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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 17 October, 2018
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'Brendan Howlin was wrong: civil disobedience is a valid weapon in the fight for a better Ireland'

Those who benefit from the way Ireland is organised would love us to believe we have no power, that we can’t win, that there’s no reason to act, writes Siobhan O’Donoghue.

Siobhán O'Donoghue

WHEN BRENDAN HOWLIN said earlier this week that civil disobedience is not ‘the solution’, he was effectively saying we should leave it up to politicians to sort out our problems.

Imagine telling that to the suffragettes who refused to accept unjust laws, or Martin Luther King when he led the US civil rights movement, or workers withholding their labour in the face of oppressive working conditions. What about pilots who refuse to fly refugees to destinations where they face danger?

People power, whether it’s civil disobedience, direct action or collective action, lifts the lid on the inertia of our political system. It disrupts the ‘normal way’ business is done – where critical problems facing society are turned into a game to be kicked about by politicians who score points off each other, while the rest of us are expected to stand on the sidelines as spectators.

The subtext of Howlin’s assertion that civil disobedience isn’t effective is that somehow it’s not connected to a wider plan or focused on change. By and large though, acts of civil disobedience are far from random and usually have a tactical or strategic focus.

Why those in power dislike civil disobedience

When acts of civil disobedience force themselves onto the stage they are often reported in the media as spontaneous, isolated events that have erupted out of nowhere. The ground work and organisation that connects individual acts of civil disobedience with a longer term goal is too often unseen or overlooked. How many of us know that Rosa Parks was a key figure as part of a larger, coordinated strategy for challenging segregation in the US?

History tells us that social or political change does not work in predictable ways or follow a clear path. In many ways this is part of the true power of civil disobedience. Its disruptive impact offers the possibility of pushing into the open new ideas and ways of shaking the system out of inertia.

Those in power will nearly always attempt to reframe the actions of non-traditional self-organising groups in negative ways. The responses to the peaceful occupation of vacant buildings in Dublin leaves little doubt that the age-old pattern of attempting to squash and criminalise dissent is alive and well in modern day Ireland.

Direct action including civil disobedience is often reframed as ‘mob rule’, mainly because the powerful feel uncomfortable, even unsafe, when targeted by new ideas and people power. It’s easier to dismiss the ideas that a ‘mob’ puts forth than to meaningfully engage with the people they are meant to serve.

‘Take Back The City offers hope’

We need to talk about hope too. Civil disobedience captures our attention and offers hope. It is the magic ingredient we all need to sustain movements for change that are owned and fed by the many – not just the privileged insiders.

In the face of so many deplorable and completely unnecessary crises, be it housing, health, ecological or poverty, it is understandable to feel a sense of desperation. Those who benefit from the way Ireland is organised would love us to believe we have no power, that we can’t win, that there’s no reason to act.

What grassroots groups like Take Back The City do is reverse the tranquilising impact much of the debate about housing induces. They embody the opposite of grandstanding and cynical politics. They offer hope without sugarcoating the scale of the challenge in tackling the housing crisis. They have surfaced serious questions about how those in power, including the police and property speculators, are held accountable – not to mention why property and land hoarding is so widespread. In short they have done our democracy a service. Long may it continue.

Siobhan O’Donoghue is founding director of Uplift, a people powered campaigning community of 175,000 people.

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