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Column: Does the Occupy movement have a future?

Occupy’s moment may have passed it by – but that is not to say that it could not have a lasting impact, writes Dr Sarah Campbell.

Sarah Campbell

THE OCCUPY ENCAMPMENT on the plaza outside Central Bank on Dame Street in Dublin was removed in an early morning operation by the Gardai on 8 March 2012. The camp was initially set up as a symbolic representation of discontent and came on the back of a year of uprisings and unrest. But the Occupy movement in Ireland has now reached a critical juncture.

History has shown that when a movement reaches a juncture like this, there are a number of options open to it, and how the movement reacts at this crucial point will determine its future and level of success. What options are available to the Occupy movement in Ireland? It is difficult for social movements to sustain themselves for a long existence. Unless they enter into politics, movements tend to, when examining the historical precedents, decline and fizzle out. Popular power arises quickly, reaches a peak and soon evaporates or gives way to repression and routine.

2011 was the year of revolution. Popular uprisings erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, which appeared to spell the end of dictatorships and the triumph of democracy, although time will tell if that is to be the case. As of November 2011, the Occupy movement had spread (physically with Occupy camps and virtually via social media and internet forums) to 951 cities in eighty-two countries.

References are frequently made to 1968 but how relevant are they? It is true that there are many similarities between what is occurring now and what happened in 1968 and also 1989. These similarities should not just be noted for the objectives the movements had in common, but also the strategies that were adopted. As the Occupy movement assesses what its future tactics should be, it is an opportune time to examine what strategies have been tried and tested in the twentieth century and which were the most successful.

Social movements provide weapons for the powerless. Victor Hugo once stated that an invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come. Social movements and popular contention tend to flare up during economic downturns when people’s livelihoods and identities are negatively affected. This was true of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) (1967-c.1981). After a period of rapid social and political change after the Second World War, where more public resources were available, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw a period of increased unemployment and socio-economic concerns, which, for the most part, centred around housing.

The same is true of Latin America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Venezuela, the urban masses exploded over neoliberal austerity measures imposed by the government, and in Argentina similar looting erupted.

Social movements can take time to garner support or combat public apathy…

Occupy constitutes only a small social movement. It has resonant slogans and appeal beyond the numbers of its activists, but it is at best in the early stages of its development. However, it took eighteen months before NICRA began making any inroads in generating support or combating public apathy. In 1965, the Derry Unemployed Action Committee (DUAC) was founded. Such was the apathy of anti-unionists in Northern Ireland at the time that only a handful of people participated in the inaugural meeting. However, gradually the DUAC expanded with each small successful protest. Public meetings were picketed, council meetings disrupted, teach-ins held, and an unemployed workers’ club opened.

The Occupy movement has already had precedents for some of its tactics in Ireland. When a group of people pitched tents on the plaza outside Central Bank on Dame Street on 8 October 2011, for many the scene was not a new one. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, which began its protest on 17 September, the tent was already a meme and the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent’ already popular. But the ’68 and ’69 generation in Ireland would connect this to two earlier protests – that of the Caledon Squatting in Tyrone in 1968, and the Battle of Hume Street in Dublin in 1969.

The occupation of public spaces is symbolic, challenging as it does the ownership of that space, or to gain attention for a particular issue. The occupation of a house by Austin Currie (Nationalist MP), Patrick Gildernew and Joe Campbell in Caledon, Co. Tyrone highlighted the problem of discrimination in housing in Northern Ireland. The squat at Caledon in June 1968 was the point at which NICRA began a mass civil disobedience campaign in earnest.

In 1969, students and lecturers from UCD’s Department of Architecture, which was then at Earlsfort Terrace, took up the mantle of protecting Georgian Dublin and occupied a building at Number 45 Stephen’s Green, which was earmarked for demolition and the building of new office blocks there. The occupation at Hume Street in 1969 led to a change in preservation policy by the government in the decades that followed.

What should Occupy do if it wants to succeed in making an impact?

There is a possibility that Occupy’s moment has passed it by. But, that is not to say that the Occupy movement could not have a lasting impact. Both the civil rights movement in the US and Northern Ireland had huge and vital impacts on their respective societies in terms of laws and reform. History shows that there are two basic aims that the Occupy movement in Ireland, needs to proceed with if it wishes to succeed in making an impact.

Firstly, it needs to articulate a more concrete set of demands that will have resonance with a large section of the population. ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is a gripping slogan, but it’s not enough to sustain interest and support. Movements with more specific goals often have a better chance at outright success. NICRA managed to achieve most of their political objectives by 1970.

Secondly, in order to achieve some of its objectives before fizzling out, Occupy also needs to initiate a mass civil disobedience campaign, which although may be short-lived, has historically been proven to succeed. Widespread non-violent civil disobedience has perhaps been the most successful of all aspects of collective action in the twentieth century. The civil rights movement in the US used boycotts, Freedom Rides, sit-ins and marches to highlight injustice. Similarly, NICRA borrowed these actions and were successful in achieving the political aims the movement set out as well as forcing the issue of discrimination onto the British political agenda and into the national debate.

The unusual thing about Occupy though is that not only is it an occupation of space, but also time. We need to think of ‘revolution’ as a long, complex, unfolding human process and not reduce each act of contention to a scattered symptom of restlessness, with no bigger or wider implications and support. With this in mind, therefore, lessons from history show that now is not the time to scale down, but to think, and act, big.

Dr Sarah Campbell is a part-time lecturer and tutor in the School of History and Archives in UCD. This is an abstract from a longer article that was written for ‘History and Policy’ on historyhub.ie, a new initiative by the School of History and Archives in UCD.

About the author:

Sarah Campbell

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