I had a listen to Liveline today, the popular phone-in show on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster. There was a discussion about the protests against the installation of water meters taking place on numerous estates in Dublin, though the focus of the discussion was Clare Hall, in North Dublin.
Apparently one of the earliest callers, who I missed, advocated using tear gas to disperse the protesters. Another caller said that rule of law was the cornerstone of democracy and that the protesters had no business obstructing Irish Water from doing their work and these things should be addressed in the ballot box. Another said her husband worked for Irish Water and that people should only protest at designated times after seeking permission from the authorities.
Joan Burton’s comments about protesters using “extremely expensive mobile phones” were played several times, and concern was expressed for the welfare of the police. A resident of Clare Hall complained about the “gangs” of “vigilantes” roaming the estate and intimidating people. This complaint was countered by a caller who said that other people on the estate had been welcoming, inviting them into their house to use the bathroom, providing tea, and so on.
On the whole, the comments of most callers opposed to the protesters echoed the comments by Enda Kenny and Joan Burton in the Dáil. To wit: a small group of people, unrepresentative of the bulk of society, acting for their own selfish purposes, was failing to show respect for the rule of law. They were paralysing transportation, disrupting business, and interfering with the daily lives of residents of the area. There are ample ways of communicating discontent, they said, but not through this kind of confrontation.
Not only does this sentiment echo the comments of the main government figures in the Dáil, but they also echo, perhaps even more perfectly, the statement of the Chinese Communist Party regarding the protests in ‘Occupy Central’ in Hong Kong, as you can read here. Doubtless there are many Chinese people who share the Chinese Communist Party’s view.
Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party’s view that the ‘vast majority of people in Hong Kong agree that economic growth and the improvement of people’s livelihoods are the most important challenges facing them today’ would fit well in with the standard view of protest expressed both by figures in the Irish government and Ireland’s established press. It would not sound out of place in a Stephen Collins column in the Irish Times, for example.
I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the negative comments expressed on Liveline, which I am prepared to imagine reflect the feelings of a substantial number of Irish people. This is the idea that there is something illegitimate and base about a small group of people from outside an estate protesting on an estate against the wishes of the residents. In so doing I will ignore the many images of people who are indeed from the areas where the protests are taking place, and who are participating in meetings there. Like in this picture here, from Kilbarrack this evening.
The idea that there is something wrong with people protesting in an estate where they do not live shows scant understanding of how democracy works and how the law works. Let me explain. Irish Water meters are being installed on public property. Indeed, the Taoiseach has said as much in the Dáil. In democracy, members of the public have the right to contest and protest what the State does with public property, at the very minimum..
Based on these principles, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if you got out of your scratcher at 4am and travelled from Mizen Head to protest in Dublin: it is the same as if the meter were being installed right outside your own gaff.
Thus objecting to protesters on the basis that “they’re not from round here” has as much sense as saying that Enda Kenny has no right as Taoiseach to be making decisions affecting Dublin because he is from the Wesht.
The Irish Water installation is not happening across the country on the foot of a process whereby residents of a particular area have freely decided whether or not they want them installed in their community; it was a decision centrally taken, regardless of whether the residents of any particular area objected. The Troika and the Irish government are as indifferent to the wishes of the protesters in Clare Hall as they are to the fearful curtain twitchers who look outside and hallucinate about rampaging vigilantes.
In democracy, the claim that an entity such as Irish Water has ‘unshakable legal status and validity’, to use the Chinese Communist Party’s term in objecting to the legitimacy of the protests in Hong Kong, is only true for as long and as far as the demos consents to it.