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It is understandable and indeed predictable that activists, having found that protest is utterly pointless, would resort to something else – something distinguished by the term, “effective protest”.

When activists express a desire to have effective protest, they make the point that protest is ineffective. That’s true. While an exceptionally large turn out or the attendance of normally compliant people may prompt a government to pause for thought, the days of authorities quaking when people decide to march are long gone. The talk now is of security and stewarding, with organisers looked upon as managers. Indeed, it is now usual to hear senior police officers say not only that people have a right to protest but that police will defend that right.

Long experience has revealed that protest is unthreatening but there’s more: protest has been institutionalised. It has become quasi-constitutional, a part of the way that politics is done. It is now an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth. It is conservative, part of the management of dissent.

Political activists tend to enjoy protests. They rate them as good or relatively good and reminisce about protests they’ve attended. It’s a badge of honour to be able to claim attendance at some of the famous ones. It’s even a way of meeting up with old friends and comrades or resuming association under a respected banner.

It is not uncommon, however, for those activists who oppose this established practice to attend a protest, leave the main body of protesters and take an action thought likely to cause some disruption or a confrontation with the police. This would lead perhaps to a fracas which could be characterised as state opposition to protest. There have been amusing outcomes as when the confrontation stops traffic and prevents law abiding protestors getting home from their protest.

During the campaign against water charges comments on social media began to make an interesting distinction between protest and effective protest. Typically a protester would be told by a Garda to stand aside from the installation of a water meter and to protest nearby. This they would see as pointless since the objective was to prevent the installation of water meters. Standing aside with a placard was not deemed effective protest. Effective protest is aimed at preventing something or perhaps causing something to happen, while protest as facilitated by An Garda is essentially communicative – protesting about something.

It might seem sensible at this point to tidy up the terminology but it’s not that simple. The inviting course would be to distinguish between protest – institutionalised as communication – and direct action. Here’s the problem: since the controversy is essentially about widening the definition and therefore acceptability of protest to include actions that are not exclusively communicative, creating a distinction right here between protest and action would prejudge the outcome of the discussion.

Peaceful” seems to present a complicating factor. Many protest actions are now accompanied by chanting “peaceful protest, peaceful protest”. The proposition would seem to be that any action that does not directly offer violence is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state.

As mentioned above, examination of the institution of protest was brought forward in Ireland by activists opposed to water charges and the installation of water meters. They actively tried to prevent the work being carried out by standing into earthworks, blocking roads to contractors and slow marching in front of contractors’ vehicles. Leaving aside the claimed justification of acting on behalf of the people, the proposition here is that preventing or delaying work is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state. It’s by no means a new proposition; environmental activists have occupied tree tops to prevent projects that involved the destruction of the trees. Blockades preventing workers or supplies reaching a disputed site are quite common.

While they sometimes lead to violent clashes when police try to keep a road open, the blockade or slow march is now increasingly accepted as legitimate protest. The activist gets to make an effective protest which prevents, say, work happening for a time. The state accepts that protest will cause delays but projects tend to completion in the longer term and it is recognised as necessary to dissipate anger and opposition. Occasional clashes between protesters and police are inevitable as an accommodation is achieved between two accepted rights: the right to protest and the right to go about lawful business without hindrance. The currency here is essentially time.

The activists involved in the Jobstown protest directed at a visit by the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) to an educational conferral proposed that preventing or disrupting the visit or preventing the Tánaiste and her assistant from leaving was legitimate protest. The Director of Public Prosecutions disagreed and some were charged with illegally detaining citizens. This outraged activists who saw it as undermining the institution of protest. Indeed, in closing argument a defence barrister argued that the prosecution was an intentional assault on effective protest. In doing so, he ridiculed conventional protest as both old fashioned and akin to Father Ted holding a banner inscribed with “down with this sort of thing”. *

Two distinct arguments have emerged. Firstly, it is argued that a blockade preventing entry is not the same as preventing a citizen from leaving.** As the charging of the Jobstown protestors indicates, the State is intolerant of protesters detaining a citizen but this intolerance does not sit easily with police facilitating the slow marching of workers on a contested project trying to go home. Indeed, at Jobstown the slow march home was apparently negotiated between police and protest leaders/managers as an accommodation which would end the protest.

