Two statements yesterday from senior politicians, both of which should make you sit up and take notice. The first came from the moonlighting Minister for Justice, Simon Harris:
The Minister said there was a need to be “very careful calling these protests – in my mind that’s not what they are”.
“When people turn up outside a building that is providing temporary shelter to people including women and children and start saying things like ‘shout to get them out’ and ‘out, out, out’ – that’s not a protest in my view.
“In my view that’s intimidation, in my view that is not in any way shape or form reflective of the communities in which these facilities and accommodation facilities are in,” he said, adding that his role as Minister for Justice was to ensure the safety of all individuals in the State including those seeking refuge.
The second came from the Leader of the Labour Party:
“Over coming days, I will be writing to other party leaders to urge the adoption of a zero tolerance approach towards the use of intimidatory tactics by those who have in recent days been protesting outside the homes of vulnerable families and persons. Such intimidation is not reflective of the hugely positive welcome and the inclusive and open approach seen in communities nationally which have extended such impressive solidarity to those seeking refuge in Ireland.”
Now, a cynic might say that such spontaneous, cross-party messaging on the same day (these statements were made within a few hours of each other) is a remarkable coincidence. But look at the language: “Zero Tolerance”. “Ensuring Safety”. “Not a protest”.
We’re not far off, now, reading between the lines, from a confrontation of these protestors by Gardai, on the urging of senior politicians (if one can call any member of the Labour Party a senior politician, these days).
The other night, as many have noted, a poll on the Virgin Media tonight show found that 90% of the show’s viewers disapprove of Government policy on immigration. That poll was not scientific, but it does tally with what politicians are hearing back from their constituents. On the underlying issue of immigration, every available signal indicates that public sympathy for an unlimited, open-door asylum policy is wearing very thin indeed.
Indeed, note the language used by politicians on the subject matter itself: In recent weeks, that language has shifted notably away from what you might paraphrase as “we’re doing this because it is the best thing for Ireland” towards what you might paraphrase as “we are doing this because we have no choice, it’s an EU requirement”.
Don’t blame us, in other words. Or, if you do blame us, then be aware that it’s this, or an Irish Brexit. And nobody sane wants that, so you’d better put up with it. It’s the old gun to your head tactic – you wouldn’t want to threaten our EU membership now, would you?
This messaging, though, is not working.
The protests over immigration are growing in frequency, and in scale. By the end of this month, if the present trajectory continues, it will be functionally impossible for anybody to credibly claim that the only people taking to the streets over immigration are a small cabal of far-right activists from facebook and telegram.
It is becoming necessary, therefore, to change the conversation. Instead of the protests being a political issue, about immigration or, if you prefer, the far right, they will instead be recast as a public order issue, requiring not a political response, but a policing response.
Pro-life activists will, of course, be familiar with this tactic. It is precisely the playbook that has already been used to draft restrictions, via a criminal law of dubious constitutional validity, proposing to criminalise protests outside or in the vicinity of any facility where an abortion might potentially take place. The language is virtually identical: Pro life activists stood charged and accused of “intimidating women” and engaging in threatening behaviour. Such claims were accepted, uncritically, by journalists and media outlets, and broadcast across the nation.
Now, there’s a difference: It may upset some pro-lifers to hear this, but a problem they faced is that, speaking frankly, they lack public sympathy. The result of the 2018 referendum, in the minds of many people, settled the issue of abortion. Pro life protestors have the disadvantage of being seen by many in the middle as irredentists who do not accept the outcome of a referendum, and have the further disadvantage of being seen as being motivated primarily by entirely unfashionable, and barely acceptable, religious views. For a good many people – wrongly, but understandably – cracking down on pro-lifers is just a logical extension of the implementation of the 2018 referendum.
Immigration, though, is not a settled political issue. That this playbook is now to be deployed again (and it is) does not mean it is guaranteed to work. Or even likely to work.
If anything, it will deepen the growing divide between the political establishment, and the public, on this issue. For one thing, one might contrast the difference in reaction of politicians to entirely peaceful protests over asylum centres to those politicians’ lack of a reaction to concerning incidents in and around asylum centres. There’s no statement from Ivana Bacik, for example, about the stabbing incident in Killarney last week. But she’s very concerned about intimidating words.
The problem for politicians, simply, is this: The most important question in politics is “whose side are you on?”
It is very clear, and increasingly obvious, that when it comes to the challenges faced by working class communities, some of which are being exacerbated by the placement of migrant centres in their midst, the entire political class, absent a few independents, is not on their side.
Treating those communities like criminals, or thugs, for speaking up peacefully, in the only way they know how, is not, in my view, likely to work. And a criminal response – deploying the Gardai to get heavy, for example, with peaceful protestors, is not an intelligent idea.
But it’s coming. Because a panicked political class is running out of alternative ideas, and when in doubt, they go back to what’s worked for them before. If they can’t persuade people off the streets, prepare to see them try to force people off the streets.