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Lise Hand: Labour's biggest fear isn't protesters, it's hens and their inflatable high jinks

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IT WAS all quite colourful and theatrical for a while. As the protesters streamed onto the NUIG campus on Saturday afternoon, among the forest of placards and banners materialised a quartet of men clad in orange boiler suits and the accessory du jour for professional protesters -- the white V for Vendetta masks.

They were carrying aloft a coffin draped with a Tricolour.

But then, minutes later, just after 3pm, the fun stopped and the mood turned ugly. The handful of gardai on the barriers were overwhelmed as the coffin was turned into a battering ram.

The barriers toppled over and protesters crashed to the ground as others scrambled over them to get to the front of the college building, where the Labour Party conference was in full swing.

Vicious scuffles broke out and the sharp sting of pepper spray filled the air -- a TG4 cameraman filming the melee caught a blast in the face -- and the coffin came flying over the breached line and landed with a crash on the ground.

There were not enough gardai to hold back the noisy, surging wave and they finally opened the barriers and let the protesters flow through, right up to the door of the glass-fronted Bailey Allen Building, where they shouted and chanted and waved placards and two fingers at the delegates who were now 'in lockdown' inside.

"Nothing like a lock-in to get things going," remarked junior minister Sean Sherlock inside the main hall.

In fact, there were two separate protests outside: there was a small, hardcore group of trouble-seeking thugs spoiling for a scrap. But there was a larger crowd of less militant protesters -- including a circle of students sitting on the grass merrily rolling joints -- and various pairs of pensioners resting their handmade signs on benches while they chatted to each other.

There were even a few familiar faces: deputies Joan Collins, Richard Boyd Barrett and Ming Flanagan had been on the march from Eyre Square but the trio were steering well clear of the troublemakers.

And there was a right smorgasbord of signage surrounding the building.

There were truculent turf-cutters; simmering septic-tank owners; defenders of DEIS schools; and household tax refuseniks brandishing banners proclaiming: "Labour traitors", "Kenny and Gilmore are Angela's asses" and "Gilmore has betrayed the memory of Larkin and Connolly".

But perhaps the sign which summed up the protest was a fish-shaped placard, which simply stated: "Too many issues to fit on one sign."

Jamie Barrington, aged 13 and from Ballymun, was enjoying himself as he protested against cuts to his local youth centre and the household tax.

"I'd like to be a politician. But I'd have to get myself a suit first," he explained.

However, not everyone was so delighted with the fracas. Afterwards, MEP Emer Costello was practically levitating with anger.

"These are the people that say they defend people's right to assembly, these are the people who say they defend freedom of speech, and these are the people who are obstructing us from having our conference," she seethed.

"That is not democracy, that is bullyboy tactics and it really has got me absolutely furious. If they want to protest outside, I have no problem -- I believe that people have the right to protest -- but that is not peaceful protesting," she said, adding: "And if Luke Flanagan and Richard Boyd Barrett are out there, then shame on them."

Yesterday, Eamon Gilmore expressed his displeasure over the not-so peaceful protesters.

"A minority acted violently and I condemn that," he said.

"I think, in particular, that the Dail deputies who were part of the organisation of the protest, they should condemn the violent activity that took place and disassociate themselves from it."

IN sharp contrast, peace was breaking out all over the place among the 800 delegates at the conference. There was no Labour blood flowing on the convention-hall floor during debates over contentious issues, even on hardy perennials, such as abortion rights.

In fact, the most protestation broke out when the outgoing party chairman, a bumbling Brian O'Shea, got muddled over the votes on motions.

And despite an outbreak of muttering lately over tensions in the relationship between Eamon Gilmore and his deputy leader Joan Burton, the pair were careful to present a harmonious face over the weekend.

For Joan has been in the news quite a bit of late and she had a narrow escape on the publicity front while en route to the conference on Friday morning. For when the cost-conscious Social Protection Minister took the train from Dublin to Galway, she found herself seated in the middle of a merry hen party sporting the traditional headgear of bunny ears and pink inflatable dildos.

But the politically aware hens recognised that they had a celebrity in their midst and were all up for a group photo.

However, Joan, with visions in her head of gleeful tabloid headlines such as 'Bunny Burton' and 'Minister Takes the Mickey', wisely declined.

And the even mightily inauspicious date of the leader's speech on Saturday -- the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic -- didn't alarm the Labour lads a jot.

In the late afternoon, a mere few hours until the precise anniversary of the tragedy, national organiser David Leach was organising buses for the delegates to return to their hotels.

"The elderly and children first," he announced. Just what you want to hear from one half of the Ship of State's conference.

Irish Independent