Protesting outside a politician’s home has no place in a democracy — so said many of the social media commentators who condemned the groups who brought their banners to Health Minister Simon Harris’s house at the weekend.
They’re wrong. Freedom to protest is a cornerstone of democracy and that doesn’t just mean neat, confined, quiet, unobtrusive, instantly forgettable protest. Sometimes, it means the sprawling, noisy, disruptive, and reflection-provoking kind. It’s not an absolute right, of course. Large-scale protest that upsets many, as well as small gatherings that harass, intimidate, or distress a single target can both fall foul of public order laws. But just as there is no absolute right when it comes to protest, there should be a reluctance to declare an absolute wrong about where it can take place.
In Germany, a group of artists turned up outside a far-right politician’s home in the dead of night and built a Holocaust memorial for him to wake up to. The politician, who had publicly urged a reconsideration of German national shame over the killing of 6m Jews, was infuriated by the very large, brutalist, grey, concrete construction outside his window and declared it an outrageous intrusion on his family’s privacy.
Possibly it was, but this close-to-home protest may just have played its part in the politician’s party issuing a directive that its members should tone down their utterances.
In Israel, the courts actually ruled against the police, when they sought an injunction to try to stop demonstrations outside the home of the attorney general, over his actions in a corruption investigation implicating the prime minister, albeit the numbers were to be restricted to 500 people.
But then, in England, a small group of left-wing activists took up positions outside the home of Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, confronting him as he emerged with his family and telling his children their daddy was a horrible person.
All had essentially the same approach — “bringing it home”, as Sunday’s protestors called it when they brought their grievances to Harris’s doorstep. But the simple act of a few people potentially upsetting a small child drew criticisms far in excess of the monolith outside the German’s home or the gathering of 500 outside the Israeli’s.
What that tells us is that, legal or not, common decency and basic civility dictate that what happened outside Simon Harris’s house on Sunday was wrong. Not because he’s a politician, not because it’s his home, but because his wife and child live there and are not answerable for the complaints made against him, and because he has a constituency office and a government department outside of which to stage protests.
He has a prominent social media presence, where comments and criticisms can be made and he is not shy about turning up on air to defend himself, presenting another avenue for critics to respond. Sunday’s protestors left peacefully, but the gardaí were called and will investigate. It seems unlikely they’ll find any breach of the law, but even if that’s the case, we don’t always set our limits by the law. Sometimes, we do better.
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