for riots: Fears of Greek-style violence stirred in wake of Dáil attack by protesters”. You had to read the report quite carefully to realise that it referred to routine training.

I got caught up in this hysteria myself when Senator Terry Leyden accused me (under parliamentary privilege) of having incited a riot outside Leinster House. Senator Leyden has undertaken to withdraw that allegation in the Senate today, and I have no desire to go on about it. (The undertaking was given to Joe Duffy on Liveline, which surely makes it as solemn and sacred as a vow consecrated by the pope in the Middle Ages.) Apart from the irony that telling people they are “citizens of a free republic” can be construed as incitement to riot, what matters is the impulse to criminalise all forms of public demonstration.

The very idea of peaceful protest is being squeezed between these twin forces of reckless adventurism on the one side and hysteria on the other. (As usual, the extremes are oddly complementary – both have an interest in exaggerating the reality.) What gets lost is the importance and the potential effectiveness of mass protest.

If you don’t think protests can work, look at Iceland, where noisy but peaceful mass demonstrations shamed the government into resigning. And look at the effects of the protests by pensioners over restrictions on medical cards. Not only did they win major concessions on that issue, but the Government has been very wary of poking that hive again. Pensions have been left largely untouched in the cuts and, for all the current kite-flying, that exemption will continue. The Government is scared of those who will shout back. Its assumption is that this does not include the vast majority of angry citizens. If they allow themselves to be bullied, from either side, out of their right to peaceful protest, those citizens are giving up their power to worry their rulers.

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