Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Insulting the President

Third World countries are often seen as having an exaggerated sense of the deference due to powerful individuals and a feeling that the heavens will fall if people say what they actually think of those who have scrambled to the top of their local greasy poles to become presidents, prime ministers, judges and the like. Of course, Ireland is nothing like that and we share a thoroughly democratic sense of the equality of all citizens, in full confidence that they will be treated the same before the law. Don’t we?

We know, with the confidence that comes from years, even decades, of the untrammelled operation of the rule of law in a system devoid of even the slightest trace of corruption, that the police and courts feel as free to proceed against crooked politicians and dodgy businessmen as they do to take it out on those who actually challenge the status quo. Nobody would ever dare suggest that the arrests and charges against those involved in the water charges struggle were political, or that the dawn raids on the houses of teenagers and elected representatives of socialist parties were not justified by the risk that such individuals might take to the hills and lead a clandestine existence for years if not decades. 

Perish the thought.

And yet…

Human rights, and the right to protest, are important things. They are important for the substance of democracy, and they are demonstrated to exist precisely when it is inconvenient for the powers that be. The right to protest is affirmed when despite the problems it might cause to the powerful and wealthy it is enabled and facilitated. It would be nice to live in a world where this described the behaviour of the Irish state, wouldn’t it?

I have some personal experience here. Back at Mayday 2004 I was one of the media spokespeople for Dublin Grassroots Network’s “Weekend for an alternative Europe”, which organised an effective protest at the EU summit. (We argued that the direction of the EU was towards an increasing “Fortress Europe” against migrants, intensified militarisation, greater privatisation of public services and a taxation system stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Were we wrong?) The main protest – on the Saturday night – was organised as an experiment, to see if it was possible, in this EU for which democratic principles are so important, to have our voices heard, even partially, by our elected leaders. Hence we attempted to bring a noisy protest within hearing distance of the EU leaders’ banquet at Farmleigh House.

It transpired that it is, but no thanks to the Gardaí – who announced at the last minute that the riot squad would be deployed at our assembly point with orders to disperse anyone who came to this widely-publicised protest. Thankfully, ordinary people care more about the right to protest than Irish police and politicians, and the result was the largest anti-authoritarian march ever in Ireland. It turned out not to be very hard to outwit the Keystone Kops and come well within hearing distance of Farmleigh House, before being driven back by baton charges and water cannon. (Incidentally, not a single window was broken).

The dirty tricks were fairly gobsmacking, though. According to “security sources” talking to the tabloids, we had arms dumps (seriously), were planning to burn down Blanchardstown shopping centre (why?), would be bringing over “everyone who was at the Genoa protests” (about quarter of a million people), and there would be gas attacks on the Taoiseach… More practically, the right to protest was ensured by police preventing us leafletting and visiting city centre businesses to encourage them to roll down the shutters and leave town for the weekend (some refused, and told us about it). Someone, who couldn’t possibly have worked for the state, phoned radio stations to announce that the march had been cancelled and we had to issue denials. Sterling stuff.

Of course, had those charged with the rule of law been honest about their claims I, and others, should have been charged with conspiracy to organise a riot. (Had they really been honest, many of their own should have been up on charges for these shenanigans, but let’s be realistic.) Our real offence, obviously, was threatening to embarrass our lords and masters in front of their lords and masters in the EU.

Back then, we had a prime minister with a bit of a Dublin accent, a love for cosying up to the rich and powerful (Blair and Berlusconi were two of the star attractions) and a grá for pronouncing himself a socialist. Now we have Joan Burton, that true heir of James Connolly.

Poor Joan, we learn, was “imprisoned” by not being able to drive. Her Fingerwaggingness could of course not be expected to get out and walk. (By this logic anyone who has sat in traffic has been falsely imprisoned). The real offence for which elected representatives and ordinary working-class Dubs (some of them not even socialist - imagine!) are being placed on trial, with possible sentences running up to life in prison, is of course lèse majesté – the disruption to poor Joan’s dignity. (Driving families into poverty and homelessness, of course, is no stain on her dignity whatsoever: it is, as we know from her cosying up to tabloid blame-the-poor stories, their fault. They are probably welfare scroungers to boot.)

Elsewhere, another elected representative is on trial with 10 co-defendants for “failing to comply with a garda’s direction” (possible sentences: 8 to 12 months). The direction in question was to leave the vicinity of Parnell Road in Harold’s Cross where she was taking part in a protest. The judge refused to allow the defence discovery of communications between the police, Irish Water and GMC Sierra who instal the meters. It transpires that protest is only legal until a guard decides that it isn’t, and that blocking the road constitutes false imprisonment – when it suits. So much for the right to protest and the state of democracy in this country which holds human rights so, so dear.

Finally, of course, three people are on trial for insulting our dearly-beloved President. Again I must confess to a personal interest in this: two, in fact.

When Michael D Higgins was elected I, and many other people in movements, rejoiced. For many years, if you went on a demo in Dublin, you stood a high chance of suffering a lecture from the good TD telling you why you were there, and how important the issue was that had got you into town on a Saturday lunchtime, at length. At least his presidency spares us that, and I will forever be grateful.

We have another connection, though. In 2006 I brought the leader of Norway’s energy workers union along with Norway’s leading critical researcher on the oil industry on a visit to Rossport, the start of a long-running connection. Back in Dublin, we were asked to wait so that Michael D – then president of the Labour Party – could join us for a discussion. We came away with the impression that he cared about the issue and would do what he could to help and draw attention to the issue.

Did anything ever come of all those expressions of concern and commitment? Thinking about the experience afterwards – and since he has become such an “outspoken” President – I struggled to recall any instance when the good Michael D’s concern for the good and objection to sin was ever expressed when it might involve any actual political cost to himself.

Is it an insult to say that our President is … a true member of the Irish Labour Party?

Laurence Cox co-directs the MA on Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at Maynooth. This piece is written in a personal capacity.

PS: A few pieces of research around these themes:

When is an assembly riotous, and who decides? The success and failure of police attempts to criminalise protest”

Challenging toxic hegemony: repression and resistance in Rossport and the Niger Delta”

Changing the world without getting shot: how popular power can set limits to state violence”