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The Bill to ban asylum centre protests is worse than you think

“The Bill is designed to ban protests against individuals outside where they live…That applies to the temporary homes of those seeking refuge.”

That’s what Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne said in a recent statement on his proposed Bill – the Protection of Private Residences (Against Targeted Picketing) Bill 2021.

This legislation, which the government is working fast to get signed into law, would effectively ban peaceful protests across Ireland like the ones in areas like East Wall, and has gone completely unscrutinised by most of the media to date.

According to the Bill, those in breach of the proposed law would face a fine of up to €1,000, a year in prison, or both. And virtually nobody is talking about it.

Now, before getting too negative, I must say that in fairness it’s not all bad news; you’ll still be allowed to protest in a few locations that the government has deemed acceptable. As Byrne said:

“If anyone is unhappy with government policy, they can protest outside Leinster House, outside Government departments or agencies, or outside elected representatives’ offices.”

How very generous.

And so in light of all this, I went to Leinster House to interview the Senator this week on his Bill in some depth. The link to that exchange can be viewed below. Credit where credit is due to the Senator for taking the questions.

However, before going over that, it’s worth taking a moment first to take a look at the actual wording of the text to find out what a “protest” means in this context. Because after all, how do you define a “protest”?

Does one person silently holding a sign outside an asylum centre constitute a “protest?” Is two people handing out leaflets nearby a “protest”? It’s fairly subjective. So how does this Bill attempt to define it?

Well, as broadly as possible it turns out.

According to the Bill’s wording, a “protest” includes (but is not limited to): “to seek to influence,” “to interfere with” (whatever that means), or “to advise and or persuade, attempt to advise and or persuade or otherwise express an opinion.”

The most remarkable part of that is easily the last bit, which claims that a “protest” includes “expressing an opinion.” And bear in mind that the Bill later says that this includes “formally or informally” engaging in these activities within 200 metres of a “residential dwelling,” including an asylum centre.

For a visualisation of the range we’re talking about here, 200 metres is about 2 football fields long end-to-end.

So adding all of this together, it seems like if you informally “express an opinion” within two football fields of an asylum centre, that may be construed as a violation of this proposed law as it’s currently laid out. If you’re several streets away from the ESB building in East Wall, and you hand someone a pamphlet explaining why you think it’s bad for the community, you could be guilty of an offence if this comes into force. Does that sound reasonable to anyone?

Well, it apparently doesn’t sound reasonable to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who gently seemed to voice his opposition to this idea on RTÉ this week.

The Commissioner was asked:

“There’s been a suggestion of exclusion zones around refugee accommodation. Would you support that? Could that be policed?”

Harris replied:

“We are in an open democratic society. Protest is part of being in that society, and so we have to facilitate that protest, as long as they remain within the law. And that law change then that’s suggested, I think that’s one we’d need to consider very carefully. Because I do think, in terms of protests and an open society, protest does allow feelings to be vented and matters to be brought to public attention and dealt with.”

The timestamp for that exchange is 10:25 via the link above for those who would like to listen for themselves.

Harris also said that refugees inside asylum centres had told him they were confident in the ability of Garda officers to ensure law and order at these protests.

In other words, the law isn’t necessary. Which stands to reason, considering the fact that Ireland has had laws about harassment, threats and public order for years now. Anything else would be superfluous.

And so it’s in this context that I decided to interview the Senator in Leinster House this week, to question him on the proposed law and its potential consequences. The answers I got were not satisfactory to say the least.

For example, during the course of the interview, the Senator repeatedly said that if protesters want to object to government policy, they can do so outside of government buildings like the Department of Justice or Leinster House.

What this fails to address, however, is the fact that this leaves rural people up a creek without a paddle. If the people of Tipperary or Kerry want to protest against the government’s immigration policy, for example, why should they have to drag themselves hundreds of kilometres up to Dublin to do so?

One might say “Well they don’t have to come to Dublin – they can protest outside the local council.”

But as we know from instances like the asylum centre in Kinnegad, the Department of Integration often autocratically puts asylum centres into towns and villages without even consulting with local councils. Local authorities have little to no say in what is happening at the national level, and they are routinely overruled by government departments in the capital city. So protesting your local councillor probably doesn’t make sense – councillors aren’t driving this, and can’t affect it one way or another.

At this point someone might say “OK – so protest on the main road in your town or village. Make your voice heard that way.”

But it turns out that Senator Malcolm Byrne doesn’t support that either. As he said in our interview:

“I don’t believe that you should be obstructing people on their way into work when you are protesting.”

It’s notable that this would include tractor protests by farmers, and also hauliers and truckers who occasionally use this method of protest to get their point across from time to time.

So in short, you can’t protest outside the asylum centre. You can’t protest on the main road or anywhere that might disrupt traffic. You can’t protest your local councillor, who has no power to change anything in this regard.

And so your only option is to wait until the weekend when you’ve got no work, then try to convince your neighbours to drive hundreds of kilometres down to Dublin, to stand around outside an empty Leinster House screaming into thin air because all the politicians are at home in their socks watching a match.

Sound effective? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

If one didn’t know better, they might suspect that the government knows this would be completely ineffective and impotent, and that’s exactly why they want people to do it. Some might argue that the success of protests like East Wall, and the fact that the demonstrators have widespread support, is the actual problem that the government is concerned about with this legislation.

Far be it from me to accuse the government of having ulterior motives, but this proposed “exclusion zone” is not the first time the Irish government has attempted to ban a kind of peaceful demonstration. The same government is also attempting to ban prayer near to abortion clinics – even silent prayer that’s not bothering anybody.

If your granny is quietly thumbing through her rosary beads at the end of the road where abortions are performed, she could get done for a criminal offence under these plans.

Furthermore, we can’t forget that the same government banned peaceful protests for years at a time during the lockdown.

They’re even attempting to ram through subjective “hate speech” laws, where anything you say that they deem to be “hateful” could land you on the receiving end of a criminal sentence. The list goes on and on.

In life, we sometimes encounter things that seem perfectly innocent and unassuming at first, until you step back and view them in a wider context.

If a man approached you on the street to ask if he could use your phone to make a quick emergency call because he had lost his own mobile, most people would say that sounds reasonable and would try to help a stranger in need.

However, if at that point a passerby informed you that this man was a locally-notorious thief who routinely asked to use strangers’ phones and then bolted, that would probably put a different complexion on the situation.

Taken in isolation, it seems harmless – but in context you realise it’s anything but.

And when it comes to this bill, the context seems to be an increasingly authoritarian government, which is seeking more and more to restrict the times, places and methods of protest, and how people are allowed to express themselves.

To put it bluntly, this bill is dangerous, and no civic-minded person in Ireland should tolerate it.



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