Protest is not “self-indulgent” by Fiona Donson

The cost of policing protests at the Corrib pipeline at the Shell refinery in Mayo was highlighted earlier this week in written answer to a Parliamentary question tabled by Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibin. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter reported that over €14.5 million were spent on policing operations between 2006 and 2011. The breakdown of costs includes overtime and allowances, travel and subsistence, employers PRSI, and other expenses incurred by the Gardaí. The costs do not include basic pay of members of the Gardaí.

The costs prompted Minister Shatter to comment on legitimacy of protest in today’s current economic climate. Having set out the costs he went on to state that

“at a time when many people are under severe financial pressure because of our very difficult economic circumstances, it is scandalous that some protesters behave in a self indulgent way that has no regard for the rights of others. “

The idea of protest being “self-indulgent” is attractive to politicians. The engagement of ordinary people in sustained campaigns of direct action and other forms protest offers a challenge to the established political system. Whilst they publicly accept that protest can be a legitimate form of political engagement it is also something to be limited and controlled, confined to the margins. Thus whilst we have a “right to protest” as citizens by engaging in free speech and free assembly (Article 40.6.1̊) this is restricted in a number of ways, not least by the limits set out in the constitution of public order. Firstly the law sets limits on protest including how, when and where you can protest. This is part of a balancing process between the right to protest and issues of public order, crime prevention and public safety.

In addition, private citizens and businesses who are the subject of protest can use the law to counter the harm done by such actions– actions for defamation, interference with trade, injunctions to prevent protest camps etc are common legal procedures used to control the troublesome public speech of protesters.

Beyond the legal restraints placed on protest there is also a public dialogue that engages in a consistent undermining of the legitimacy of such actions, a reframing of the legitimate as illegitimate. This is done by diminishing the credibility of those involved in protests, something which can clearly be seen in Alan Shatters comments when he claimed that many of those involved in the protests are engaging in “protest tourism” (the dreaded professional protester).

This attack on protest is further developed by suggesting that involvement in political activism of this sort is contrary to the national interest because it requires the spending of taxpayers money to police it.

“[Protest] requires the expenditure of a substantial amount of taxpayers’ money which could be devoted to far better purposes …. In addition, this type of behaviour runs completely contrary to the public and national interest and furthermore will act as a disincentive to inward investment and the development of our national resources.”

Both the Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach are on record upholding the right of the individual to engage in peaceful and legitimate protest. However, that right involves limitations based on assessments as to the peaceful nature and the legitimacy of action. Such assessments are not based on set criteria. The question is how far they leave space in our democratic state for dissent outside the regular orderly political engagement mechanisms of voting and writing letters (or blogs).

We can talk about respecting the right to protest but without some substance to that respect and a shift in perspective that leave space for political activism it is ultimately meaningless.