Secondly, a strange new proposition was advanced by a defence barrister: that because one of the detained citizens was a government minister she could be detained in order to ensure that she listened to the views of the protestors. In other words, the freedom of the minister to walk away from communication was contested. Like the slow march this could be developed into a peaceful accommodation: that a citizen can be detained in order to ensure that they hear some viewpoint. Again the currency would be time.

Now clearly there’s a great deal of pretence going on. On the state’s side there is a pretence that protest leads to change. In Ireland where decisions are subject to the delivery/pressure system, protest is just one pressure among many; e.g. interest groups, non-government organisations, sympathetic journalism.

On the side of the activists there is an implied pretence that if the state recognised a range of actions as protest, they would support the state. The reality is that since the state has assimilated protest, something else has to happen if the state is to be confronted.

In other words, one side says that protest is a right, encouraged, recognised and protected; the other side says any limitation on direct action undermines the right to protest. The two sides simply are not talking about the same thing.

Let’s take both at their word: that the state really does approve and encourage dissent, and that the activists do not seek confrontation but want to extend legitimate action beyond marches and standing with placards.

As suggested above the currency is time, delay. Negotiations are already the order of the day. The proposition is that activists may do as they wish as long as they are not violent. In many cases this will work out fine. A blockade of some engineering project is very likely factored into costs. Workers delayed by slow marches can probably be compensated by overtime payments. An extended list of accommodations might suggest that this is easily resolved but switching attention to different more basic examples of rights clashing reveals something far more problematic.

Leaving aside all question of violence like attacking an individual at whom a protest might be aimed or breaking up property, the extension of legitimacy (state recognition and protection) to all activity labelled protest could cede rights to groups at the expense of citizens. This returns consideration to the nub of the matter.

Citizens tend to be content to have rights limited in order to ensure public safety but this necessarily involves threat. It would be quite another matter if, say, freedom of movement were denied indefinitely or for a considerable period in order to defend a right to protest. While the state now negotiates with protesters, an authoritarian paradox emerges.

Should the institution of protest be extended to include all actions that a group or individual was willing to claim to be a protest, then a group or individual could rely on the state to constrain others. Thus the word “protest” – never mind “peaceful protest” – would trump all other liberties. Clearly no state with the slightest pretence to being liberal could cede such power to anyone willing to take action.

Rather than worrying excessively about what might happen – what obscure or mad action might be adopted to oppress fellow citizens – it might be better to consider codifying protest actions that are regularly claimed to be so, for example:

i) There is now no dispute over the protest march. It is a recognised institution.

ii) The sit down protest in a public street is disputed. It will normally be respected/tolerated by the state until it inconveniences a large number of citizens or a smaller number for a protracted period. Business interests tend to intrude as shops fear disruption of trading or the creation of the impression that going into town is subject to disruption.

iii) Slow marching is now virtually recognised by the state as a useful way of ending confrontation while allowing activists to feel that they’ve been effective in at least causing delay.

Come on, though, let’s be frank. If activists are committed to opposing the state, none of this is relevant because they must devise actions such that the state will oppose them. The position would seem to be that while protest is quasi-constitutional and effective protest can be accommodated, the last thing that anti-state/anti-establishment activists want is to be part of an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth, part of the management of dissent. Though they frequently say that they are no longer interested in revolution, they still cling to some undisclosed role for confrontation and crisis***.

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* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT9xuXQjxMM

** In answering irrelevant questions at the trial of Paul Murphy et al, witness, Karen O’Connell, made an interesting distinction. She suggested that while blocking citizen entry is “peaceful protest”, preventing a citizen from leaving is not.

