Opinion growth in street protests is to be welcomed

Tuesday, 10th March, 2015 2:01pm

Opinion growth in street protests is to be welcomed

By Eoghan MacConnell

While I may be in the minority, I have been heartened of late to witness the people of Ireland take to the streets to voice their discontent. 

For many years it would appear that the Irish have borne hardships without resorting to public demonstrations. Indeed, while many would be vocal about their displeasure in forums such as the pub or local club, few seemed ready to take action and exercise their civic right to protest until recent times.

One theory on why mass demonstrations haven’t been as prevalent as one might expect, can be found in Ireland’s long history of emigration.

Sadly, emigration has been seen by many in Ireland as the first option when times are difficult and options limited. This may have acted as a sort of pressure release valve, preventing protests by those most disaffected.

However, emigration has been at shockingly high levels in the past five or more years and yet the people of Ireland are starting to hit the streets in record numbers. 

While it may have brought the biggest numbers on to the streets, the water charges issue is just one of many that have led to protesters taking to the streets in recent years.

After many years of austerity, some of the protests are no doubt the manifestation of anger over the relentless cuts, tax hikes and charges faced by the nation since the disastrous banking collapse.

The people of Ballyhea in Co Cork are a good example. They have been protesting against the bondholder bailout every week for the past four years and held an fourth anniversary protest at the weekend.

Whatever the cause, the protests appear to now be a more common reaction to a range of impositions. What’s more, it appears they are being used with growing success.

The Government has been forced into U-turns on a number of issues, most notably on the water charges package but also on other issues including medical cards, an issue the previous administration also capitalated on.

It’s not just the Government either, a recent campaign to save the Ulster Bank branch in Ferbane, Co Offaly-while ultimately not achieving its aim of retaining the bank branch - managed to force concessions from the institution in relation to alternative services and led to discussions about the future use of the bank building.

The four-month campaign to save Ferbane’s Ulster Bank took a lot of effort, time and money on the part of the organisers and the local community. Around 1,000 people attended a public march in Ferbane in November.

This was followed by a public protest involving several hundred in Athlone. Campaigners had to take time out from work, hold public meetings and spend money on banners and flyers.

Rural Ireland in particular could look to the campaign in Ferbane as an example of what can be achieved if a community stands together.

The people of Abbeyleix in Co Laois took a similar approach when the HSE sought to close down their community nursing unit in November of 2011.

The community there banded together and fought the closure, putting pressure on local elected representatives and holding public meetings and large marches through Abbeyleix.

Four years on no resolution has been found, but the nursing unit remains open.

Those opposed to the construction of wind farms and pylons are also lobbying politicians, organising public meetings and marching through the streets with varying degrees of success.

Last year, wind farm opponents and pylon opposition groups held meetings with a view to working in tandem on their campaigns.

There is a lot of common ground between the groups and both have a major issue with Ireland’s planning regime. Both groups are determined, organised and faithful to their cause.

When the recent campaigns are examined, there is one common thread that runs through all of them. That common factor, and what I suspect has changed the face of protests in Ireland, is the effective use of social media.

In all of the recent high profile public campaigns, social media has been used as a tool for organising events, gaining volunteers and connecting like minded groups and individuals in the pursuit of a common goal.

Social media has been used to great effect in linking anti windfarm groups, often located in rural and sometimes remote areas the length and breadth of the country. It helped forged links between their groups and anti pylon protesters.

Likewise, social media was used to great effect by anti-water charge campaigners, who were able to successfully organise simultaneous protests across the country as well as a major protest in Dublin.

Whatever the cause, it would seem that the people of Ireland are now connected like never before. It also seems clear that a lot can be achieved once a community or group remains unified and committed to their campaign.

Whether its in opposition to water charges, nursing home closures, pylon proposals or post office closures, the people of Ireland have a right and, I believe, are right to take to the streets and have their voices heard.

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