Michael Clifford: Time to put brakes on this roadshow

HOW fair is the lockdown? Who gets to gather and express their views and who is told to put a sock in it? Who is acting responsibly and who can act with impunity?
Michael Clifford: Time to put brakes on this roadshow

HOW fair is the lockdown? Who gets to gather and express their views and who is told to put a sock in it? Who is acting responsibly and who can act with impunity?

Last Monday, a protest march took place in Dublin city centre following the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd on May 25.

The organisers were apparently taken aback at the turn out which swelled to an estimated 5,000. They marched from the GPO to the American embassy. Gardaí on the ground received co-operation from some of the organisers in attempting to ensure social distancing.

One of the organisers, hiphop artist JyellowL, revealed afterwards that he was shocked at the turn-out, was going into self-isolation as a precaution, and urged others who attended to do the same.

“Ireland stood in solidarity to show that Black Lives Matter,” he said. He thanked everybody from “the people who marched with us to the gardaí who co-operatively worked with us to facilitate a peaceful demonstration of solidarity.”

It emerged during the week that the organisers of the protest are now the subject of a criminal investigation under the regulations brought in to give force to the lockdown conditions.

By any standards, the move appears to be overkill. This protest was largely spontaneous. It was in reaction to a highly emotive and current issue which has resonance right across the world.

The message carried by the protest was one of justice for all, irrespective of creed or colour. By extension it was expressing solidarity across racial lines in society. Social solidarity has taken on a heightened importance during this pandemic and will be vital in dealing with the fall-out to come.

The reaction from JyellowL is noteworthy. On the basis that he may have been involved in a dangerous gathering he is voluntarily taking the most responsible course of action. How could it be necessary to conduct a criminal investigation into the protest?

As a result of the big turn-out and the reaction, further anti-racism protests for this weekend have been cancelled. Quite obviously the organisers have prioritised public health in the current climate.

The gardaí are also conducting another criminal investigation into another high profile gathering during the lockdown. On April 21 dozens of supporters of former journalists Gemma O’Doherty and John Waters stormed the Four Courts and made a racket in the building’s round hall. They were attending a preliminary hearing of the pair’s challenge to the lockdown legislation.

As with last Monday’s protest, the gardaí were unprepared for the turn-out. Unlike last Monday’s protest, those in the Four Courts made no attempt at social distancing.

On the same day, staff protesting the closure of Debenhams’ store in Dublin’s city centre were told by gardaí to disperse. (A later protest by the workers was facilitated, as it was carefully conducted with social distancing).

At a subsequent next High Court hearing on the O’Doherty-Waters challenge on May 5 the gardaí were well prepared. There were roadblocks on three approaches to the court complex. Dozens of gardaí patrolled around the area. Barriers were erected to keep the public away from the entrance to the court.

Yet between 20 and 30 supporters still gathered and listened to speeches from the two former journalists before they attended the hearing. There were more speeches later in the day and more again the following day. Social distancing was nowhere to be seen in this group as they nodded in unison to the nuggets of wisdom dispensed by their leaders.

John Waters and Gemma O’Doherty
John Waters and Gemma O’Doherty

In broad terms, the group are pro-God and anti-immigrant, pro a monochrome Ireland of old, and anti-vaccination, pro-freedom and anti-lockdown. The followers, or members, or whatever they are, would not be out of place at a Donald Trump rally. They feel oppressed in their own country. In the High Court action, the litigants made comparisons between Ireland and Nazi Germany which the judge found “offensive and absurd”.

Since then, Gemma and John have gone on the road. There have been protest meetings in Dollymount strand in north Dublin; Athlone, Co Westmeath; Arklow Co Wicklow; and Blackrock, Co Louth. Another was conducted outside RTÉ in Dublin 4. RTÉ is apparently a virus as deadly as the Covid-19.

These gatherings have attracted dozens of supporters and inevitably included much waving and display of the national flag and the odd copy of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Most, if not all, have been advertised on social media. As a result, they have attracted counter protests. At Blackrock, for instance, a satirical group calling itself “Dundalk Against Change”, promoting the return of “dial-up internet” appeared.

In Arklow a crowd vocally opposed to the Gemma-John roadshow ran them. Gemma later broadcast on social media from a nearby grotto, at a safe distance from the counter protestors whom she characterised as “drunks, on drugs, throwing missiles”.

All of this has been going on at a time when gatherings are supposed to be confined to four people and travel beyond 5km banned unless absolutely necessary.

There is no question of the gardaí offering tacit support or sympathy for the Gemma-John gatherings. Far from it. The law enforcement agency is regarded by the group as being complicit, along with the media, and for some reason George Soros, in the descent of the country into a Godless morass.

On a human level it is easy to have compassion for any garda who might be detailed to cover the protests. Their job at the moment is dangerous and stressful. Being subjected for long periods to hearing how they and their colleagues represent the jackboat of a totalitarian state might represent a frontal assault on their sanity.

Quite possibility the reluctance of the gardaí to stop the gatherings is rooted in the belief that it would be playing into the hands of the protestors. High profile arrests or any kind of confrontation would be used to great effect by these people. But the failure to police or disperse the gatherings, however understandable on one level, is at odds with the notion that we’re all in this together.

The schedule of the Gemma-John roadshow is not obvious at the moment but it may have taken on greater urgency since Thursday when the High Court ruled the pair must pay costs for their failed legal action. Perhaps some fundraising venture will be added to the roadshow. If the fare in Blackrock and Arklow is anything to go by there will, in all likelihood, be further counter-protests. Apart from the public health issue, that could give rise to problems around public safety.

All of this is happening at a time when those calling for racial solidarity across society have been silenced. Surely there is something wrong here.

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