by Breandán Ó Conchúir
The recent occupation of the department of agriculture by the IFA is an interesting example of the power dynamics that shape the states responses to protests in Ireland. Some comments have been quick to make comparisons between the media coverage of the IFA’s most recent protest to Jobstown protests. While the Jobstown protest was and still is vilified by the media and political establishment as an undemocratic criminal act, the IFA’s protest has been treated as a legitimate expression of anger. The markedly different reaction from the forces of the establishment to farmers protest on the hand and almost any other protest tells us a lot about the role of protest and indeed the distribution of power within Irish politics.
Media and political reactions aside the response of Gardai to protests varies widely depending on the group protesting, while as small number of IFA members are able to occupy a government office for several days, students who attempted a similar occupation in 2010 were meet with the full force of An Garda Síochána’s riot unit. This raises the question why is it that the Gardai have shown restraint and tolerance towards farmers yet brutalised students who used the same protest tactic. It must also be noted that in 2009 farmers blocked Minister Brendan Smith’s car in a protest noticeably more heated than Jobstown. What then explains the exceptional tolerance for farmer protests compared to other socio-economic groups? By examining this question we can address the broader issues such as the role of protest and the distribution of power in Irish politics.
While the IFA exists as the largest representative group for Irish farmers it has always maintained close relations with the political establishment, in particular with Fine Gael. Whereas close relations with the state has historically weakened trade unions, the IFA has managed to maintain both its ability to mobilise its members and a close political relationship with the Irish state. While the benefits of this close relationship are questionable at best(Irish farmers are still effected by price volatility, a lack of access to affordable land, and a long term decline in the number of farming families) it nevertheless shows the importance of the relationship between political power and a group’s ability to protest.
A tale of two protests
There are ample protests which we could compare to the IFA protests, for the purpose of as even as possible a comparison we will look at the treatment of the Shell to Sea protestors in Rossport.
In many respect Shell to sea can be compared to the IFA protests, both concern issues effecting rural communities, both are seeing as having little relevance to the wider community, and importantly both involved farmers fighting against much larger economic interests. There however massive differences in the states response to the two protests, while the IFA occupation was tolerated with a minor Gardai presence and eventually ended when a meeting between the IFA and Minister Creed was arranged. In Rossport the protests who used similar non-violent tactics were faced with heavy opposition from police and the media, which culminated in the eventual granting of an injunction to stop the protests and the arrest of five protestors.
The widely different responses from the establishment illustrates the privileged position of the IFA and farmers organisations in general in the Irish political system. Farmers groups often mobilise their members for different protest on issue such as beef and milk prices and government subsidies. Important issues which make a real difference to farmer’s livelihoods. The tactics used in these protests, the blockading of abattoirs, occupying offices, motorcades which disrupt city centre traffic, are all legitimate protest action taken by people whose livelihoods a threatened. Yet whereas protestors in Rossport were arrested the farmer’s protests inevitably end with meetings with the minister and the regular inclusion of revised incentives in the annual budget, and the farmers go home until the next protest.
Having shown its ability to mobilise and reasserting its relevance as part of the political establishment the IFA stands down its members reassured that it has a place at the table (or nose in the trough). This is the why Farmer protests are tolerated to such an extent, whereas the Rossport protests or right2water are challenging the establishment arrangements the IFA are simple flexing their muscles within the establishment arrangement.
As such full democratic rights protecting protest in Ireland only extend so far as the extent of the establishment tent, those who utilise legitimate non-violent protest to challenge the establishment are meat with heavy policing, media demonisation, injunctions, and arrests. IFA protests rather than represent legitimate challenges to the political establishment are rather a negotiation between to scions of the Irish establishment. While this often enrages those on the left who rightly see the blatant double standard, there should also be indignation among ordinary small farmers who are used as pawns to preserve the influence of the IFA and large farmers.
Such an arrangement will never fully solve the problems facing ordinary farmers as it is not in the establishments interest to do so, instead of taking on the beef barons, low cost retailers and ensuring a decent livelihood for small farmers the establishment will simply maintain a balance whereby the justified anger felt by farmers is channelled away from any activity which challenges the status quo. What is needed for long term solutions is a campaign which addressed the root cause of issues affecting rural areas, such an anti-establishment movement will never be deliver through the IFA or other establishment groups.