Labour Party Learns that the People are Revolting - Direct Action should be Encouraged

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Thousands of people marched from Eyre Square in Galway to the Labour Party conference at NUIG on Saturday. People had travelled from all over the country to show their opposition to the household tax and other attacks on people’s living standards. The story that made the evening news however, was one of the several hundred strong breakaway protest that reached the doors of the conference centre.

While the main body of the protest was being marshalled to the front of a pre-erected stage to hear a second wave of political speeches, a small breakaway made their way to where the conference was taking place. While unsuccessfully trying to breach the Garda barricades some of them, along with a few journalists were pepper sprayed.

News of the incident spread to the crowd in front of the stage and people began to filter down to see what was going on. Before long a crowd had gathered in front of the bridge that lead to the conference centre. With people bottlenecked on the bridge in front of the barricades it was inevitable that some pushing and shoving would break out and it duly did. It lead to people near the front pushing forward and others sensing a chance to breakthrough the police line rushed to join them.

Around fifty people, some being carried along by the sheer momentum of the surge, broke through to the other side and rushed through the car park to the building where the conference was taking place. While the first fifty held a sit down protest, the rest of the crowd was contained by Gardaí behind the re-erected barricade.

Noting the small number of Gardaí protecting the barrier, some of those who had made the initial breakthrough decided to assist the rest of the crowd. Around ten protesters ran back towards the bridge and began to tear down the barricades. The crowd on the other side began to surge forward and minor scuffles broke out with those guarding the pass. The small garda numbers were completely insufficient to contain the crowd and they eventually retreated, conceding defeat. There was jubilation among the crowd as people of all ages and backgrounds first ran and then strolled leisurely towards the conference.

While the breakaway chanted at Labour Party delegates through the glass front of the building, over a thousand others were lined up in front of the main stage. Stewards, upon instruction from a minority of activists were trying to prevent people from joining the breakaway. Some speakers from the stage referred to a minority causing trouble or hijacking the event. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Photographs and videos of the breakaway show clearly that there were people in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties involved. There were students, turf cutters, campaign members who had not been politically active before as well as the usual array of political activists from all organisations and none.

Branding those who took direct action to reach the conference building as troublemakers was divisive and prevented more people from going to join them. While some events at the conference were delayed or cancelled, a bigger crowd surrounding the building could have completely shut it down.

One of the concerns of those who attempted to keep people away from the breakaway was that there were elderly and disabled people present. However, it would have been perfectly sufficient to warn people of any dangers and let them make up their own minds. In fact, after the second wave of protesters got through the barricades, there were no more scuffles and it would have been a perfectly safe environment for almost anyone.

It must be clear that the division between the political activists on the stage and those participating in direct action was not along organisational lines. Activists from an array of groups all took part along with hundreds of non-politically aligned protesters. The division was between those who successfully gauged the mood of the crowd and those who were afraid to scare people off with militant action.

The irony is that the thing that has made most people leave protests early over the last few years has been the baffling array of podium speakers making the same speech over and over. The dwindling numbers at the national stadium towards the end of the rally on the twenty fourth of March were testament that it is boredom, not direct action that turns people off.

The division in attitude to the breakaway is something that should be discussed by local groups in the campaign. The full facts of what happened should be made available to those who were not there and delegates should represent the views of their local groups at regional and national level.

The type of direct action taken on Saturday should not just be accepted as something that is the preserve of a small number of militants; it should be encouraged as an effective method of protest that is accessible to anyone who wants to take part. While the household tax can ultimately only be defeated by mass non payment, physical direct action can increase people’s confidence and weaken the resolve of those in power. It must be said though, that Saturday’s action was only possible because of insufficient Garda numbers and at future protests where the public order unit is now more likely to be deployed would not be realistic unless numbers involved are much bigger.

Inside the conference centre, Labour Party delegates were clearly shaken. Unlike the Fine Gael delegates who taunted protesters with hand gestures at their Ard Fheis from behind Garda lines, their government colleagues were asked to stay away from the front of the building. On the Six-One news, unelected MEP, Emer Costello accused protesters of being undemocratic “bullyboys”. The irony here should not be lost on the million households who have refused to register for the household tax.

For the last few months the government has been bullying householders with threats of courts, fines and extraction of the tax from pay and benefits. The Labour Party has colluded with Fine Gael to implement a programme of cuts that is making every day life unbearable for millions while they use private security and a police force armed with pepper spray to defend their junkets and the privilege of a tiny minority. They pick the pockets of ordinary people to line the pockets of the parasites whose greed caused the crisis this country currently faces.

The anger displayed by a diverse array of protesters on Saturday and the refusal of a million households to pay this regressive tax shows that the fight back against this government’s pro big business policies has well and truly begun. We are not Greece, nor are we Spain but we can agree with the leadership of the Labour Party on one thing; the people are revolting. The onus is now on activists in the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes to tap into the popular mood. A renewed emphasis is needed on building membership and activism in local areas, organising local events, reinforcing the confidence of non-payers and ensuring that a grass roots democratic structure is implemented. With the government on the ropes we simply can not squander the opportunity to land a knock-out blow and record a first victory for the millions over the millionaires in nearly two decades.  

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