*** It’s hard to imagine what non-revolutionary street politics is about. It seems to be a compromise between joining that strand of socialism which opts for reforms within the system (frequently mocked as social democracy) and a revolutionary style/tradition without the substance. In practice it sides with all popular movement/sentiment including that which is right wing. It views class in terms of polling categories rather than political values and seeks to represent those it views as working class by putting pressure on the government/establishment/political class. Thus class is reduced to a pressure group and activists termed “hard left” operate within the Irish cargo/pressure system of politics. 

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The Dáil cannot sack the Garda Commissioner. That’s the prerogative of the Government. Now, if we want to change that – i.e. to make it that a Commissioner’s job is at the pleasure of the Dáil – let’s discuss it and if it’s desirable, make the change.

Let’s not, however, mess about asking the Dáil to vote no confidence, calling on the Government to act, and pretend that this doesn’t usurp the power of Government.

Assuming that the backers of the Dáil motion are not fools, unable to appreciate the significance of their move, then their motive must be to put two institutions of the state at loggerheads. There is a pattern here of trying to damage the wider (small ‘c’) constitution. Remember that there was an attempt to legislate for abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormalities, knowing that the move would be unconstitutional. Moreover, on water charges the Dáil is moving towards instructing the Government to act illegally.

Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

In the matter of the Dáil motion aimed at removing the Garda Commissioner the best outcome would be a decision that it is not a matter for the Dáil, second best would be a majority abstention, leaving the “anti-establishment” with a ridiculous victory, and third would be to defeat their motion.

 

It has become far too uncommon for a citizen or a worker to speak up when confronted by something that is wrong. Worse, while objecting and arguing is taken as heroic, there would appear to be a consensus on silence: that keeping one’s mouth shut is acceptable. What is at stake here is the abandonment of integrity, i.e. the ordinary responsibility of the ordinary citizen in workplace, institution, club, on or off line and in casual interaction to speak truth to bad behaviour, illegitimate instructions or plans and indeed complete bollocks.

It has been necessary to surround whistle-blowers with protective laws and institutions. This is to protect their right to … well, their right to what? You see, there is an enormous difference between protecting their right to be exceptionally heroic and protecting their right to behave as any decent person should. The difference plays out in the treatment of those who knew and remained silent.

The protection offered to whistle-blowers makes it just about possible for an individual to act with integrity. Yes, it incentivises doing the decent thing but not overly so; it offers a measure of security but it also applies a label and probably ends a career. It is a contradiction – even madness – to accept that ordinary integrity be treated as exceptional and in need of protection. It is, therefore, essential to incentivise integrity by treating it as an expectation. That is to say, whistle-blower legislation must include the obligation that after enquiries are completed and perhaps offenders dealt with, attention should turn to those who remained silent, i.e. attention should focus on those who demonstrated a lack of ordinary integrity. In at least some cases the failure to behave properly will mark these people as unfit for the positions they hold. However, the main reason for extending the process beyond the individual whistle-blower is to incentivise whistle-blowing.

It has to be made clear that citizens are required to operate with integrity. Moreover, it has to be emphasised that integrity is a requirement for most jobs, and failure to demonstrate it – should the occasion arise – will result in opprobrium at least. It is not acceptable that the one or two demonstrably good people in an organisation should walk off as heroes into obscurity, leaving time servers and chancers to rewarding careers.

There is a courtroom scene in the movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It shows an IRA court operating during the war of independence. It’s probably accurate. That’s how they did things. The sentences ranged from rough to death.

The IRA justice system operates by excluding existing state personnel from an area or a “community” as it’s more usually called these days and making the citizens who reside there dependent for their security on SF/IRA volunteers/staff.

This is what Gerry Adams was talking about when commenting on the scandalous IRA treatment of rape victim, Mairia Cahill. He said that during the “troubles” the IRA was the police force in many nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. He is referring to their success in excluding the police (RUC) and setting up a rival to the state’s system of justice.

