Ominous signs for the health of our democracy
THE right to protest is one of our hard-won democratic rights. It has often been noted that Irish people are not particularly given to street protest. So the anti-water charges marches were special and a serious wake-up call to the Government. It has been clear to all of us that the bulk of decent working Irish people had just had enough after eight years of uncertainty and austerity. The water charges of themselves were not the only focus of objection.
Significant errors in the planned implementation of charges, and the creation of Irish Water, really were the last straw which brought tens of thousands of people on to our streets in recent weeks. What was notable about these protests was that they went beyond the politically committed minority who have a propensity to protest.
These protests were a healthy sign and evidence of engagement with our democratic institutions. But what happened last Saturday afternoon in Dublin - when the Tanaiste Joan Burton was kept a virtual prisoner in her car - was none of these things.
This incident was sinister and distressing. "Peaceful protest" it very definitely was not. It carried ominous signs for the future health of our democracy.
Independent witnesses, such as Senator Katherine Zappone, who are not given to exaggeration, have spoken about a genuine sense of fear and a level of menace shown by some involved in the incident.
It is utterly unacceptable that any citizen of this Republic should be held prisoner in her car for more than two hours. It is equally reprehensible to insult the dignity of the office of the Tanaiste elected by the people.
Joan Burton and her colleagues are as entitled to freedom of movement in the conduct of their business as any other citizen. Protesters making a legitimate point have no right to impede the rights and freedoms of others.
These ugly incidents also marred what should have been a genuinely uplifting occasion as Ms Burton presided at a graduation ceremony for adult students in Jobstown in Tallaght. Why did self-proclaimed champions of working people feel they could disrupt the celebration of educational achievement by other working people?
The most disturbing feature of these appalling events was the presence of Anti-Austerity Alliance TD, Paul Murphy. He was happy to proclaim: "Joan Burton blocked in by peaceful protesters in Jobstown."
Mr Murphy had a duty as a member of the national parliament to ensure a colleague's rights and dignity were upheld. His behaviour has fallen short of what is expected of a democratically elected public representative.
These distressing events on Saturday afternoon followed on from the disruption of Dail business last Thursday by Sinn Fein's deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald. In a clear effort to distract from her party's discomfiture over its inadequate response to allegations by Mairia Cahill, Ms McDonald defied the Ceann Comhairle and refused to leave the Dail chamber.
There are clear signs that these events will take up more time this coming week as Sinn Fein pushes a pointless and insulting motion of no confidence in the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett. Mr Barrett is an experienced parliamentarian committed to ensuring the Dail works fairly and efficiently. He deserves cooperation and respect - not time-wasting disruption.
The past week has not been a good one for Irish democracy. It is time the leaders of protest took stock of their responsibilities and the rights of others.