Niall Crowley and John O’Keeffe on street protest, democracy and violence in the Irish Times and Bill’s comments

Are street politics and direct action protests against individuals legitimate in a democracy?

A scene from yesterday’s student protest in Dublin city centre yesterday afternoon.
Photograph: Eric Luke

DOUBLE TAKE : The wealthy have the ear of government, but the disadvantaged have virtually no voice, writes NIALL CROWLEY
YOU DON’T get to see many bondholders throwing eggs at the Minister for Finance. You rarely have bankers, establishment economists or holders of wealth taking to the streets. You don’t get angry calls from property developers to the media chat lines.

You do get students taking to the streets. You get older people, the unemployed, the low paid.
Access to power and influence is unequal. This has to be the starting point for any debate about the legitimacy of protest. The bondholders, the bankers, the establishment economists and the holders of wealth have the ear of government. The disadvantaged have virtually no voice in our democracy.
There will always be debate as to the boundaries of protest. However, this debate must not be used to block the right to protest or to diminish the value of dissent.
We do live in a representative democracy. However, within any democracy, dissent and protest are important and legitimate. They are a source of creativity and change. They provide a touchstone against which to assess political decision-making. Yet we have a Government that is averse to dissent. This Government has quietly gone about silencing dissent by removing funding from community groups that offered disadvantaged communities a voice.
We also live in a very closed and exclusive representative democracy. People do not feel that they have any voice or say in the major decisions that are now shaping their lives. Protest and dissent become inevitable in a context where people feel their future is being subordinated to the needs of the banks and international bondholders.
Democratic reform is required to establish a more open democracy that does not limit people’s participation to the casting of a vote every five years. The current model of representative democracy is failing us.
The Claiming our Future event last Saturday in the RDS brought together a large and diverse group of people. All were angry. Many have engaged in protest events and activities and will continue to do so. All were engaged in the constructive search for a new future.
The event offered evidence of a hunger among people from across different sectors of society to have a say in defining an alternative future for Ireland. It offered a telling demonstration of a more participative form of politics.
Over 1,100 people spent the day in discussion at 100 tables. They worked to agree a set of values to shape the Ireland that must emerge from this crisis and to hammer out a policy agenda to give expression to these values.
Five core values to shape this future Ireland were agreed. Participation was one of these values. People want to have a say.
Eight key policy choices were identified for Claiming our Future. One of these was to reform representative political institutions to enhance equality, accountability, capacity and efficiency. Another was to develop new participatory forms of engagement by people in public governance. People want democratic reform.
We need a democracy that engages the participation of all its people, that accords equality of influence to all and that is comfortable with protest and dissent. We need this if we are ever to move beyond crisis.
Niall Crowley is an independent equality expert and author of Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel

Violence is, by definition, the enemy of democracy and can never be justified , writes JOHN O’KEEFE
THE RECENT paint attack on Minister for Health Mary Harney by a member of Éirígí reveals not simply an individual’s woeful misunderstanding of the meaning of the word democracy.
Of more critical import is the level of support such behaviour seems now to attract among a proportion of the population who imagine that democracy has become a movable feast that can be amended at will to incorporate designer violence and beyond.
The excuse of course is one of general frustration or political malaise, and the now tiresome mantra of a Government whose sole interest is in bailing out the bankers.
True as these political observations may be, the distinctions drawn by the paint attacker, Cllr Louise Minihan, between the violence she heaped on a Government Minister and other types of violent protest are risible.
The former Sinn Féin councillor claimed, without any hint of irony, that the attack was symbolic of the “blood on the hands” of Harney over cuts to health services.
Her feeble thesis on Liveline on RTÉ Radio 1 later that afternoon was firmly predicated on the notion that all bets were now off, because Harney had ruined the health service and in the process the lives of many.
Minihan’s version of democracy lite may well receive applause among a certain section of the frustrated people of Ireland, but it shows little understanding of how democracy and violence are, by definition, sworn enemies.
Marching, protesting, is part of democracy. Throwing paint, throwing anything – in fact any form of violence – is not.
Of course, a sort of pick-and-mix approach to democracy in Ireland is nothing new, albeit that recently it appears to have even touched the chattering classes. Minihan’s excuse is well worn.
The people have no choice; they have no alternative but to resort to violence; the Government has failed them, therefore democracy has failed them.
Yet this is wholly to miss the point. Governments are temporary aberrations whom we can elect or deselect every five years or sooner – that’s the democratic process, and that is how we vent our disapproval.
Surprising as it may appear to some, true democracy is a relatively straightforward system of government.
It is “rule by the people” held through free and fair elections.
It never involves guns, bullets or paint. Reinventing a military wing of democracy is not an option.
That is not democracy; that is anarchy, which operates under an entirely different set of rules – rules, incidentally, that Minihan and her motley band of supporters would doubtless run very quickly away from.
Minihan may have received plaudits on Liveline . Doubtless her colleagues in Éirígí also patted her on the back for “revising” democracy.
Sadly for her, the criminal justice system took a different view and a file is now being prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Not very heroic really. In fact, Harney has now received a wave of sympathy she would not otherwise have enjoyed.
You see, political violence is not just anathema to democracy. It’s also just plain stupid.
John O’Keeffe is a criminologist and director for the Centre of Restorative Justice, Hibernia College, Dublin

Bill Tormey writes: Street protests are an adjunct to democracy in that people with deeply held grievances can protest and bring issues more forceably to the attention of the general population. It is true that the rich do not engage in street protests when their rights or feelings are infringed. Usually they head off the the courts and sue, grabbit and runne. Or they lobby and use financial muscle to get what they want. Or they move money offshore. Lets have no further discussions abouit the 1980s without reference to the piles of money held by Irish People off shore which fueled the receipts of the 1990s tax amnesties. – yes Ruairi – plural- I agree with both of the above contributions with regard to violence. Neither address the Garda behaviour in provoking young hotheads to lose the run of themselves. Horses and dogs show how the public sphere is being coursened in this country. I gave my reply to Eirigi in the UK Queen debates at Dublin City Council recently. Satire clearly sailed right over their heads. I stand by this republic and the rule of law.

Louise Minihan can stand in the next Local election in her area as Eirigi. She was elected as Sinn Fein. My guess is that Sinn Fein will regain the seat.
Dixon of Dock Green put it “Evening’ All”