Leaving the question of legitimacy aside, there are problems of course with this kind of justice. Obviously, without the state law, institutions, personnel and expertise which are built up over centuries, the penalties imposed are bound to be quick, cheap and often brutal. However, victims and others seeking justice would also fall foul of the shambolic system. Both problems are well illustrated in recent SF statements.

Firstly, Gerry Adams is revealing in attempting to find virtue in brutality. “In an article published on his blog, Mr Adams outlined how republicans dealt with allegations of child abuse, saying that the IRA on occasion shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them.” – http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1020/653455-mairia-cahill/

Now, it’s remotely possible that Gerry Adams is being clever in cynically using this scandal to cement the support of right wing voters who would favour corporal and capital punishment. It is almost certain, however, that he is being genuine. That is to say, he really does think that shooting offenders is evidence of a serious concern over sex abuse.

Secondly, SF explicitly uses the incompetence of the IRA investigators/judges to explain the dreadful treatment of sex abuse victims. Dessie Ellis, the Sinn Fein TD, says that while the IRA carried out criminal investigations, “To be honest they were not qualified to deal with something like sexual abuse.” – http://www.herald.ie/news/sinn-fein-td-ira-held-internal-probes-into-serious-crimes-30673144.html

Apart from the similarity here to the Catholic Church’s response to sex abuse, and the sordid implication that they feel they were competent when sentencing citizens to beating, maiming or execution, they seem to be at least aware that their justice system had its limitations.

It is also likely or at least plausible that their system never had as its objective the delivery of justice but that like terrorism its purpose was to convey a message to the state that its writ did not run in certain areas and to the people that there was a new authority.

Incidentally, some anti-water meter activists have learned from the IRA’s alternative-state approach. They want to alienate citizens from their police force (An Garda), portray the “community” as in conflict with the state, and insinuate “activists” as the voice of and leaders of the community. – https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/citizens-need-to-talk-about-a-contentious-suggestion-which-is-reported-regularly-by-an-uncritical-media/

The activists who organise resistance to the installation of water meters regularly put forward a contentious proposition in the media but journalists/presenters seldom – perhaps never – challenge them.

They contend that work within, passage through or policing of a housing estate requires the consent of the community. It’s a familiar concept in Northern Ireland but is new to this part of Ireland. Moreover, “community consent” is determined by activists not all of whom live in the particular community.

The model put forward is of communities under siege from something akin to an occupying force and dependent on cadres which know what’s best and will protect them. It is a model which has simply no relevance to Ireland today.

The protesters mount a token blockade to prevent water meter installers’ trucks gaining access and then they obstruct the installation of meters. They offer little resistance, however, and allow the Gardaí to push them aside. Given the small numbers of protesters and Gardaí, it might seem odd to treat this seriously. It may, however, be a growing phenomenon, beginning to border on dangerous. There are already activists who regard a residential area as their territory and will attempt to drive off rivals and those who belong to the political parties who generally support the state.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as the actions of fantasists in thrall to anti-state struggles which occurred and still occur in Northern Ireland but there is a component to this which reflects badly and damages the credibility of the left. It too attracts the fantasist but of a slightly different kind. Unfortunately it has roots in Marxism and makes Marx appear ridiculous at a time when his work should be relevant.

There is a tendency particularly among Marxists with middle class origins to both misunderstand working class and romanticise anything that seems popular. When, therefore, a significant number of people take up a position, there is an assumption that they are progressive as long as they can be labelled “ordinary working people”, that they need to be led and if they are opposing the state, so much the better. At its most benign this draws some leftists into the routine form of Irish populism. However, the romance of involvement in something that looks a bit like revolt draws them close to and into competition with the fantasists mentioned earlier, those who want to do battle with the state.

All in all, the notion that the Irish people are at war with their own state needs to be questioned and discussed publicly in Irish media. It is an abandonment of public service merely to report on or give coverage to a proposition so contentious. It is an abandonment too of citizens who do not think they are opponents of the Irish state.

