Thursday 18 January 2018

"Take the f***er out": the new sound of Irish protest

Claiming that they're only speaking uncomfortable truths is the classic excuse of bullies everywhere

Paul Murphy TD
Paul Murphy TD

Eilis O'Hanlon

A word of advice for protesters. If you want to be believed when claiming to have carried out a legitimate peaceful protest, don't upload footage onto YouTube which proves that you were doing the exact opposite.

That's the one amusing element to this whole sordid affair. There were no cameras from RTE or TV3 waiting outside Colaiste Eoin in Finglas 10 days ago when President Higgins arrived to speak. What happened next can't be chalked up to bias from the "mainstream media". The evidence which condemned the protesters came straight from their own camera phones.

Those who made this footage available seemed quite proud of it too, giving the videos such charming titles as "The Hobbit's exit from Finglas with his Blue Shirt Security Thugs". "That coward wouldn't stop and speak to the people he claims to act on behalf of," went the strap line beneath another. As if anyone's first instinct on being confronted by a mob with its blood up should have been to get out for a friendly chat.

Had there been more of them, it could easily have turned into a replica of the incident in which the Tanaiste was trapped inside her car.

The man who called 73-year-old Michael D a "midget parasite" has since apologised for the word "midget", but there's no sign of anyone saying sorry to the gardai for placing them in this impossible situation.

A female protester can actually be heard declaring of one officer: "Look at the aggression on that pig's face". Irony was clearly lost on the day, as the belligerence was all coming from the other side. The President was in the school at this stage. It was the gardai bearing the brunt. "Scumbag." "F***ing tramp." "Smirking c**t." "You're just a c**t with a badge."

What happened in Finglas was an hysterical free-for-all that had nothing to do with austerity or water charges, but was all about trying to provoke a response from a small number of gardai doing their duty in keeping people with poor impulse control from reaching the President.

The gardai were patient and restrained. It was the protesters who were revelling in mayhem, all the while chanting: "This is a peaceful assembly".

Repeatedly yelling "peaceful protest" during a ruckus no more makes it true than shouting "wealth redistribution" during an armed robbery makes it less of a crime.

The most chilling part probably came as the President made his exit, as one man can clearly be heard saying: "Take the little f***er out."

The probable upshot is that the President will, in future, need extra security when he goes about his engagements. Congratulations. We have become one of those countries. A place where elected representatives are not safe to walk about freely, but must watch their backs instead. Ireland never felt like that before.

Last week alone saw the fire-bombing of a TD's office; threats to Fine Gael's Regina Doherty to burn down her house with her children inside; and on Monday, Joan Burton was forced to leave another school by the back door because of an angry protest at the front gate.

Anyone who can look at all this and still deny that something dark has entered Irish politics either has the ocular shortcomings of one of the three blind mice, or else is so comfortable with intimidation that they don't even recognise it for what it is any more.

Equally disturbing was the readiness with which those sympathetic to the protesters downplayed the ugliness of the incident involving Higgins, and leapt on the media for making too much of it.

Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy seemed more annoyed at a headline in the Examiner which accused him of defending what happened in Finglas than he was about the fact that it happened in the first place. Speaking on Today FM's Last Word, he called it "dirty low gutter journalism".

The string of passionate adjectives told its own story. The protesters were admonished in far softer terms. He wasn't the only one. The "what's the big deal?" brigade were out in force. Somehow it's as if justifiable discontent is now considered an excuse for abandoning all human decency.

The classic excuse of the bully is to insist that he is but a fearless truth-teller, who is being demonised for expressing uncomfortable realities, when in fact criticism of his tactics is merely that: criticism of his tactics.

Murphy tried that angle too, insisting that he was merely supporting the right to protest, as if that was ever under threat. There has never been a greater latitude to openly challenge decision-makers, not least through social media.

If protesters are unable, either online or on the street, to do so without it degenerating into abuse and intimidation, that's their collective failure, because no one is taking any rights away from them. Deploring protests which turn nasty is not the same as denying the right to protest.

Some of those wrapping themselves in the mantle of martyrdom have even tried to jump on the "Je Suis Charlie" bandwagon, suggesting that anyone who asserts the current wave of protests has gone too far, is being hypocritical. And by defending the right of cartoonists to offend Muslims while not defending the equally important right to offend President Higgins.

Nice try, but it's hardly the same thing. The sinister fringe which has now attached itself to the anti-austerity movement is not content with drawing cartoons, but it will be drawing blood if those who have influence over their actions don't wise up quickly.

Advocates of last week's protest would have people believe that they are the only true custodians of free speech. On the contrary, it's the protesters who are undermining the legitimacy of protest by not standing firmly enough against harassment and disorder. You expect us to bring our children along to the next gathering after seeing what went down at the last one?

The lesson for the government is not to underestimate the destructive power of disappointment. The protesters really did seem to believe, however naively, that Michael D would be the "People's President", just as they thought the present Coalition would face down the bondholders. The lid is blowing off the kettle after too much steam has been allowed to build up inside.

Trouble is clearly being organised by malign elements hoping to capitalise on anarchy; but the last Greek government fell because, having been given the chance to rescue the country from its nightmare, it instead repeated the mistakes of its predecessor. Fine Gael and Labour shouldn't present wolves in protesters' clothing with the same easy victory.

Sunday Independent

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