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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 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.