Gene Kerrigan: When democracy wears a black mask
Dissent is now being confronted by heavies wearing balaclavas, along with their Garda mates
The new Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, issued a statement last week on the events involving his Public Order Unit - those are the lads with the big batons and the masks. It was a transparently silly statement, but he had to say something in a hurry.
I imagine that sometime on Wednesday two things dawned on him.
One, that he and his force are being left to deal with some of the consequences of the 2008 crash.
Two, he needs to sort out that comically named outfit, the 'Public Order Unit'.
The 'fighting Irish' have been remarkably docile since the collective greed of the bankers and developers crashed the economy in 2008. And we remained docile through all the years of austerity that followed. I suspect a lot of people bought into the propaganda that claimed "we all partied".
And recently we're being told that our submissiveness worked. The economy is allegedly flying. Last week the Central Bank said that Irish household wealth is today higher than it was during the Celtic Bubble.
Trouble is, they reach that conclusion by adding up our collective assets (including the notional price of our houses) and then subtracting our liabilities.
Which means we're "wealthy" on paper, because of the current inflated price of property.
Which is what happened in 2008.
While paper "wealth" is pointless for the individual homeowner, inflated property prices help speculators reap millions.
Never in our history have we had less control over the direction of our lives. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are providing political cover while another crowd of gamblers plays another version of the old game of greed.
With spectacularly damaging consequences.
Barnardos has recently dealt with more children in crisis than it's ever seen (who'd have guessed that perpetual economic adventurism, and a State policy of raising kids in emergency accommodation, would damage children?).
St Vincent de Paul and the Capuchins continue to be run off their feet as they try to keep people from going hungry.
Official hospital waiting lists are at a conservative 718,000 and the Taoiseach - I kid you not - says the figures are "going in the right direction".
Meanwhile, his ministers have come up with another cynical plan to pump countless millions into the private sector in the hope it'll take the bare look off their housing policy.
The plan seems to be to release State land in the hope that speculators will build a notional amount of "affordable" homes, while the majority of their products will be officially "unaffordable" to most hardworking people.
An unsustainable portion of our collective wealth is being siphoned off into the purses of the owners of property.
It's a great time to be a predatory financial adventurer. We have a new generation of politicians who are fervent believers that the fundamental basis of society is not the republic but the market.
They're children playing with matches.
They cannot house their people.
They cannot medically treat their people.
They cannot ensure their people have enough to eat.
But they sure know how to grovel to the aforesaid predatory financial adventurers.
It must be galling to Varadkar and his hapless ministers when a significant number of mostly young people engage in peaceful civil disobedience, questioning official policy.
They're refusing to accept the insane logic of making the few wealthy at the expense of the many, with a vague hope that the excess wealth of the few will somehow trickle down to the rest of us.
They occupied an empty building. A symbolic protest against the pro-property, anti-people policies of the governing cartel, which have wreaked havoc with our people.
When the law got involved, the protesters withdrew. And occupied another empty building.
And the owners sent in paramilitary-style heavies to eject the protesters.
Wearing black outfits, with balaclavas, they stood at ease in front of the building, legs apart, arms clasped behind their backs. This is a military position - "parade rest". The last time I saw that dress style combined with that stance, I was covering an IRA funeral.
Are these masked people ex-soldiers? Which army? Are they ex-IRA? Ex-UDA? They are not hired for their sensitivity.
And, to complete the picture, the 'Public Order Unit' accompanied them, with armoured vests and with batons drawn.
One visually echoing the other - it was difficult to see where the paramilitary-style lads ended and the State forces began.
Drew Harris had to say something. Being the new boy, he had to back his staff. He said gardai were entitled to wear "fire retardant hoods", but it was not correct to do so without helmets.
It was as though the police had committed a fashion faux pas.
Off the record, gardai assured reporters their commissioner was talking nonsense - the POU wore the masks, they claimed, so they wouldn't be abused on "social media".
Ah dear, the poor snowflakes. This is a justification for every garda everywhere wearing a mask, on all occasions.
Police wear masks when there's a genuine belief they may be targeted by violent criminals. To wear them when policing dissent is a tactic designed to demonise that dissent.
Harris knows that serious police officers don't greet dissent with batons. And he'll know when paramilitary-style gentlemen confront dissenters the role of the police is to protect the dissenters, not to literally stand with the paramilitary-style heavies.
That's if you believe in that stuff about democracy, and the consent of the governed.
Mr Harris may have been too busy to note the record of An Garda Siochana in dealing with dissent. It is not good.
The critical event, since the crash, was in November 2010, when thousands of students protested about college fees. A small number sat-in at a side-entrance lobby in the Department of Finance. Such sit-ins are not novel, they are a standard element in dissent. Usually, the police "monitor" them and they end when the point is made, no blood spilt.
The Garda has done this with farmers and taxi drivers, for instance.
On this occasion, gardai assaulted the students. The Irish Times put it delicately: "Some of the protesters exited with evidence of a beating on their faces."
Students sat on the street, in protest. Gardai wore helmets, visors, armour, and they carried long batons - potentially lethal weapons - as the POU did last week. Some arrived on horseback. They lined the horses up in front of the department entrance, with a line of Robocops in front of them.
As students sat on the road, gardai leaned over and beat them about the head with batons and kicked them. Armoured police on horseback later mounted a cavalry charge, galloping along St Stephen's Green.
This was accepted as normal behaviour. It was a statement of intent, by a State prepared to violently suppress dissent. It set the standard.
Assuming a position of comradeship with bulky men dressed in paramilitary-style uniforms, that's new, though.
The law is made by the Dail, where a quarter of TDs are landlords. To peacefully challenge the law when it seriously damages our children is not a right, it's a duty. The young dissenters are standing by the basic human right to shelter.
Last week, the Garda - literally - showed where it stands. With the paramilitary-style lads representing property speculation.