On two occasions in the past I’ve tried unsuccessfully to report to An Garda an on-line threat of violence. Today I tried a third time. Here’s what happened.

A newspaper report with a picture of a convicted sex offender was shared on Facebook with a comment that he was living on a particular road in Dublin. This drew a comment which read, “Petrol bomb the fucker out.” The person who made the comment seemed to do so under his real name and there was considerable detail on his page. I wanted to get a Garda to look at the FB thread and decide what to do.

I knew that reporting this to my local Garda station was pointless as they do not have unrestricted access to the net.

I didn’t think a 999 call was warranted so I rang the general number for Garda Headquarters and asked could I be connected to any Garda who had access to Facebook. Without speaking to me, the Garda transferred me to a phone system which was not in working order. I tried this twice more, explaining that the system to which I was being passed was not working. At no stage did this Garda utter anything other than a couple of grunts.

I then tried ringing the Garda Personnel Dept. I apologised to the Garda who answered and explained the situation. This Garda was helpful. She consulted her sergeant and tried to find me a phone number of a Garda with access to Facebook. Eventually we had to give up on this. She urged me to contact the station local to the incident and she gave me the phone number.

I rang them to be told by a helpful Garda that they had no access to the internet and that they couldn’t deal with me on the phone. I would have to come to the station. Alternatively, I could go to my local station and they would take details for forwarding on.

Petty managers in many organisations restrict access to the net in the belief that staff will do nothing all day but talk to friends. This sort of nonsense was said years ago in relation to the telephone. In this case we are talking about a police force and petrol bomb threat.

The new Minister for Justice should immediately lift all restrictions on Garda access to the net and seek the removal of the foolish manager/s who initiated and maintained this restriction.

I shouldn’t have to preface my remarks here but I reckon that I do. I do not support the Rossport protesters and I’m far from impressed by the victims in this case. With that out of the way, let’s get down to the importance of what happened in that car and the inadequacy of the official response.*

I’m reminded of a case many years ago when a man was murdered in Shercock Garda station. As I recall, there were two trials but there was little evidence to support a conviction. There was another disturbing feature:  Witnesses – members of An Garda – heard screams but did nothing. What’s this got to do with the Corrib incident?

Well, there were five Gardaí in the car. There was joking banter on rape and not one voice was raised against. The problem is not that insufficient punishment will be meted out. The problem is that people of this sort are being recruited and then tolerated. There should be no place in An Garda for quiet types who will stay silent when faced with wrongdoing or for people with weird attitudes to crime.

In short, this incident points to the need to review recruitment procedures.

* Here’s a report on the issue itself:

http://www.rte.ie/news/2012/0424/one-garda-should-face-corrib-action-ombudsman.html

I’m not offering this as an explanation for the recent English street violence. I’m setting it down now because some of the media comments reminded me. You see, the idea that different people and different age groups might not have a shared view of the police is hardly novel. Indeed it’s not an insight at all but it illustrates the need for policing that is close to impeccable. Here’s the story:

I was fortunate to have been reared in Inchicore. In my teens in the 60s we socialised in the city, or “town”, as we called it. Late at night we walked home (Dublin City centre to Inchicore isn’t a long walk but it takes time.) in groups, ate chips, talked into the early hours about music and putting the world to rights. Those walks are very happy memories to me.

There was, however, a problem. Not all of the groups on the streets at night were walking and talking. Some were involved in thuggery. We had to be careful to avoid certain gangs and to be prepared to run when necessary. One of the “gangs” to be given a wide berth was Gardaí who to us were normally antagonistic and occasionally violent. They certainly were a not a force that kept us safe on the streets at night.

Now, I guess they saw all groups on the street as potential trouble and they couldn’t tell the difference between one group on a street corner having a conversation and another group up to no good. However, we could tell the difference (I like to think I still can!) and they should have been able to tell the difference too. That is an essential skill for a police officer if the force is to enjoy popular support.