Above: A selection of shots from the December 2014 Irish Water protest in Dublin by Bit Thornt.
Today’s guilty verdict represents, if you excuse the pun, a watershed moment says Paul O’Connell, a Reader In Law at SOAS University of London. The regime has sent a clear message resistance will be met by a brutal police force and increased criminalisation.
The right to protest has never enjoyed particularly strong protection in Ireland. The provisions of the Constitution that deal with it are remarkable more for the exceptions and limitations to the right that they countenance, rather than a strong protection of the right as such.
Over the years, individuals have been prosecuted for various offences that we might think the right to protest should protect. The Public Order Act 1994 has allowed for the routine, systematic undermining of the right to protest by the Gardai since its enactment.
With all of that said, the conviction today of a 17-year-old on charges of false imprisonment, for engaging in a peaceful protest against the Tainste, represents a watershed moment. The nuts and bolts of the conviction will be pored over in due course, but the key thing to grasp is that this conviction is about much more than the protest in Jobstown, or the specific charges and evidence against the young man (and other accused) in this case.
Fundamentally, today’s decision represents a firm assertion from the Irish political elite, and the Irish State, that there is no alternative to the strictures of austerity, inequality, injustice and the commodification of the entire life course, and any attempts at opposing this new reality will not be tolerated.
This has to be seen in its broader, global context also. Reports abound from human rights group about the increasing hollowing out of the right to protest around the world. It is no coincidence that this hollowing out is taking place in the context of global economic crises and seemingly endless austerity.
As the costs of a failed economic model are foisted onto working people around the world, through undemocratic and unaccountable actors and institutions, vigorous resistance to such measures, in the form of mass and meaningful mobilisations and protests, are increasingly met with brutal police force and increased criminalisation.
The current US presidential elections, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the rise of the neo-fascist groups (what some commentators lazily term populist) all bespeak a general decline in representative politics, which Peter Mair and others have written about.
In this context, new social movements (like that against water charges in Ireland) represent the embryonic formations of ordinary people trying to reassert themselves and gain some traction in an inhospitable political environment.
Given the inherent limitations of the dominant forms of low intensity democracy practiced in Ireland and other Western countries, the people involved in such movements instinctively understand that they cannot defend their interests and advance their causes through “business as usual” politics.
Mass mobilisations, direct actions and myriad forms of protest are therefore crucial to such movements, to allow them grow and advance their demands. There were definitely aspects of the Jobstown protest which could be considered regrettable, but the minor inconvenience caused to the Tainste scarcely justifies the moral indignation that issued from Ireland’s establishment mouthpieces, and certainly did not justify the very spurious charges of false imprisonment levelled at the young man convicted today (and his fellow accused).
Levels of inequality, homelessness, and poverty in Ireland provide far better cause for moral indignation, but that will not be forthcoming from Ireland’s establishment, or its liberal press core. Outrage at these structural injustices is, however, evident in the movements against water charges, for decent housing, and against the odious, unjust debt imposed on the Irish people.
The decision to charge the Jobstown protesters with such a serious offence, and the conviction of the young man today are both clear shots across the bow. If you do not accept that inevitability of neoliberal austerity in Ireland, and wish to step outside the faux alternatives of narrow electoralism, your dissent will not be tolerated.
Structural inequality, persistent crony democracy, and a ruling elite wedded to the status quo cannot tolerate a robust public sphere, and ordinary people engaging in political action to transform their own lives, and that of their communities. Today’s conviction is designed to send that message loud and clear.
There is no mean irony in the fact that this further assault on the right to protest takes place in the centenary year of the Easter Rising. A Rising in which the authors of the Proclamation asserted that rights could be usurped, but not extinguished.
Ireland is a country, to borrow Gramsci’s phrase, in which the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born. If the people of Ireland wish to seize the opportunity to usher in that “new” (an island which abhors inequality, respects women’s rights, cherishes diversity, and secures to all the people the necessities of a decent life), then people will have to fight for it, and crucial to such a fight will be the meaningful exercise of the rights to organise, publicise and protest.
The conviction of the young Jobstown protester today is a clear shot across the bow, it’s important that people respond with one of their own. Mass mobilisation will be necessary to challenge this injustice, and to resist any further inroads into the basic, democratic rights of people.
To paraphrase Connolly, after today’s decision our duty is plain: the right to protest has to be defended, and the ongoing struggle to remake Ireland in this centenary year has to be renewed and continue apace.