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.

Free speech and euthanasia

On Thursday 9th April I headed off to CUH to attend the scheduled yet controversial lecture entitled “Why Euthanasia should be Legalised” by Professor Len Doyle. I was a few minutes late having enjoyed the spring walk and arrived to discover a very tense and unpleasant atmosphere coming from the auditorium. I was advised not to enter because the room had been taken over by an angry crowd of protesters who had intimidated the speaker into silence. I could hear for myself calls of “murderer” and “Nazi” coming from the room, as people who had attended to hear out the Professor quietly left looking shaken and upset. Within ten minutes the protesters had the auditorium to themselves; they were happily shouting about their own views and saying the rosary.

I have seen many protests, and would support anyone’s right to protest against those things that they disagree with but that right to protest needs to be balanced against others right to free speech. The worrying thing recently in Ireland has been, as Eoin O’Dell has pointed out in his post “Another Hecklers’ veto”, that free speech appears to be subject to a degree of successful attack at the moment. This is happening both on campus, note the events surrounding the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at NUI Galway and holocaust denier and historian David Irving at UCC and off campus with pensioners heckling senior politicians during the medical card protests.

The protesters on Thursday lay claim to the Constitution, religion and the rosary to support their aggressive and intimidating action. Clearly the Constitution protects free speech, even speech we don’t want to hear. And whilst religion may give people a sense of self-righteous certainty in their beliefs it does not mean that they have the right to silence others. A letter published in the Irish Times on Monday illustrates that sense of certainty in denying a claim that debate about euthanasia should be allowed. The author, erroneously likening it to child abuse:

“Madam, – The cancellation of the lecture on euthanasia in Cork University Hospital last week is to be welcomed. A society which has lost its sense of outrage is effectively morally dead. Thankfully, as was demonstrated on Thursday, Irish people still possess a moral compass and an instinct for when the most fundamental values in society are under threat…. We don’t generally debate the merits of ideas which we wholeheartedly reject as a society, such as, for example, child abuse or infanticide. So it is disingenuous of the HSE to state that it does not support euthanasia. If it does not support euthanasia, then why is it spending taxpayers’ money bringing over one of its most vocal proponents?” (more)

The point about free speech is that there needs to be a debate within any democratic country even about things that the majority of the population may find difficult. We do not get to choose who has free speech on the basis of whether we like the topic. As Ferdinand von Prondzynski has written in his blog “Speaking freely”, it is not the case that societies can pick who they want to hear from:

“Freedom of speech is almost certainly the cornerstone of democracy. The right and the ability to say what we want to say, however uncomfortable it may be and whatever the consequences, is indispensable to freedom more generally. All dictators will seek to restrict free speech and the free availability of uncensored information as their very first measure.”

As for the debate on euthanasia, in a comment in today’s Guardian Professor Doyle points to one very real reason why it does need to be talked about, even if most of us will have very strong reservations about it:

“One aspect of my work has always been to encourage clinicians to reflect on decisions about not providing life saving treatment or about its withdrawal from severely brain-damaged patients. I argue that while such practices are actually legal, their current clinical justifications lack moral coherence. This results in some vulnerable patients being put at risk of a lingering death and great suffering. I believe that, in the name of compassion, there should be a serious debate about whether or not a policy of highly-regulated euthanasia might help to solve this problem. Currently, medical practices that are undertaken to foreshorten life lack sufficient transparency, and we know from the reports of relatives that patients who cannot protect themselves may die in varying degrees of distress.”

We know that doctors make decisions all the time regarding medical treatment that can impact upon someone’s life expectancy. My interest here is not to debate the issue but to point out to the opponents of euthanasia that life and death decisions regarding people in Ireland are already being made by the medical profession as a matter of reality. Whilst people may not like to think about it, may not like to acknowledge the difficulties surround modern medicine, the truth is that all countries need to be able to engage in debate regarding challenging and often disturbing issues. And those people who do debate them should be able to do so without fear of threats to their safety.

Of course, on a practical point, the HSE, CUH and the Gardai should have been a little more clued up as to what might happen on the day of the lecture. Particularly as one of the local radio stations had been happily whipping up public anger in the run up to the event. In the end the lecture was cancelled “in the interests of public safety”. Free speech needs to be defended on campus and off, in hospitals and on the streets. Perhaps the next time the HSE choose to invite a distinguished overseas speaker on the topic they might think about how best to organise such an event so as to deal politely but effectively with those, such as Youth Defence, who prefer silence over debate.