When sometimes we don’t get the label right



Labels are handy things. You can stick them on folders or containers and store the contents away out of sight. Job done. Labelling can be a convenient way of  dealing with issues you don’t want to think about too deeply or question.

The labels came out for last fortnight’s menacing mob outside the Dail when TDs were threatened, prevented from going to and coming from Leinster House, jeered with obscenities and treated to the spectacle of a gallows complete with a hanging effigy bearing the names of politicians. Those taking part were labelled as Far Right and the gathering of hooligans was labelled a protest.

Those labels largely dictated the low-key official response to what occurred. Maybe it’s time to peel off the labels and take a closer look. That abusive crowd  didn’t represent any group in particular and TDs were puzzled as to what the so-called protest was about. The malcontents in this group were angry about anything and everything, they were anti-migration, anti-vax, anti-Government and anti-anything you are having yourself.

These were types who love to hate, marginalise and are looking for a focus – migration is a favourite one – for their anger and discontent. They are easy for the few Far Right involved to manipulate via social media and make handy foot-soldiers for disruption. More sinisterly, they may be used by agent provocateurs for the kind of hybrid warfare, including social destabilisation, which Putin is waging against the West.

A Far Right label was used by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to explain the ‘softly, softly’ approach to the disruption, saying he understood “the Far Right’s Playbook”. This is a reference to a 2017 TV documentary of that name, which  dealt with the rhetorical strategies of the Far Right and how not to fall for them, including not overacting to their activities. Meantime, the malcontents, as opposed to those with legitimate concerns around the number of migrants Ireland can reasonably host, have felt free to menace migrants, burn their tents, set up roadblocks, interrogate them and rampage outside intended migrant accommodation.

Unlike other countries such as Italy, Hungary, Poland or Brazil where there are strong Far rRght parties or right- wing parties in power, Ireland’s Far Right has no elected representatives and is insignificant. The most recent Far Right party, Ireland First, had just 300 members when it was officially registered last March.

Take that other label protest: the right to protest is enshrined in the Constitution, allowing people to gather and express disagreement or injustice over issues.  Protests are usually coherent and specific, over perceived unfairness like long hospital waiting lists or the lack of affordable childcare. They can be part of a campaign for change and are generally organised by those directly affected in order to seek redress.

Riots are a different matter, characterised by disturbance of the peace, displays of violence, threatening and abusive behaviour, incitement to hatred and intent to provoke fights to harm property or life. (Those demonstrating could be perceived as inciting hatred against public representatives but TDs are not included in  the terms of the proposed Hate Crime legislation which deals with race, colour sexual orientation and so on. Maybe they should be included.)

It seems to me that the mob outside the Dail had more in common with a riot than a peaceful protest. Gardai can deal with riots under public order legislation, arrest without warrant and direct participants to leave. They can also restrict groups to remaining within half a mile of the Dail when it is in session.

But the rampage which effectively closed the Dail wasn’t treated as a riot. A few arrests were made, some TDs were escorted through the demonstration and participants were moved a bit further away. Whether action will be taken against those behind the gallows effigy – surely an indication of a desire to hang the individuals named on it? – remains to be seen.

The Gardai were in an unenviable position, risking being damned if they overreact and fan the oxygen of publicity on malign causes or criticised if they don’t deal with the situation effectively. The way menacing demonstrations are ongoing and escalating suggests that firmer action needs to be taken, not only on the ground but over the on-line incitement on social media and vitriolic online abuse of our representatives.

Just as with bottles and jars, wrong labelling of groups and incidents can be dangerous and their effects more toxic than the labels suggest.


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