We may not like or agree with other people’s views or indeed their tactics, but in a democracy they need to have their rights protected
Twenty years ago the city government in Madrid, tired of protest marches disrupting activity in the city centre, made a bold proposal. They were going to move protest marches to an authorised site away from the city. I think it was to an unused airstrip. There the protesters would be free to protest as much as they wanted, and the city centre would be freed from the regular disruption to people caused by protests. Genius!
It was eventually rejected. I can’t remember why the proposal got rejected, but hopefully it was because moving protests to a ‘safe space’ — that particular phrase didn’t exist back then — denied the protesters any potential power.
The point of protests is that other people are forced to listen, even if it makes them uncomfortable. A protest in the outskirts of the city that doesn’t impact anyone is the political equivalent of a tree falling in the wood when no one is there — whether it makes noise or not, it is not heard. In the last few weeks the protests of people who are against vaccines have been brought uncomfortably to the doors of politicians and other public figures. Leo Varadkar, Simon Harris, Tony Holohan, broadcaster Joe Duffy and more recently Mary Lou McDonald all have had protesters outside their homes.
The protesters all seem mad to me, and, in the case of those protesting at Varadkar’s home, there is racism and homophobia in evidence.
The decision to protest at the homes of public figures such as these is seen to “cross a line” for many, and Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne is calling for legislation to outlaw the practice. There seems to be a good deal of sympathy for this. Protesting at people’s homes exposes not just the politicians to public pressure, but also their families, and may infringe another right, the right to privacy. Even politicians should expect to be able to have time off.
I have a vague memory of a protest outside my home when I was a child. I think it was during the hunger strikes in the early 1980s. I assume my house was targeted because my father, Des O’Malley, was well known to be antipathetic to the Provisional IRA. The fact I still have that memory suggests it affected me, and I can’t imagine it was anything but unpleasant.
But if the purpose was for some people to express their anger at the treatment of the hunger strikers — not that my father had anything to do with it — it was their right to not only express it, but to assemble and be heard. We may not like or agree with the protesters or their tactics, but in a democracy they need to have their rights protected.
As well as giving ordinary people the power to be heard, the ability to cause disruption and discomfort to others, especially elites, is an instrument of power. Those hunger strike protests caused quite a bit of discomfort to the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in the 1981 election when he had to face public anger at what they saw as his inaction on the issue. To deny that, to insulate political leaders from the voices and maybe anger of others, does nothing but damage a democracy. Only being allowed to protest where people can’t be heard effectively denies them the right.
So the Oireachtas should be very wary of calls to limit the right to protest, even if some restrictions seem reasonable. Some years ago the Jobstown protesters were seen to “cross a line”.
The problem here was that anti-water charges protesters wouldn’t allow then Tánaiste Joan Burton to leave an event. It certainly contravened some of her rights, amid scenes that went well beyond those typically witnessed when farmers or taxi drivers block streets in Dublin.
The Government is currently seeking to impose some restrictions on protests outside maternity hospitals which provide abortion services. Many politicians who are normally very protective of the right to protest have contorted themselves to seek to justify the denial of those rights to people who they disagree with. It’s different, they say, because it’s potentially causing distress and intimidation to people who may be enduring an already stressful time. But the Public Order Act already protects people from intimidation.
Any of those protests I’ve seen have not targeted any individuals, are peaceful, and seem to consist of little more than a small number of people reciting decades of the rosary. I don’t agree with them, but it hardly seems worthy of a special exemption to an important right.
We should regularly remind ourselves that freedom of speech and freedom to protest is a principle, not a tactic. Even if it might make our lives more comfortable, restricting it comes at a heavy price for us all.
Eoin O’Malley is an associate professor in politics at Dublin City University