Taoiseach brands Cork protest 'profoundly undemocratic'

Taoiseach brands Cork protest 'profoundly undemocratic'

Update: The Taoiseach has claimed a protest at a Fine Gael meeting in Cork last night was “profoundly undemocratic”.

A number of protestors interrupted a town hall meeting being held by the Leo Varadkar and the Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

The group, called the Connolly Youth Movement, disrupted the meeting to read out statements protesting homelessness and austerity.

They called for a minute’s silence for homeless people who have died on the streets - before continuing to read statements and getting heckled by Fine Gael supporters.

Just as the meeting was about to be cancelled they left.

The Taoiseach was not impressed by the action – insisting it was undemocratic.

“I think no matter what political party somebody may come from or what somebody’s political beliefs may be, we should all be committed to democracy and we should all be committed to free speech,” he said.

“Trying to shout other people down or trying to shut down their meetings is profoundly undemocratic.”

Connolly Youth Movement spokesperson Alexander Homits said the group has a right to challenge Fine Gael policies.

“Fine Gael has introduced austerity policy and austerity policy and we don’t believe they can come here, have a public meeting and not be questioned or challenged about it,” he said.

Earlier: Protesters in Cork give Cabinet a slap in the face after a day of disruptions

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Cabinet will undoubtedly have expected some soft focus PR during their trip to Cork City, with political strategists eyeing up the chance to win over some badly needed rural support when the visit plans were first unveiled.

But, despite their best intentions, the day-long journey to the rebel county has if anything provided ministers with a short, sharp slap in the face reality check of the problems facing the coalition as they bid to keep voter support in place nationwide in the weeks - and months - to come.

And, while there will be attempts to shrug off the criticisms, the images of Mr Varadkar and his closest allies being hounded by protesters throughout the day could have a longer term impact than the minor inconvenience of which it is being portrayed.

From farmers protesting over Brexit supports to a women's rights group protesting over a cluster of health and social services crises.

Climate change protesters to a small group of pro-life campaigners.

And cancelled walk-arounds in Cork City's Patrick Street to the dramatic disruption of a Fine Gael-dominated public debate on the directly elected mayors plebiscite by a hard-left student group.

Everywhere the Cabinet looked on Wednesday was framed by potential PR problems.

Yes, the second special cabinet meeting in Cork City since Mr Varadkar became Taoiseach almost two years ago shows the Government is at least conscious of the need to rid itself of its at times unfair Dublin-bias image.

And, yes, the promotion of Cork City in the hope an injection of further private sector investment could reduce population pressure on Dublin and benefit the entire country is welcome.

But try telling that to the diverse groups of campaigners, all of whom spent Wednesday trying to replace the Government's carefully planned PR roadshow with the what they see as the realities facing the public on a daily basis.

First to overshadow the Government image were the Irish Farmers Association, which held a 500-strong protest around Cork City Hall as cabinet ministers arrived on Wednesday morning.

While some cabinet members such as Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath grabbed the literal bull by the horns to pose for photographs alongside protesters and their cattle, others were not so lucky, with Tanaiste Simon Coveney facing criticism over the Government's supposedly small Brexit support funding, before Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was accosted with the now infamous chant:

"Where's the beef, ya vegan ya."

Safely ensconced in City Hall - which was a late location change, after Blackrock Castle was perhaps understandably ruled out as destination for a cabinet intent on ditching its posh boy image - Mr Varadkar reminded reporters farmers receiving significant funding already.

However, his appearance beside Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring just hours after several rural ministers posed with Culture Minister Josepha Madigan in a smart phone video while on a bus travelling to the cabinet meeting gave the air of a party too hard to emphasise its legitimate rural links.

With the IFA protest having made its point, Mr Varadkar travelled to the official opening of a health centre on Cork City's northside before he was due to take part in a short walk-around with Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune in the city centre.

However, shortly before the open goal PR opportunity was due to take place, it was cancelled, officially due to time constraints but with cynics suggesting the potential for embarrassing further protests looming large.

And the feeling of a choreographed day unravelling due to the threat of protests gained further traction as Mr Varadkar walked into the Clayton Hotel on Lapp's Quay to be greeted by two pro-life protesters and a separate group campaigning for women's rights in light of the cervical cancer scandal intent on making their voices heard.

As he took his seat alongside Tanaiste Simon Coveney, junior local government minister John Paul Phelan and Ms Clune for a public meeting on the upcoming directly elected mayor vote in the hotel, Mr Varadkar would have been right to expect a return to a one topic discussion.

But within minutes of the meeting beginning such hopes soon evaporated, with a handful of Connolly Youth Movement members shouting out a protest speech on the Government's health, housing, economic and alleged US military-linked policies.

The response from Mr Varadkar - the who accused the protesters of being "anti-democratic" by forcing the 10-minute postponement of a genuinely valuable public debate on the upcoming plebsicite - was tempered, and balanced.

However, the jostling of the protesters by some Fine Gael members, including one who was caught on camera by the Irish Examiner and other media outlets yelling "have you a job, are you a sponger, are you on the dole" will not be the image the party will have wanted to portray.

It should be said that despite the unexpected protests, Mr Varadkar and the Government still continued with a detailed directly elected mayors debate on Wednesday night, took genuine time out to see first hand the changes in Ireland's second city, and attempted to use the special cabinet meeting to promote improvements throughout Ireland, not just in Dublin.

However, as he left Cork City on Wednesday night any hope these legitimate points could cocoon the Taoiseach from the grassroots criticisms mounting up appeared threadbare at best, with Mr Varadkar's last interaction before climbing into his car before leaving Cork being another protest group - this time on climate change - politely but pointedly asking him the rhetorical question:

"Is that an electric car?"

Lots of rural Ireland focussed PR initiatives, but far more real life issues getting in the way.

All of which the Government will have to address sooner or later if it intends to remain in power.

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