Year of the activist - Day 1: Campaigners made their political power felt in 2018

From all corners of the island, across all demographics, and on a wide range of issues, grassroots activism has gone mainstream. From first time marchers to advocates with decades of experience, campaigners have made their political power felt this year, writes Joyce Fegan.

Year of the activist - Day 1: Campaigners made their political power felt in 2018

From all corners of the island, across all demographics, and on a wide range of issues, grassroots activism has gone mainstream. From firsttime marchers to advocates with decades of experience, campaigners have made their political power felt this year, writes Joyce Fegan.

Jena Keating: This is not consent

If 2017, was a year of international reckoning for victims of sexual abuse with multiple allegations against movie director Harvey Weinstein culminating in the #MeToo movement, then 2018, was Ireland’s own year of reckoning.

Consent, sexual misconduct and assault were constant talking points in the media with the high-profile trial of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape charges in March. The trial sparked both debate and protest, and spawned the hashtag #IBelieveHer.

The Belfast rape trial was followed by

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The 27-year-old defendant in this case was also acquitted. The equating of underwear with consent sparked more debate and protest. However, it was Midleton woman Jena Keating’s solitary and silent demonstration that hammered the point home to many.

On Sunday November 18, Jena stood alone on Patrick’s Street in her underwear with her mouth taped shut and the words “this is not consent” written all over her body.

“I think we get so caught up in talking sometimes that we forget that nobody listens half the time. We are all so obsessed with getting our point across, so when does it come to the point of listening?

“I decided to do a peaceful, silent protest where it was just myself standing alone,” said Jena.

Her demonstration resulted in much kindness from people of all ages.

“One woman in her 70s or 80s had a child with her, first the child came over and gave me a hug and then she did. It was crazy, people jumped into my arms. We had a massive group hug with people crying on me and I was crying too, it was crazy,” she said.

“Everyone who came up thanked me, either for themselves or for their daughters or nieces or for everyone,” she added.

Sean O’Kelly: A Day in my wheels

Seán O’Kelly is a man of action. The 25-year-old wheelchair user has been campaigning for several years now for a more inclusive Ireland for people with disabilities, and he has been vocal and visible in his efforts.

Two years ago he challenged politicians and high-profile broadcasters to spend a day in his wheelchair. After being stranded in a DART station, and having to be carried over the footbridge by a stranger when the lift was not working, he came up with an idea called ‘A Day in My Wheels,’ where an able-bodied person spends 24 hours using a wheelchair. Anton Savage and Fianna Fáil councillor Cormac Devlin both took up the challenge.

“We are people with a disability, but we also have abilities. I am who I am, I’m not going to conquer Everest, but I’m going to do lots of others thing,” said Seán.

The social media and digital marketing graduate did not stop there and continued campaigning into 2017 and 2018. At the beginning of this year he found himself stranded once again, however, this time it was en route to the launch of the DART’s new Accessibility Pilot Programme. The programme is aimed at reducing the advised notice period for those requiring assistance when travelling on the DART from 24 hours to four hours. Seán received yet another apology from Irish Rail for this stranding.

Since November, he has been presenting his own radio show called Included on Dublin South FM. For his first show he interviewed a spokesperson from Irish Rail on an app that they are piloting, where instead of people with disabilities ringing the DART stations ahead of their trip, the stations can be contacted through the app.

Seán has also passed his driving test, something that has brought him a great deal of “freedom.”

Grace Dyas: #MeToo

In 2017, theatre maker Grace Dyas published a 3,500 word blog post accusing the former director of The Gate, Michael Colgan, of inappropriate behaviour. It was done after consultation with a lawyer, and at the start of the #MeToo movement. “Thanks to the brave women who spoke out about Harvey Weinstein, I believe we are now in a different world. I’m still as afraid. But now I am doing it now anyway because one of us has too.

“I’m ready for the fallout. I trust I’ll have support, and mostly I hope that somehow, I can make this experience easier for the woman who comes after me. I trust that there will be many,” wrote Grace.

After Grace published her initial blog post, her email inbox became “a vehicle for mass disclosure” and more women came forward with their own allegations. Grace appeared on Claire Byrne Live to talk about her own experience and interaction with Michael Colgan.

