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Cynically populist Sinn Fein and 'loony left' offer only defiance and instability


A man throws a brick at a garda car during a protest against water charges in Jobstown, Tallaght. Photo: Tony Gavin.

A man throws a brick at a garda car during a protest against water charges in Jobstown, Tallaght. Photo: Tony Gavin.

A man throws a brick at a garda car during a protest against water charges in Jobstown, Tallaght. Photo: Tony Gavin.

There is no denying an air of instability, anarchy, even revolution in the body politic of late. The scale and style of civil unrest and political protest over water can of course be tracked back to grievance about the economic and banking collapse and the measures introduced to aid the national recovery.

The irony is that the public retribution was a slow burn. One recalls Michael Noonan remarking on such riotous scenes elsewhere some years ago that "Irish people don't set fire to cars". On the contrary, Ireland was held up as a poster boy for prudent fiscal adjustments following the IMF/Troika bailout. Irish citizens were lauded for their perseverance in the face of massive public spending and wage cuts. There was a clear sense of national solidarity. But as Minister Noonan anticipated, quoting Yeats in his Budget speech some years ago, "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart".

When the tipping point came, it was ferocious. So Minister Alan Kelly was right to deliver the reviewed package on water charges with an appropriate mix of contrition and confident resolve. All ministers are careful to acknowledge public anger and their right to protest in a reasonable fashion. No government likes to admit mistakes or worse still to "climb down" but in the case of the water debacle, it was the right thing to do.

A Government is entitled to review a policy in the light of public non-compliance demonstrated peacefully. What is unsavoury is the emergence of a violent, aggressive element taking to the streets and using the issue of water as a vehicle to foment anarchy and intimidation of other citizens, including ministers. The right to protest in a democracy is limited, not absolute.

I recall from my college days studying labour and constitutional law that the right to picket, for example, is constrained by a need not to obstruct the public highway. The pithy expression used by Constitutional lawyer Professor Robert Heuston was that the picketers "must keep on the trot", or keep moving.

The right to lawful assembly too is well established, but "lawful" is the key word. It is not lawful for several hundred people to surround the car of a minister and restrain that vehicle forcibly from moving for several hours. It is more like false imprisonment and assault.

The unapologetic defiance of the loony left is typical. Leo Varadkar is right in saying those hardliners stoking up all this unrest are beyond reasonable persuasion. What they want is a popular revolution against the establishment; water is just a rabble rousing instrument. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding amongst these "anti-austerity revolutionaries" about the parameters of lawful protest. The Government, with the advice of the AG, should put on the record of the Dail and into the public arena, a definitive rule book in this regard so that there is some clarity in discourse and operationally about the limits of lawful protest in a democracy. It cannot be a subjective test to be decided by the organisers of such events. This is important because our gardai need to be protected from allegations of police brutality when they are doing their duty in protecting citizens from unruly mobs.

To listen to water protest leaders, elected and unelected, justify and even gloat over events in Jobstown and elsewhere is disturbing. How can it be acceptable for protesters to resort to violence, intimidation and death threats to minister's offices? Most of them equivocate when challenged on the violence. But deputies Coppinger and Murphy are and Daly seem jubilantly defiant in a scary way when challenged.

The media's coverage of the water protests, particularly some TV journalists', has been disappointing. They will plead their duty to provide balance but many have been pandering to populism. Some seem more interested in the Government's discomfort than in challenging those equivocating about violence.

The revised package on water charges has mitigated the worst aspects of the original proposals; they are fair, low, and predictable and capped. My feeling is that most reasonable people will back off the protest and be content that their legitimate concerns have been assuaged by the Government.

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It was instructive to see the unions who were part of the water protest movement balking at the removal of the bonus payments scheme, even though that was one of the major gripes of the protests about Irish Water as an organisation. They want to have it both ways.

The parties are now on election footing. What are Sinn Fein and the "loony left" offering Ireland apart from oppositional defiance and instability? The Government made a good start this week by a concerted effort to compose themselves and change the narrative. The €3.85bn investment in social housing, expansion of broadband, an extra €300m-plus in the Health Service Strategy and reaching the lowest unemployment figures since 2009 are all solid achievements and should go some way towards restoring public trust in the Coalition.

It has been a turbulent and dispiriting year for the two parties in government. If they can demonstrate sure-footedness and competence over the coming year, much of the public disquiet will be replaced by a sense of normal and stable politics being preferable to the nihilistic populism of the Opposition.

Ministers also need to take the gloves off and take on aggressively the sort of alternative politics that is being proferred to the Irish electorate.

There is a lot at stake when it comes to defending our democracy and stability.