Irish Examiner: Protest is essential for the health of society

The Irish Examiner June 17th 2013

As protests continue in Turkey and the G8 meet in Northern Ireland, the right to peaceful assembly and free expression has never been more important, says Ruairí McKiernan

PROTEST might not always be an attractive proposition, and we won’t always agree with those doing the protesting, but we must defend with all our might the right to express the change we dream of.

The right to protest is essential for the health of any society. Protest offers a channel for expression to people who otherwise don’t feel heard and puts pressure on governments and companies who aren’t acting in the interests of people and planet.

The end of slavery and colonialism, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights in Northern Ireland have all been achieved because committed individuals and communities, often facing ridicule and repression, had the courage to protest oppression and injustice and proclaim that better ways were possible.

There has been much speculation as to why the Irish don’t protest more, given the litany of scandals and abuses we’ve endured. It may be because people feel it’s a tactic that belongs to hippies, students, lefties and anarchists or that they believe protest doesn’t work.

Or it may be that our inheritance of colonialism and repression has given us a fear of rocking the boat — something that is convenient for those with power.

Aside from this, too many have been led to believe that people power is ineffective. Instead, they put their faith in the political system, or decide to ‘get real’ by leaving aside their idealism, accepting things as they are, thereby risking cynicism, despair and things getting worse. “Sure what’s the point?” we hear said in defeat, before the opportunities have been explored.

The point is that injustice and greed thrive when good people do nothing. Taking action changes things. It is uplifting, empowering, and effective in changing opinions, laws and lives. By not acting we end up as helpless spectators dependant on the promises of politicians and the goodwill of profit-focused corporations. If done in a healthy way, protest offers a practical way to maintain our humanity and dignity by expressing ourselves beyond shouting at the telly or giving out on Twitter or in pubs.

The Ballyhea protesters in Co Cork demonstrate this each Sunday as they march through their village to remind the world that they don’t accept that their children will have to pay the gambling debts of bankers and bondholders. Imagine how fast things would change if everyone did this. So too the people of Rossport, in holding hope alive against the might of Shell and the State. Protest helps us see we’re not alone. It can turn us back into power brokers. It reminds politicians that they are paid to represent us, pressures them to act in our interests and helps them deliver difficult reforms at key moments.

Despite the bad name given to activism and protest, it is no accident that many of our heroes used protest, demonstrations and marches as core tactics in their toolbox for change. Michael Davitt, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, John Hume, Mary Robinson, and President Michael D Higgins all dared to disagree.

mandelaThere are those who stopped a nuclear plant being built at Carnsore point in Wexford, and the 12 Dunnes Stores workers who gave hope to an imprisoned Nelson Mandela by going on strike for two years because they had to handle the fruit of apartheid South Africa. There are those who have marched to save hospitals, and those who picketed and petitioned to ensure schools were built.

The victories of protest are often undervalued. We may never know how bad things could have been if it was not for the courage of the few to stand up for the rights of us all.

Those courageous enough to stand up and speak out are often attacked, dismissed and isolated for doing so. Their careers and reputations are threatened, their health suffers, and it becomes difficult to be a lonely voice in a sea of silent support. It is therefore all the more important to support people who say the thing the rest of us are afraid to voice.

Of course protest isn’t always the best or only way of doing things. As the saying goes, ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.

Too much emphasis on protest, anger, outrage and opposition can be draining, unappealing, and counter-productive. It is sometimes better to propose and create positive alternatives and to offer hope where there is none. Sometimes though, as with the Arab Spring, protest is that flame of hope, a visible declaration that we are alive and not prepared to take any more.

In a world faced with war, poverty, austerity and climate change, it is vital that the right to hold this flame of hope remains alive. It is essential that groups such as the G8 are reminded that they are failing humanity and compromising the survival of the planet. It is no accident that 1% of the world controls 39% of the wealth (their wealth grew 7.8% last year) while 80% of the world lives on less than €8 per day. The policies of the G8, a self-appointed group, prioritise the wealth of some over the wellbeing of all, drowning out opposition and alternatives. Raising our voices for change is therefore as much a duty as it is a right.

Amid revelations of government spying on innocent people, a crackdown on protest, and the demonisation of dissent, the freedom of free expression and peaceful assembly has never been more important. Europe’s recent history of dictatorships is a reminder of what happens when we lose this freedom. Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant, vocal and courageous in protecting our rights to dissent and in daring to dream of better ways.

*Ruairí McKiernan is an award-winning social innovator, campaigner and member of the Council of State.  He is hitchhiking around Ireland in July listening recording voices and visions for Ireland before talking at the MacGill Summer School on July 28th. His website is

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