Her speaking out led to The Gate commissioning Gaye Cunningham of the Workplace Relations Commission to carry out an independent inquiry into the allegations. Parts of Ms Cunningham’s report were published this year, where the women in question were apologised to and where it was acknowledged that speaking out on issues in the theatre was difficult.

“People felt unable to speak out and we accept that the Board had an onus to be more aware of the culture prevailing in the theatre over time,” it said.

Ms Cunningham stated Colgan “has a case to answer” and said the board “should consider what action, if any, should be taken, acknowledging that he is no longer an employee.”

Grace is inspired by a phrase from the late Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre, for survivors of industrial schools, who said: “I believe you before you open your mouth”.

Calvin James: Syria

DJ Calvin James Sweeney, 40, from Blanchardstown, Dublin spent six months volunteering as a medic and ambulance driver in Syria in 2016.

The experience prompted him to set up Syrias Vibes, a rolling series of music events, with funds raised going to humanitarian projects in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

“I had promised myself that if anything like the Nazis happened in my lifetime I’d get involved in the right way,” he said.

Fast-forward two years the DJ and social care worker has been running popular musical events, including nights in London. Charity runs in the family.

His brother Andrew set up the Scoop Foundation in 2009, initially to raise funds to help children living in poverty in Cambodia. The brothers are now co-directors of Scoop, of which Syrias Vibes is an arm. In November, they hosted a Christmas dinner, with an “auction of the gifts money can’t buy.”

It included the 3-Michelin-star chef Halaigh Whelan-McManus cooking a meal in your home, a coaching and kicking session with Leinster out-half Ross Byrne and the chance to train to be an actor at the Gaeity School of Acting. The last prize included ‘a meet and greet’ with Game of Thrones’ Ser Davos, actor Liam Cunningham. Monies raised goes towards providing medical, psychological, and social services at a direct, grass root level in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Some of the projects they support include funding eight health clinics, a mobile ‘pop up’ clinic that visits eight areas around Syrias and Iraq, as well as a rescue and ambulance service in the Rojava region of Northern Syria. They also focused on displaced Syrians in neighbouring Iraq, in the Bajed Kandala camp, which is home to 7,000 survivors of the Yazidi genocide by ISIS.

Another one of their projects in Iraq provides psychiatric and psycho-social services to women and children who wereabducted and sold into slavery by ISIS in 2014.

Sara Phillips: Transgender

Sara Phillips, 58, is the chair of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI). Sara was also the Grand Marshall of this year’s Pride parade.

Growing up as a boy in 1970s’ Ireland, Sara, who works in the construction industry, felt different.

“I was five when I first felt like I didn’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. It was school time and the boys and girls were being split into separate classes and I distinctly remember having an issue with that, feeling like I was being sent one direction when I should have been staying where I was. That feeling never went away,” said Sara.

Sara married and had three children, however, the marriage ended amicably based on the realisation that Sara “needed to do this.” “This” referred to transitioning to life as woman, something Sara did in her mid-forties.

According to TENI’s glossary of terms, transgender “refers to a person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex assigned to them at birth.”

When it comes to public awareness and the conversation around being transgender Sara has been an illuminating and educational voice. Sara explains that so often the media discussion is around details of surgeries and names, before and after transitioning.

“The real story is the social aspect of that transition and society’s reaction,” said Sara.

Sara has been a member of TENI for 20 years, an organisation that campaigned heavily for the Gender Recognition Act. A report which was brought to Cabinet in July, showed that since the legislation commenced three years ago, 297 people have been issued with gender recognition certificates upon application.

The legislation allows all individuals over the age of 18 to self declare their own gender identity. TENI continues to advocate for the inclusion of young, intersex and non-binary people in the Gender Recognition Act.

Eileen Ní Fhloinn: Travellers

Traveller woman Eileen Ní Fhloinn publicly supported the repealing of the Eighth Amendment, coming from a community where abortion is taboo. While an important voice in that campaign, with respect to the inclusion of marginalised groups, it is her work on behalf of the Travelling community that has been even more significant this year.

