Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Protest has a vital place in a healthy democracy

When I was 16, the President of the United States visited my home town. It was a massive event for Galway and, fuelled by the passion which often drives people at that age, I attended a mass protest against the decision by University College Galway (now NUIG) to award an honorary degree to Ronald Reagan.

By that stage, people knew that his Government had been involved in war crimes in the Middle East and Latin America. His funding of people like Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and sale of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in Iraq was widely known, but that did not stop the city fathers from closing down the city centre and rolling out the red carpet in his honour.

A group of protesters had built a massive paper mache statue of Ronnie ‘Raygun’, with nuclear missiles coming out of his head, and we teenagers were disgusted when they agreed to lower it as the President’s cavalcade passed by in the glare of the world media. Compromise can be hard to understand when you are a teenager.

I remember that three of us from Colaiste Iognaid took time out to attend the protest beside the Cathedral. We were enraged that this perceived war criminal was being feted by our city’s University and among those who objected was the current President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

I called myself a ‘Sandinista’, a fan of The Clash and supporter of Nicaragua, even though I had never ventured further away than the west coast of France at that stage in my life.

A bit of humour goes a long way ... 
Almost three decades on, during a wonderful gap year, I finally arrived in Nicaragua to work as a volunteer for three months. In my 40s, I suddenly realised that the teenage version of me was right about so many of the wrongs and injustices in the world way back when Reagan came to town.

I fell in love with Nicaragua, a land that stood up to Uncle Sam and its illegally funded ‘Contras’, even though it took me more than 25 years to get there. I felt so at home in the place, debating politics in the street or with taxi-drivers, especially when I met so many mothers who lost sons in the 1980s in a pointless war.

Suddenly, 26 years later, standing in a museum with these wonderful mothers, I felt a strange glow of satisfaction that the teenage version of me had the guts and wisdom to protest on behalf of the people of Nicaragua so many years before. If it was not for Ronald Reagan, many of their sons would still be alive today.

One of my friends at that Galway protest back in 1984 was active in the youth wing of Sinn Fein. It was quite normal in those days for detectives from Galway Garda Station to pick him up on his way home from school and question him for more than an hour. It was ‘political policing’ before we had heard of the term.

That teenage rebel has since gone on to become a respected academic – we have long since lost touch – and I don’t even think he is a member of Sinn Fein anymore, but his regular harassment by detectives really alarmed some of us who were in school with him at the time. 

Not that we all supported Sinn Fein at the height of the Troubles, but it was scary to think that a 16 year old could be arrested (or at least detained in the back of a police car) just because of his political views or the adults he associated with in the evenings. His parents were horrified when the detectives used to call to their home.

I was reminded of that demonstration against President Reagan this week when I saw a video of a protest meeting against ‘political policing’ in Dublin, which was addressed by a 16-year old.

That young lad was hauled from his bed at dawn last week, on a school day, after ten Gardai called to his front door. Instead of going to school, he spent two hours in a Garda Station answering questions about an Irish Water protest he had attended three months earlier.

He told the meeting that footage from the protest in Jobstown had been supplied to the Gardai by RTE, the national broadcaster. He worried about what the neighbours thought of him after being whisked off to a police station by such a huge force of Gardai.

There is something ‘sinister’ about a 16-year old being taken from his own bed at dawn by a force of ten Gardai, a full three months after he took part in a protest. He said he was baffled that he had to spend two hours in a police cell when he should have been in school.

And yet, according to members of our Government, the people who protest against Irish Water are the ‘sinister fringe’.

There is no excuse for abuse or violence, but people have a right to protest peacefully against what they believe to be an unjust charge. 

For 14 years, a protest at a small rural community in North Mayo received scant publicity. Incidents of police brutality were documented at the Shell to Sea protests in Rossport and the way in which the gas pipeline tore the community apart is brilliantly documented in Richard O’Donnell’s film, The Pipe (2010).

Time after time, people were arrested at the Shell protests only to be later released without charge.
Seven years ago, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that Shell delivered €35,000 worth of alcohol to Belmullet Garda Station as a Christmas present for the officers. The protesters in Rossport felt that the Gardai were not ‘neutral’ and that the national media almost ignored a shocking dispute which saw five local men spend months in jail.

People have a right to protest peacefully and if they were engaged in criminal activity in Rossport or Jobstown then of course the Gardai have a right to arrest and question them.

But protest has a vital place in a healthy democracy, which is why last week’s spate of arrests in the capital - and today's imprisonment of five water charges protesters - have caused so much concern. People are genuinely outraged that those who brought Ireland to its knees, leading to this 'crisis', have largely gone unpunished for their crimes.

The message seems to be that protesting against a form of "triple taxation" is more of a crime than corrupt banking or political practices.

I wonder will that 16-year old who was hauled out of his bed in Dublin, Jason Lester, look back in 30 years and say he was dead right to protest against the Irish Water ‘quango’. 

Just as I can now say that the thousands of us who protested against President Reagan in Galway way back in 1984 were perfectly justified in doing so, given what we now know about his murky and downright criminal dealings at the time. 

Sometimes a teenager can have as good a grasp of political realities as any mature adult, even or especially if he is labelled as a member of the “sinister fringe”.

1 comment:

  1. Another good article. I remember protesting about many referendums on the side that history has shown to be the right side. It's a shame that being an adult leads so many people to lose their passion for their values and ideals. Yes, life gets busy and complicated but if the media presented news in the context of values more, there might be more justice in the world. Keep them coming.