Politics and protests have always gone hand in hand. More recently, “protest politics” has allowed society to put their grievances firmly on the policy makers agenda. However, the step from protesting a cause, to tackling the complex legislative and legal obstacles, is significant and cannot simply be done overnight. Ireland has had fair share of these movements. The water charge movement is a prime example of where society used a protest in order to bring an issue to the attention of policy makers and subsequently, levy change. The right to protest is enshrined in the constitution and, as proven, can bring about positive change, because the right to protest goes hand in hand with electoral politics. If the legislator sees that their electorate are unhappy, then change will occur, through this democratic process.
In a historical context, protests are often associated with anarchy. When one group is firmly opposed an action taken by those in a position of power, historically it would more often than not, lead to a conflict, rather than resolving the issue in a democratic manner. The English Civil War comes to mind when those opposed to the King saw no other option than an armed conflict. Ireland is in a fortunate position. It’s a country that appreciates the horrors of violence, and the benefits of diplomacy. Its citizens are willing to protest peacefully without the threat of violence.
The most noticeable call for change, have been the international climate strikes, inspired by the now infamous Gretta Thunberg. The protests lead not by university students, but by those still in school, have inspired governments to listen and adopt ambitious policies to combat Climate Change. The 32nd government of Ireland, adopted “the most ambitious climate change policy in Europe,” which was constructed by Richard Bruton TD, after a series of National Youth Assemblies on the issue of climate change. Despite being proclaimed as the most ambitious climate action plan seen to date, Irish citizens are still wanting to see more commitments to the environment. Even after entering the 33rd government of Ireland, and winning some major ministries, Green party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail members are unhappy over the lack of clarity in the programme for government. Nonetheless, the climate action protests are a prime example of “Protest Politics” in action.
Protest politics has a valued part to play in any liberal democracy. It is one of the great freedoms that democratic societies can enjoy. The mechanism offers every individual a say, irrespective of how big or small the issue. In an Irish context, the right to protest gave a mandate to groups that fought for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. And in 2015, the very same groups including the likes of Senator David Norris were at the forefront of the Same Sex Marriage campaign. In the Irish political system, many of these Civil rights and social justice groups have a positive and progressive working relationship with the mainstream Irish political parties, but also Irish Citizens. However, the right to protest is open to abuse. Protests can be manipulated by those who wish to incite hatred and violence upon other groups and even society as a whole. From the likes of Tommy Robinson and Britain First in the United Kingdom, to Gemma O’Dohrety and Anti-Corruption Ireland, whom both utilise their right to protest and freedom of expression to incite hatred within society.
Protests now more than ever have become increasingly important in influencing political decisions. From a time when protests were often ignored and overlooked, to becoming the forefront of political decision making, it is clear that the call of change from citizens is being answered, not with empty words or promises, but rather, real solutions for society.