ALISON O'CONNOR: Water protests are as ridiculous as a TV sitcom long past its best

The anti-water charges movement has ‘jumped the shark’ in the sincerity of its protests, writes Alison O’ Connor.

Protests in Clonmel on behalf of the three men jailed for refusing to stay at least 20 metres away from water-meter installers.

HE anti-water-charges movement has ‘jumped the shark’ in the sincerity of its protests. That is the phrase that comes to mind as I observe the antics of some of the protesters, who have brought the movement into disrepute. I just wish they would shove off and let people, including those employed by Irish Water, or our democratically elected representatives, get on with their business.

‘Jumping the shark’ is a phrasecoined by American Jon Hein, and his friends, to describe the moment a TV show began to decline in quality.

They used it as code for the gimmicks or tricks writers use to keep the viewers interested, a sign both of desperation and of how far the show had moved away from its original premise. The phrase is based on a scene from a fifth-season episode of the sitcom, Happy Days, when the character, Fonzie, jumps over a shark while on water-skis.

The extreme wing of the water-protest movement is in the overwhelming minority. The vast majority of those who took to the streets last year were genuinely outraged at what austerity had done to their lives and wanted to say “enough” regarding water charges.

However, their cause is being discredited by these other louts, whose outrageous behaviour is causing legitimate, sincere protesters to abandon the cause because it has been hijacked.

The militant protesters’ ‘shark’ moment had been drifting ever closer, but it finally happened last weekend: three men jailed for refusing to remain at least 20 metres away from workers installing water meters went on hunger strike in Wheatfield Prison.

Hunger strikes have a particular resonance in Irish society, because they remind us of a terrible time in our not-so-distant past. That resonance is all the more reason why these three men should not have gone on hunger strike because of their “political transfer” to a prison just a few short miles from the one where they say they wished to be placed.

Why wouldn’t prison authorities wish to move them away from a location that is relatively near the city centre, to one in West Dublin? It would be far easier to organise a protest march to converge on Mountjoy than on Wheatfield.

Having watched and listened to this outer fringe of the water-protest movement, I gather that our judiciary is corrupt, that RTÉ is corrupt, that the “mainstream” media is corrupt.

It seems perfectly legitimate to them to use intimidation and threats and to shout down people who do not agree with their increasingly confused cause.

They occupy council chambers so that official meetings of councillors, who have been democratically elected by the voters, and as recently as last May in Cork, have to be abandoned.

They taunt the Gardaí, getting as physically close as possible, savagely in-your-face, so that they can do all in their power to elicit a response, which they will then claim is “abuse”. They spit in the face of people who work for Irish Water, they get on the DART with these workers and then follow them home and threaten to publish their addresses on Facebook.

Facebook, of course, is one of their main weapons of choice and it is a playground for their immaturity and spite, in terms of targeting those who dare to disagree with them.

I’ve spoken to politicians who have been surrounded while simply walking down the street, one describing how he and two colleagues had just finished canvassing at night, when they were swamped by people who walked with them for a considerable distance.

He and his colleagues were intimidated, but did not react and eventually the group left them.

I wondered what planet protester-in-chief Derek Byrne was on when I read a statement issued by him from Wheatfield prison, in which he called on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to resign. That statement added that he and the other two jailed protesters were “disgusted that 27 TDs are heading abroad for St Patrick’s Day to promote Ireland”.

It seems too obvious to point out that Enda Kenny is the democratically elected leader of this country. If one of their central points is that there are some people who cannot afford to pay for water, despite the massive reduction in payment announced last year by the Government, then it would be ridiculous for our Cabinet members not to use every opportunity to promote Ireland.

Unless one of them makes an absolute disgrace of themselves and gets massive negative publicity — highly unlikely — well, then, the ministers travelling abroad for political and trade meetings in 27 countries make for one massive commercial opportunity for our little country.

The man that the protestors want to step down, Enda Kenny, will, once again, on his annual visit to Washington, have the golden opportunity of presenting a bowl of shamrock to US President Barack Obama. Money literally would not pay for that opportunity, in terms of national exposure.

Derek Byrne, of course, is the man who called President Michael D Higgins a “midget parasite”. That was outside a Dublin school in a nasty and aggressive protest; this would be our President who received well over one million votes when he got elected in October, 2011, and I suspect would receive a similar amount if he were standing again, this October.

Leinster House is hopping with speculation that an election could happen sooner rather than later, and everyone is doing their best to be ready for whenever the final whistle is blown.

But also on the minds of most of our elected representatives is how they will fare in this new era, in which they, their constituency offices and their homes are seen as legitimate targets.

The home of Meath Fine Gael TD, Ray Butler, was the scene of a protest this week by a branch of the National Land League of Ireland. The TD, who was not at home, said his wife and children were frightened and intimidated by the 20 or 30 people who, he said, had congregated and were wearing hoods.

He faced further difficulties when a female protester who turned up at his constituency office said he had hit her with his car as he drove away, while the TD said she had “hopped herself” against his car. She was brought to hospital in an ambulance and the Gardaí are investigating.

All of this could have a serious impact on our general election campaign.

Ultimately, people will go to the ballot box and vote on the day of the election, but if a small minority of people succeed in wreaking havoc on the campaign trail, and affect the manner in which the parties are able tell us of their political plans, what sort of nonsense is that?

The only saving grace is that these extreme protesters are making such a dog’s dinner of it that, hopefully, by the election they will have destroyed any shred of credibility they have left.

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