Fergus Finlay: I know what a democratic protest looks like — and this wasn’t it

What was easily dismissed not so long ago as a few headbangers came dangerously close to tipping over the edge into really serious violence, writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: I know what a democratic protest looks like — and this wasn’t it

Protestors confront Gardai during an anti-lockdown protest in Dublin city centre.

I am becoming more and more intolerant of intolerance. As I watched the riot on Grafton Street on Saturday, led by people determined to try to goad the Gardaí into over-reaction, I was filled with disgust.

The thing was fomented on social media by groups with names like “antilockdownireland” and RiseUpEireann. In advance they posted banners with messages like “Freedom – no more lockdowns, our country is suffering, we matter”. Another one was all about “Stand for Freedom”. And, of course, they were all in the national colours of green white and orange.

After the riot the posts were all about “the great awakening”, of all things. Their adherents, if that’s what they are, began posting rubbish claiming that some people had been planted in the crowd to foment violence and give an otherwise peaceful protest a bad name. Naturally.

Their adherents, by the way, aren’t the sweetest and most polite. When I was critical of the riot in a programme on the radio on Sunday morning, I got several bits of personal abuse. I’m a deluded South Dublin type, apparently, who likes labelling everyone the same way.

The other thing I’ve now been accused of, arising from the same radio programme, is that I want to take people’s PUP away if they protest. That’s absolutely untrue. I didn’t articulate what I said on the subject well, and the programme presenter, Gavan Reilly, rightly pulled me up on it, but I was trying to point to the irony that some people should feel entitled to demand an immediate end to the lockdown as it affects them, while at the same time ignoring the health and economic effects that would cause for thousands of others.

If they’re demanding an immediate end to the lockdown, they’re also in effect demanding an immediate end to the wage subsidies the lockdown has forced — and which have to be helping to support many of the people marching. The PUP and wage subsidies are essential features of the lockdown, and people suffering the economic consequences of the lockdown are 100% entitled to them — just as any Irish citizen who has to depend on the PUP also has a democratic right to protest.

The right to protest

Although it didn’t stop the dog’s abuse, I don’t think anyone who knows me believes that I would agree for a minute that people should be penalised for exercising their right to protest.

I’ve protested all my adult life. I’ve walked in dozens, if not hundreds, of protest marches over nearly five decades. I’ve been involved in campaigns for democratic change in Ireland since I was young, and I will be again. I believe absolutely in the right to protest — in fact, I regard it as an absolute cornerstone of a democratic system. Very little of the progressive change we’ve seen in Ireland would have happened if the demand for change hadn’t been accompanied by democratic protest.

So I know what a democratic protest looks like when I see one — and this wasn’t it.

In fact, the demonstration on Saturday demeaned the entire concept of protest. It wasn’t just in the loutish behaviour, in Grafton Street and later at the GPO, or in the deliberate attempts to foment violence.

It was also in the message. The people who took part in that march on Saturday said only one thing, and they said it with one voice. A simple, direct message. We don’t care.

We don’t care about the people who have died. We don’t care about people who are lonely, or have had to put some of their closest relationships on hold. We don’t care about the thousands of people who are living in fear. We care only about ourselves, and our right to do whatever we want.

They seem to think they’re the only ones suffering. But they’re not. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t hate the lockdowns. But I honestly believe that 99% of us accept that we have to live with them. We mightn’t like our government, or believe that it has got everything right, but nobody really believes this is a conspiracy against us.

Except a few — or maybe more than a few. 

What was easily dismissed not so long ago as a few headbangers came dangerously close to tipping over the edge into really serious violence at the weekend

And the people leading this movement, for want of a better name, don’t just want to end lockdowns. They seriously propagate the message that the pandemic isn’t real, that there’s a global conspiracy to enslave us all, that it’s all linked to some mad plan to control the world.

The same people also want to persuade us that we can solve all our economic and social problems if we all get a bit more racist or homophobic or Islamophobic or whatever you’re having yourself — anything that will drive the stranger out and recapture Ireland for the Irish.

Removing their platforms

Surely the time has arrived to remove these people from their platforms. There are complicated and difficult arguments to be had around freedom of expression and the internet, and it’s time we had them.

There are parts of the world where suppression of free speech and democracy is made easier by state control of the means of expression. This isn’t one of those parts of the world, and nobody wants it to be.

But in a well functioning democracy, nobody should be allowed to spread hate on a widely used communications medium on the one hand, and hide behind a fake name or curtain of anonymity on the other. We’ve been listening to promises for a long time now about how someday we’re going to have an internet commissioner who’ll mind us and keep us safe from harm.

But surely the solution is simpler? It is already the case that it’s very difficult to have an account on Twitter or Facebook — or even some of the less salubrious alternatives — without supplying a phone number. It should surely be mandatory that you also supply a name and an address (and a proof of address). Personally, I wouldn’t have any difficulty allowing the tech companies to keep that data private unless a court order obliged them to hand it over for the purposes of investigating a crime.

It seems clear from media reports that the Gardai already know the identities of some of the leading thugs at the actual riot. They also know that the men involved weren’t motivated by anything ideological or political. They were there to have a riot.

But there are shadowy and more sinister ideological forces behind people like that. There is an ideology of hate at play in the background, and its impact is beginning to grow. Of course, people are discontented, and it’s very easy to tap into that discontent.

They used to say that everyone who could be described as “other” was responsible for everything that ails us. Now they’re tapping into something deeper, and trying to persuade fed-up people that the pandemic is a conspiracy against them. Last weekend shows that the time has come to stop laughing at the loony right. They’ve put down roots all over the world — they could do it here.

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