With the news that Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne is introducing a bill that’ll ban protests outside of people’s homes more than a few politicians will sleep more soundly. The bill will outlaw any protests within 200 metres of a person’s home. If gardaí arrest you for breaking the proposed law you’ll face a fine of up to €1,000. And if you decide to continue with your protesting and end up getting arrested again you’ll face a potential prison sentence of 12 months on top of a fine.
The impetus for the new law is the spate of protests outside the homes of politicians and public figures over the last few weeks. Far-right, anti-vaccination activists have decided that the almost weekly rallies on the streets of Irish towns and cities aren’t enough. They’ve taken the decision to intimidate their enemies in their homes as well. And who are their enemies? It seems anybody who’s taken a pro-vaccine stance regardless of their political persuasion.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has had to deal with an assortment of conspiracy theorists and extremists outside his home on at least three occasions over the last few weeks. The same mob has also targeted the homes of the head of the National Public Health and Emergency Team (NPHET) Dr. Tony Holohan, radio presenter Joe Duffy, and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. And over the weekend just gone the same group of agitators were outside the home of Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Homophobia has been on full display during at least one of these gatherings.
With this an ongoing issue the welcome reaction to Byrne’s bill was to be expected.
Former Fine Gael TD Noel Rock, while condemning the targeting of McDonald, wrote on Twitter it’s “Seriously time to consider legislation in this area” while highlighting the proposed bill. Others said that given the protests, which are actually “attempted intimidation” and “utterly reprehensible”, the sooner the bill passes the better.
Byrne himself also defended the bill while appearing on Today FM. He argued that protest is perfectly legitimate but that the recent protests have become “abusive”. The senator went on to point out that it’s entirely reasonable to protest outside of the Dáil, government departments, or politicians’ constituency offices. On the other hand he said “I don’t think it’s appropriate” for protests to be held outside a person’s home. But regardless of one’s feelings, the right to protest has to be balanced against the right to privacy. And his bill, he hopes, will do just that.
On the surface this sounds reasonable and the positive reactions are understandable. An already growing far-right presence on the streets was bolstered by the appearance of COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaxxers. With both groups intersecting on the fringes of Irish society an alliance, cynical as it may be, resulted in not insubstantial rallies across the country on a regular basis. People aren’t wrong to be cautious about these groups. But is the introduction of a law banning protests within the vicinity of any home the correct way to proceed?
Considering the policing that we’ve witnessed at these rallies over the last 19 months it’s an important question. And it’s one that hasn’t been asked.
Gardaí say they’ve taken a hands-off approach so as not to inflame tensions which could explode into violence. But this flies in the face of the experience of a counter-protestors and observers in the vicinity of the anti-mask, far-right rallies. In all cases gardaí have policed these groups, at times in a heavy-handed manner, instead of the far-right extremists. The experience of a small group of counter-protestors at the Custom House last year showed as much, with violent far-right protestors allowed to merge back into the crowd after assaulting the assembled anti-fascists.
When Michael Quinn, a member of the National Party, assaulted Izzy Kamikaze last year outside the Dáil while she was observing a far-right gathering it took a month before gardaí made an arrest. The assault happened in full view of a group of gardaí who, as in previous cases, allowed Quinn to slip back into the mob that had surrounded Kamikaze and a small group of fellow observers there with her.
Legislating away problems
Activists have also rightly pointed out that the government could easily abuse the mooted legislation to clamp down on all protest. With public discontent at the current government’s ineptitude being palpable, they see the ability to limit protests in the way suggested by Senator Byrne as a cynical manoeuvre. Failures in terms of housing, healthcare, and the government’s continued mishandling of the pandemic have pushed many people too far.
Mass protests on the scale of the anti-water charge movement a few years ago are a certainty if the status quo holds. Considering this, the concerns activists have raised are fair. And the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) agrees. Its spokesperson has said there’s already enough legislation on the books to deal with protests. They went so far as to say they’re “highly concerned” about the bill.
A potential far-right attack aimed at politicians and public figures is something that needs to be taken more seriously. Legislating for it in a way that gifts the government more powers that it could easily abuse — at least as the bill currently reads — is not the way forward though.
The government has been monitoring the situation with the far right in Ireland for at least a year now. It knows the threats and apparently so do the gardaí. All they had to do is enforce the law that already exists. Instead the problem was allowed to fester as gardaí largely gave the far right a free pass. That might change as the protests outside people’s homes become even more unhinged. Only time will tell. But, given recent history, we’d be right to be sceptical.
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