Eileen’s contribution during the Presidential Election in October, where candidate Peter Casey made prejudicial comments about Travellers, helped with public understanding and debate.

“It worries me as a Traveller woman to see the brazenness and openness of anti-Traveller sentiment that’s out there on social media and political forums.

“They will come up with all sorts of scenarios – of when they were robbed by a Traveller or when they left a mess in their area, but will never look at the lack of services or the discrimination that Travellers face on a daily basis,” Eileen said.

“They will comment on how privileged they are and how Travellers won’t work, but they won’t mention how over 70% of employers said they would never hire a Traveller or how many Travellers who excelled in their profession had to hide their background,” she added.

She also commented on the media’s handling of his comments.

In a statement released to the national press, Eileen said everyone needed to learn from the “ordeal.”

Casey probably now feels he has got somewhere through using us and all the Traveller community in a hate campaign. So we know he will keep going, and there will be probably a lot more Caseys coming out when they see this works.

“We have learned a lot from this very big ordeal we were put through. We are asking the media now learn from it as well,” said Eileen.

“Please check out the facts before you use people in this way – no matter how popular it might be to run down Travellers,” she added.

Anthony Flynn: Homelessness

Anthony Flynn has been working to end homelessness for several years.

In 2013, he set up Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), where about 40 locals from Dublin’s north inner city came together to do one soup run a week.

Five years later, ICHH now provides food and clothes seven nights a week to Dublin’s homeless population and it runs a 7-day advocacy service assisting people to exit homelessness. ICHH has also helped accommodate families and children who have had nowhere else to go.

It is one of the few homeless organisations that receives no Government funding whatsoever and is run completely from donations. It is also totally volunteer based. In 2017, ICHH outreach volunteers had 37,120 engagements with homeless people on the streets of Dublin.

Anthony has also campaigned heavily around child homelessness and opened up some of the family hubs, showing the public where children were living, through on-street art installations and videos of the living conditions.

ICHH extends its work to lobbying by commenting on the quarterly homeless figures both nationally and regionally.

Anthony does not confine his work to on-street homelessness and the use of hubs, but highlights the crux of the issue as being the Government’s unwillingness to build social housing.

The real solution to the housing crisis is to build public and affordable housing. The only way to do that is to build 10,000 social housing builds direct with local authorities.

“This needs to be done yearly, for the next five to eight years, to cope with supply and demand. Unless councils are given the funding and remit to build social housing, this crisis will remain persistent,” said Anthony.

Fiona Gammell: Puppy Farms

Fiona Gammell, of Wicklow Animal Welfare, has spent 40 years caring for animals, highlighting the increased presence and use of “puppy farms,” by Irish consumers. In the past year she has also highlighted the dumping of pets to make way for the Christmas puppy.

“Unless you’ve been living under a stone, everyone in this county and beyond knows that Ireland has the unenviable reputation of being the puppy farm capital of Europe,” she said.

A puppy farm commonly refers to a set-up where a certain dog is mated and bred continuously for as many years as possible. Thepups are then sold online through popular consumer websites, pictured in loving homes and garden, as a front.

According to vet Pete Wedderburn, “one ‘trick’ that is known to be used by puppy farmers to avoid the need to register is to spread bitches across several premises, with relatives or friends.”

If anyone owns more than five bitches, they have to be registered as a “dog breeding establishment” (DBE).

Fiona said that the popularity of ‘pure breed’ and ‘designer’ dogs, as well as an increase in puppy farming, has caused a knock-on effect of being unable to rehome rescued animals.

“What has always been a problem in this country has now become a crisis. The number of unwanted dogs, cats and horses has reached epidemic proportions,” said Fiona.

“Finding homes for unwanted animals has never been easy, but neither has it ever been so hard. It used to be an after-Christmas puppy dumping phenomenon but now it seems to go on all year ‘round,” she added.

She said the new trend of dumping older dogs in pounds before Christmas to make way for a puppy as a present is a more recent phenomenon.

“It’s despicable. It’s disgusting — at a time that any old creature, be it an animal or a human, needs familiarity around them, they are abandoned,” she said.

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