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Opinion: We have every right to be angry over water charges – but not to be violent

Violence and intimidation against elected representatives – or anyone else – is not the way to agitate for fair treatment.

Donal O'Keeffe

TWO WEEKS AGO, over a hundred thousand people took to the streets to protest peacefully against water charges. Tomorrow, the Government will reveal its revised proposed charges. If reports are to be believed, those charges have been revised downward considerably. It seems that peaceful protest delivers results.

Saturday saw frightening scenes in Jobstown which were far from peaceful and which may well have the effect of backfiring completely against the anti-water charges campaign.

An Tánaiste, Joan Burton, found herself trapped in her car while hundreds of protesters banged on the car shouting misogynistic and homophobic abuse at her, at her staff and at the attending Gardai. Labour’s Dublin City Councillor Rebecca Moynihan tweeted “my female friend was kicked in the back, pelted with eggs, missiles thrown at her head.”

As of this morning, Paul Murphy TD, who denies that he was leading the protest – even though he led the chanting through his megaphone – still maintains what happened in Jobstown was a peaceful protest. Murphy is not new to politics and is old enough to know that bellowing “PEACEFUL PROTEST!” through his megaphone does not make mob rule a peaceful protest.

Perhaps we should look for leadership elsewhere.

It’s not about water – or, at least, it’s not just about water

“Well it’s not about water, is it?” the Taoiseach told reporters on Sunday, in that smug, schoolteachery way of his that makes me want to join the Socialist Workers Party.

Enda followed that piece of wisdom with a knowing nod – not unlike Peter Sellers in “Being There” – and then the Oracle spoke no more.

Presumably the Taoiseach meant that this is really about the Anti-Austerity Alliance’s bidding war with Sinn Fein to claim the hearts and minds of disaffected left-wing voters. But he’s right, in a way: it’s not about water, or at least it’s not just about water. It’s about everything. It’s about six years of austerity. It’s about paying more and more and getting less and less in return. It’s about the sheer injustice of our friends in Europe bullying us into beggaring ourselves and our grandchildren so European banks could be spared.

It’s about respite care. It’s about rape crisis centres being forced to close. It’s about every single cack-handed, insensitive cut. It’s about Skype conversations with children whom we don’t know when we’ll be able to hug again.

It’s about figures-massaging shell-game workfare schemes like JobBridge and Tus. It’s about minimum wage workers on zero hour contracts who no longer qualify for rent allowance. It’s about teachers, already at the pin of their collars, who bring extra food to school because they cannot bear to see the children in their classrooms going hungry.

It’s about TDs earning ninety grand a year and the average deputy claiming €147,000 in expenses during the lifetime of this Dáil. It’s about stupid remarks about mobile phones and people leaving the lights on all night. It’s about “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election”, “Not one red cent” and “Labour’s Way”. It’s about John Bruton’s €365 a day State pension.

It’s about a Government that, after only three and a half years in office, seems as completely out of touch as its unlamented predecessor.

It’s about not having any money in our pockets and now being told that there’s just one more thing.

And it is about water, Taoiseach. It’s about waste, it’s about cronyism and it’s about yet another gigantic, bonus-culture quango that has already cost us hundreds of millions without a single pipe being repaired or a drop of water metered.

We do not have the right to be violent

We’re angry and we have every right to be angry. What we don’t have the right to be is violent. A hundred thousand people marched a fortnight ago and, though as mad as hell at the Government, they protested peacefully and with dignity and never once resorted to violence. That’s people power and that’s inspiring. It might be working.

We should all be very careful about listening to those who would stoke the mob. On Saturday a democratically-elected representative and her staff were intimidated, spat at and abused. People were assaulted and injured. It could well have been a lot worse.

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Personally, I was genuinely shocked to see equivocation from some of my fellow Twitter liberals about what happened in Jobstown. People who were the first out of the traps to criticise anti-abortion activists for harassing politicians seemed ambivalent about condemning the weekend’s violence outright. That’s downright shameful.

(Cue comments from people pretending online to be disgruntled Labour supporters. “What about all the lives lost because of Labour TRAITORS?!” “What about me being STUNNED that a politician told me what I wanted to hear? STUNNED I am.” As a friend said, there’s a real gap in the political market for an Irish Whataboutery Party.)

Sunday saw a protester outside the Mansion House apparently attempt to throw herself on or in front of the Taoiseach’s moving car. What happened next, if the evidence of filmed footage is to be believed, was shocking. Three Gardai intervened and, without any obvious regard for the protester’s safety, flung her out of the way, causing her to seemingly impact heavily with a bollard. The woman was left hurt and visibly distressed on the side of the street. (She today told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that a Garda, unseen by the camera, came between her and the bollard and that his knee protected her head from the impact. “He saved my life,” she said.)

Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, reported that his office had received a bomb threat. It is hard to avoid the sense now that we are on the edge of real darkness.

Nobody with a heart or a brain would deny that this Government needs to realise, and fast, the true dangers of running an economy rather than a society – but those of us who value our democracy, regardless of our politics, have a duty to reclaim the public discourse from the purveyors of rage and easy solutions. Most of all, we have to condemn violence and intimidation, regardless of those behind it and regardless of those suffering it.

Populist politicians should be very, very, careful about whipping up aggression. Aggression, like water, boils over very quickly and violence doesn’t care about who gets burnt.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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