Juvenal on the violence of Wednesday: How did it start? Who is to blame? Why did USI condemn its own members and what now for the student movement?
If I was to sum up in one word the events which unfolded outside the Department of Finance last Wednesday I would have to say confusion. I for one had arrived quickly on the scene and witnessed the majority of the sit-in and the forced removal and violence by An Gardaí Shiochana. I resisted the temptation to rush to press and write this article as I knew oh too well the gross amount of misinformation, rumour and intrigue that surrounded those events both during and immediately after its occurrence.
Let us look at the true origins of why the Dept. Finance was the target of a sit-in protest. But to do so, allow me to bring you back to a sight I mentioned briefly in the previous article: that of the amassing “Left Bloc” which assembled at the Ambassador Theatre on the day from which this whole episode starts. Started by an anti-fee group known as Free Education for Everyone (FEE) who have a strong presence in NUIM and the Students in Solidarity Network (SIS) promoted and arranged this block of students to march together to give a presence of the left to the expansive march. Students involved in these groups over the years have naturally been involved in various political parties which have a presence on campuses as well as many independent activists. On many occasions, FEE initiatives have included members of Labour Youth, Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Ógra Shinn Féin (OSF) and the Socialist Party. All these parties have societies based in universities. Other students have been involved in the Workers Solidarity Movement with many non-affiliated but containing left sympathies. In the build up they had encouraged others to join their group on the day and on the day the students were joined by young members of their respective groups. While their was a strong political sentiment present in the group on that day, which led them to involve in an unplanned sit-in, I do have to disregard much of the press as well as USI President Gary Redmond’s claim on Joe Duffy’s show that FEE were merely a “front for left groups” and more shockingly so an Éirígí front. [See statement from FEE here]
FEE and the Left Bloc in which it marched have made no bones about engaging in “direct action” which manifested itself in the start of the actions on Merion Row. Two years ago, FEE staged a previous sit-in at the Dept. Finance and also in the offices of Green TD Paul Gogarty and these sit-ins ended peacefully. While Redmond was quick to criticise their actions we must also remember that at the time of the last series of student protests against fees [mentioned in the letter FEE published here], USI itself promoted and were involved a number of sit-ins of Government buildings. His statement, which was quoted by my colleague Pangloss in his most recent article, while at the time received by students as a fair and true statement must now be reviewed with a new shrewdness in the wake of the violence experienced by many innocent bystanders.
I will leave the hindsight analysis for the time being and go back to what a saw and heard on the day. While I knew rather quickly who was involved and what building they were occupying, many passing and watching students had no idea what was going on. On a few occasions I was asked “what building is it”. People were curious more so than malevolent. Many students, wearing the yellow of the USI march watched on. Eggs were now being directed at the building and cheers went up as each one hit the windows and walls. In this time of gross government dissatisfaction, a few eggs being thrown at the centre of cut backs is understandable. The Gardaí presence was mounting and a small number of mounted Gardaí were told to line the street. It is around this time, when more and more students began to arrive. Many of these were on route to busses on St. Stephens Green while others were going home or to get food. They were now being blocked by an increasingly number of Gardaí. Once the Horse Unit were told to clear the protesters, many sat down and objects began to be redirected from the building to the Gardaí. These included at first eggs but as the situation became more tense, cans, placards and a glass bottle were thrown. The horses resigned a small amount and the sirens of the Public Order Unit became louder.
After a few tense minutes, chanting and singing, the real trouble began. More and more students were being increasingly separated and trapped. I found myself in a number of phases. I started among the crowd, then pushed behind the horses and then trapped between the horses and the riot vans. Then riot police “ushered” me and many others behind the vans. I suppose I was quite lucky in the way that I was not trapped among the many sitting people who were soon to be in for. It is the rest that has mostly been seen on the internet and television. The Riot Squad first removed the students from the building then surrounded the crowd sitting outside along with the canine unit. Other students watched on not able to do anything. The reports which followed came from very confused students. While flags from groups such as SWP, Éirígí and ÓSF led the early blame to be laid on these parties, we must remember the student bloc in which these people were members of.
Redmond’s condemnation of the action as well as his thanking the Gardaí for their actions on the day(see here) has drawn him much criticism by many including former president of UCD SU Paul Dillon, seen here. When we covered his appointment as President of USI [here], we did wonder about Redmond’s potential to side with the establishment and belong to a more non-radical USI. This is coupled with rumblings of his potential party affiliations with Fianna Fail, although as of yet these have been nothing more than accusations and mud-slinging by far-left radicals [article here]. The genuine criticism is warranted though as I experienced first hand the amount of ordinary students hurt by the excessive action taken and handed out to them. In all reality, whether the sit-in was sanctioned or not, it would have come to a natural end as students became hungry, bored or satisfied in making their point.
While the Gardaí presence at first was out of security, the excessive action taken will only do damage to their reputation, especially in the wake of growing complaints by students where Gardaí jobs may come into threat. As for upcoming demonstrations in the next month such as the ICTU march at the end of this month and the one being planned for the week of the budget, the recent news of increasing numbers of Gardaí receiving riot training in anticipation for the budget may only add to the cynicism of the force used by them on Wednesday. This will remain to be seen. I am saddened by the students who were injured on the day. Whether or not it was rogue elements that started the violence or the heavy hand of the Gardaí that provoked it, these innocent students, members of USI and somebody’s children experienced something no one should receive unwarranted in their lifetime.
Facebook.com, just search ‘The Student Observer’
Tell your friends!