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Response: 'I have concerns about Take Back the City, but Labour will stand among those who support it'

I fully support peaceful protest and direct action as a legitimate form of democratic participation, writes Brendan Howlin.

Brendan Howlin Leader, Labour Party

On Friday, Siobhan O’Donoghue of Uplift wrote a column about why civil disobedience is a strong weapon in the fight for a better Ireland. In the column, she criticised Labour leader Brendan Howlin for his comments on the Take Back the City movement. Speaking about the occupation of vacant buildings in Dublin city centre, Howlin had said: “I don’t think that it is a solution”. This is his response to Siobhan’s piece. 

SIOBHÁN O’DONOGHUE IS wrong, but I think she knows that. I do support direct action and I support activism. 

My very first campaign before I joined any political party was as an activist in the 1970s anti-nuclear campaign. That campaign involved picketing of the ESB offices, occupation of ESB land and of course co-organising the monster meeting at Carnsore Point, County Wexford. We expected 5,000, but were delighted when 40,000 people turned up to protest against building a nuclear power plant!

My support for direct action did not diminish and led to my decision to propose a campaigns unit when we reformed the structure of the Labour party two years ago. I most certainly envisage Labour party members actively campaigning on major social policy issues, as Labour has done in every generation.

In relation to Take Back the City, I have some concerns about the occupation of private dwellings and where that might lead. I don’t support holding public classes on how to break and enter property. I have serious concerns about reports that extremists outside the movement have used facial recognition software to identify individual Gardaí and to issue death threats and racial abuse online.

But I am happy to repeat in strong terms my full and complete support for peaceful protest and direct action as a legitimate form of democratic participation. I recognise the sincere motivation of those who believe that the Take Back the City occupations are the most appropriate course of action in the face of our housing crisis. And Labour will stand among them.

I certainly don’t argue that we should leave everything up to us politicians. But politicians do play an important role in engaging in dialogue and finding workable compromises, which is complementary to direct action.

‘We need people to keep raising their voices’ 

For example, one of the mistakes we made was to allow the abolition of town-level government. Labour want to rectify that and next week I will launch our Bill to restore town councils in every defined urban areas with at least 5,000 inhabitants. Town-level government is more responsive to people’s immediate needs and provides clear accountability for money spent and actions taken (or not taken). For example, town councils would have power to compulsory purchase derelict and vacant buildings for housing.

At a time where some people are losing faith in the political process to meet their needs, we need to give back control through strong local democracy. But the restoration will only happen if citizens raise their voices and seek those decision-making powers in their localities.

One of the questions about direct action movement is always who gets to speak on behalf of the movement, and how much of a mandate do they have to make claims on behalf of everyone who took part in a protest or demonstration. Often it is the shrillest voices who get heard, not necessarily the most representative.

It’s perhaps popular, as Siobhán O’Donogue does, to claim that elected politicians turn critical problems ‘into a game’, but I can assure you that pushing for robust legislation in the Dáil to legalise abortion, for which Labour campaigned on the streets for 35 years, is no game. Likewise, Labour’s proposed laws on protecting tenants, prohibiting micro-plastics and regulating online harassment are responses to the demands and needs of the population.

And we do need people to keep raising their voices and to make clear demands of the political system.

Brendan Howlin is the leader of the Labour party 

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Brendan Howlin  / Leader, Labour Party

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