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rights, freedoms and repression |
Tuesday February 05, 2013 20:13 by Diarmuid Breatnach - Personal Capacity
When democratic civil rights are under attack, can the Left in the Dail play an important progressive role?
As the Irish Council for Civil Liberties have abrogated their role in defending democratic civil rights, at least with regard to the right to protest, can the Left in the Dail step into the breach and play an important progressive role? Or will it allow political sectarianism and self-interest to narrow its vision?
When the United Left Alliance was set up, there was much trumpeting of what progress it would make for workers in resistance to the onslaught of capital. That promise has largely been unfulfilled but that is not surprising, as the ULA is a small force in local government and in the Dáil. It was also a divided one, with the Socialist Party viewing it as a stepping-stone to the “mass workers’ party” while the Socialist Workers’ Party seems to see it as more of a tactical alliance. And the SP has now pulled out of it. However, the Left in the Dáil also contains a number of other Independent TDs who never joined the ULA.
A revolutionary or even radical group in bourgeois democratic politics can play a role of some importance and one very important contribution it can make is in defence of democratic civil rights.
During the visit of the British Queen to Dublin two years ago, followed almost immediately by that of the President of the USA, Obama, the violation of civil rights was breath-taking. In many parts of Dublin, ordinary people were impeded from going about their business of travelling to and from work, bringing their children to and collecting them from school or nursery, doing their shopping, collecting their pensions, etc. etc. There was massive disruption to tourist access to the city and some prime tourist sites also and of course the cafes and restaurants relying on their business suffered too.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties raised its voice in public protest not once during either visit. It confined itself to enquiring from the Justic Minister as to what powers the Gardaí had invoked in order to close roads, bridges and buildings and, receiving an answer, said no more.
Those who attended protests against the British Queen’s visit were harassed, blocked, threatened, assaulted and arrested. Their placards and banners were confiscated. Even the Irish tricolour was confiscated and Gardaí were photographed placing one in a city refuse van, inside which another can seen already.
Dublin City Council at first refused all permission to put up posters against the visit but later confined the prohibition to during the visit itself. In some areas Gardaí were seen removing even permitted posters. Special squads of DCC employees were busy removing all anti-Royal graffitti from the city walls while residents waited months or even years for a similar service to deal with non-political graffitti on their housing estates.
The intentions of DCC and of the Gardaí were clear:
1. Ensure that Her Royal Highness saw or heard no protest against her visit;
2. Harass and intimidate any who wished to protest HRH’s visit.
However, in terms of democratic civil rights, neither DCC nor the Gardaí had any right whatsoever to limit the right of expression, of protest.
The Republican movement has long been subjected to systematic assaults on their right to protest or even to belong to the movement. For decades, Special Branch officers routinely took the names of protesters or paper sellers; many were regularly followed going about their business, sometimes to be searched in the street; SB officers visited the homes of young activists and also the workplaces of older ones; their cars were pulled in and from time to time their houses were searched. Since they signed the Good Friday Agreement, those in Provisional Sinn Féin rarely have to worry about such harassment but now it is concentrated on “the dissident” groups and on independent activists who oppose British imperialism.
The methods of harassment and surveillance are the obvious ones that cannot be denied but we may be sure that they are accompanied by more covert others such as phone-tapping, monitoring mobile phone and internet traffic and postal service mail.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has had nothing to say on these issues for decades and attempts to encourage it to take a position have met with silence. Since the GFA, Sinn Féin remains silent too. The SP and the SWP, whose activists rarely have to endure any such harassment, have been quiet on the issue – possibly even unaware of it. In any case, they have no love for Irish Republicanism, an attitude they share with much of the Irish liberal constituency which could be expected to stand up for some civil liberties but which, on this issue, remains tight-lipped.
It is not necessary to quote a German religious pastor during the period of Nazi power in Germany to understand that we are diminished by permitting the civil rights of one section of people to be attacked. The danger to our own civil liberties grows with each attack on the civil rights of others that we permit to occur without protest. The SP and the SWP, as organisations that often take their campaigning and protests to the street, must have an appreciation of the importance of the right to protest.
The absence of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties from defence of this area has left a vacuum, one which the Left in the Dáil could fill without much difficulty, making an important contribution to civil liberties and political life in this country. The right to life is the most fundamental right of course but the very next in importance must surely be the right to protest, for without it no other rights could have been won in history or, once won, defended.