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Unravelling the Jobstown spin: throwing water - or eggs - is not a violent protest

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Protesters surround Enda Kenny’s car at Sligo Park Hotel. Photo: Donal Hackett

Protesters surround Enda Kenny’s car at Sligo Park Hotel. Photo: Donal Hackett

Protesters surround Enda Kenny’s car at Sligo Park Hotel. Photo: Donal Hackett

For a while there, I wondered if Pat Rabbitte might jump in and instruct his erstwhile Cabinet colleagues that, when you're in the business of robbing working people to pay off international derivatives gamesters, you shouldn't count on Marquis of Queensbury rules. But the Ballindine Bruiser seems to have lost his tongue.

So too, it appears, has almost everybody capable of sense of reason. As day follows day, the legend of Jobstown grows and grows. What might have gone down as the deputy leader of an appalling government getting heckled, jostled and slightly wetted by a water balloon became a scarifying tale of a terrified 65-year-old cowering in her car while being pelted with dangerous projectiles and rocked to within an inch of her life.

Broadcast and print media almost unanimously lent their weight to the spinning wheel. Whereas anti-austerity protests in other countries had been reported as "peaceful protests marred by violent clashes", the Jobstown story was spun to put a few yobs centre stage. Journalists who for years bemoaned the supine character of the Irish, tarred all the protesters with the same brush and predicted, on the basis of a conveniently leaked preview of the Government's panicked new proposals, that citizens will abandon the water protests and scuttle back to their Christmas shopping. Who needs police when you have commentators to shout: "Move along there now folks, nothing to see here"?

The word "violence" crept into the reporting as a matter of routine. Politicians and scribes sought to outdo each other in an orgy of platitudinising about democracy and freedom. By Monday, the Taoiseach was sufficiently self-assured to declare that the Tanaiste had been "effectively kidnapped". Our bullyboy Government was "traumatised and upset".

Let's get real. Throwing water or eggs is not "violence". It's been a staple element of street protest for at least two millennia. A road blockade, too, is a legitimate form of protest and although she was in the car with her secretary, the Tanaiste was under the protection of the Garda Public Order Unit.

I was at the funeral down West over the weekend of a man who died of a brain haemorrhage. The officiating priest wondered aloud during Mass if his brother's life might have been saved had there been an A&E facility at Roscommon Hospital. During the 2011 election, Enda Kenny pledged to "protect and defend" that service but within weeks had reneged on that promise. Maybe a wet ministerial ear isn't the worst thing in the world?

Sure, the visible political faces of the water protests are indeed a rum bunch of opportunists seeking to fashion a mainstream protest into a Bolshevik uprising.

Genuine protesters must henceforth march in the knowledge that they stand to be squeezed in a pincer movement between slipstreaming ideologues and State propagandists. The problem is not so much the prospect of demonstrations being "marred by violence", as the challenge of overcoming the relentless spin which will attend every chant and placard. That there is now a real possibility of water protests planned for December 10 becoming a damp squib, since would-be demonstrations may well be put off by the fear that some hothead throwing something wet or sticky will turn every marcher into an arsonist, an anarchist or a "kidnapper". It may be time to emulate the example of Erdem Gunduz, the performance artist who last year became the international face of anti-government protests in Turkey. Gunduz did nothing but stand quietly in Istanbul's Taksim Square, staring at a portrait of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, on the gable of the Ataturk Cultural Center. He began his protest after police broke up anti-government protests with tear gas and water cannon, soon becoming known worldwide as 'The Turkish Standing Man'.

In his seminal essay 'The Power of the Powerless', Vaclav Havel noted that the "regime" - whatever its nature - will always prosecute even the smallest attempt to live within the truth, but that the crust of lies needs to be broken just once, in one place, for the whole thing to split and disintegrate.

It is not violence that power truly fears, but rather its absence - the stripped down humanity of the citizen making his or her presence felt in the world.

Imagine images of 200,000 people staring silently at the façade of the GPO going around the world as Ireland's final answer to the thugs and bullies seeking to beggar our children's children. What could be more beautiful than for a human being simply to stand there, asserting nothing but the very facts of human existence?

Havel refers to such phenomena as "elementary revolts against manipulation" - precisely what this moment demands.

Irish Independent