Opinion: Protest is democratic, but tactics of fear and intimidation are not

A REPUBLIC is no longer a republic if democracy does not matter. Democracy stops mattering if the right to dissent, and to protest, is not protected, if the rights of minorities are ignored, if government does not listen to the people. A republic stops being a republic the day fear is used to manipulate public discourse.

I’ve participated in many protests. I’ve carried placards and banners, handed in “letters of protest”, and generated as much publicity as I could for the causes of the protests. I’ve walked with thousands of people and sometimes with a tiny few.

And I’ve seen people I worked with being the object of protests. I remember Barry Desmond, when he was minister for health in the 1980s, having to run a gauntlet of angry demonstrators in Carlow. I remember Dick Spring and Garret FitzGerald facing protests over all sorts of things — from local authority charges to changes in Anglo-Irish relations.

I have the experience, in other words, to know the difference between a democratic protest and intimidation. More than once, I’ve seen an angry crowd being turned into a mob. There’s no democracy in that, and no republic. That’s the road to fascism. The Jobstown protest was an exercise in fascist intimidation, led by people with no interest in democracy.

What happened to Tánaiste Joan Burton over the weekend was a travesty of democratic action. It was intimidating and it hovered on the brink of violence. At any time during that protest people could have been hurt — or worse.

The weekend news showed the baying crowd around her car. But she was there to take part in a procession of students who were graduating from An Cosán, and there is other video footage of that.

Anyone who knows the work of An Cosán knows how meaningful these graduation ceremonies are (if you don’t know what they do, look at its website — www.ancosan.com).

In the footage I’ve seen — it’s on the Irish Examiner website — the Tánaiste was hit on the side of the head by water as she walked through a crowd of people. Burton was accompanied by Katherine Zappone (who is one of the co-founders of An Cosán). Burton reacts calmly and with dignity, but it must have been frightening for her.

I’ve known Joan Burton for 30 years. I haven’t always agreed with her — far from it. Throughout most of the 1980s, she would have been on the opposite side of most things I believed in, and we had many arguments. In those years, I would never have seen her as a future leader of the Labour Party, and I couldn’t imagine ever voting for her.

I did vote for her in the end, and I strongly admire the way she has behaved throughout her career, in the Dáil and in government. Above all else, Burton is now, and always has been, a democrat, through and through. She has won elections and lost them, always with good grace. When she has lost, she has fought her way back — through democratic action. She is incapable of using the tactics of fear and intimidation that were used against her at the weekend. And I believe she is incapable of bowing to them.

What’s more, she is seeking to address the issue that the protest was supposed to be about. Although, of course, she is part of the collective responsibility, she was not the one who made a mess of Irish Water. She is, however, the one who has acknowledged that it is a mess and that the Government has gone wrong, and she is leading the effort to put things right. She cannot, in all honesty, be accused of not listening.

Yet, says Anti-Austerity Alliance TD, Paul Murphy, that is why the highly personalised attack on her was warranted. His attempt to justify his role — claiming leadership of a democratic protest, and distancing himself from the abuse and intimidation that was part of it — was deeply hypocritical.

Murphy was elected to the Dáil to represent the people of a marginalised constituency, Dublin South West, where unemployment, poverty, and disadvantage are deeply embedded. He knows — or ought to know — that An Cosán has done far more than most to highlight those issues and to address them. The decision to target a graduation ceremony for students from An Cosán added cynicism to his hypocrisy.

Moreover, he has accused the Tánaiste, in this newspaper, of “telling lies” about the protest.

Anyone who wants to look at the footage can see who is telling lies. Murphy says he went to the protest at about 12 hours’ notice, and wasn’t leading it. On his Facebook page, the day before, however, he said: “Tallaght Meter Fairies have said that Joan Burton will be at An Cosan, in Jobstown, tomorrow, from 12 midday. Some anti-water charge protesters plan to give her a clear message that we won’t pay her water charge! People should go along if they can!”

He also posted photos from the protest on his Facebook site, together with the message “Joan Burton blocked-in by peaceful protesters in Jobstown. Come down to join protest, if you can. No water charges. No way, we won’t pay!” One of the photos shows the car being manhandled, and there are numerous other messages on the site (along with some disagreeing with the thuggery involved, it has to be said) referring to the Tánaiste as a “hag” and a “witch”.

One of Murphy’s followers sent this message — “Can u keep her there a little while longer. I have the gallows finished, just measuring the rope now, won’t be long”. A little joke, no doubt.

I’m on record about the mess the Government has made of the water-charge issue.

But it’s clear, and has been for several weeks, that Burton has taken the issue by the scruff of the neck and is hellbent on reintroducing equity and fairness.

The package that will emerge this week, if the usual sources are to be believed, will address most, if not all, of the issues that people have, quite legitimately, raised about the way the water charge is being introduced.

But there’s a deeper issue now. How long will it be before someone is hurt by this kind of thuggery? Then, of course, we’ll have the protest leaders running around blaming someone else — probably the Gardai — for whatever damage is done.

What’s at the bottom of this is not legitimate protest, but an attempt to foment class hatred. It’s preying on alienated and disenchanted people in ways that are deeply anti-democratic. The idea that people who call themselves socialist should be at the vanguard of this kind of behaviour is especially repugnant.

There are so many things to be angry about in our State, so many things that demand protest. But protest must derive its legitimacy from democratic means. The bile that Murphy and his followers spewed at Burton was undeserved.

But it does serve to tell us all we need to know about Murphy.

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