It is an old Sinn Fein tactic to surround the home of a political opponent and stage a picket for the purpose of intimidating those inside. While the party condemned the recent action outside the home of Health Minister Simon Harris, its own history provides a litany of examples where it has deployed the same form of intimidation. SDLP homes were on occasion subjected to organised picketing.
In the case of our own home, the picket was mounted after we had spoken out against the Provisional IRA killing of a local republican which it had lied about in order to evade the gaze of its new allies in officialdom. The person leading the mob was later promoted to party councillor. This type of approval for actions officially kept at a distance is still alive and well within the party. One of Sinn Fein’s candidates in the upcoming May northern council elections was nominated for the position after she had mocked online a cancer sufferer’s illness. The target's transgression was to persistently speak out about the IRA killing of her sister in 1984.
The protest at the Harris home was carried out by a group styling itself Fingal Battalion Direct Action Group. It was aided by Wicklow Says No and the Anti-Eviction Flying Column. Direct actions groups are a dime a dozen but battalions and flying columns … all that seems absent are the colonels and military attachés. Adorning the actions with a martial standard, drawing on historical legitimising memories of battalions and flying columns, detract from the point being made when among those targeted is a politician's wife and three week old daughter. In those circumstances, far removed from its provenance, the language of battalions and flying columns engenders all the gravitas of grand wizards and grand dragons.
Mr Harris said the picket had been “very frightening” for his family. These things are intended to be frightening for families so that the individual in the family home who had sparked the ire of those outside it, may be made aware of how their family will bear the brunt of “plain and simple intimidation” should they fail to desist from a course of action annoying to those behind the intimidation. In this case one of those being targeted was a three week old child. My wife was six months pregnant when the mob arrived. It is not that these things don’t matter to the picketers. They do and for that reason are factored into action as leverage.
It is easy to identify with the Harris comment:
This was not a protest, this was a clear attempt to intimidate me and my neighbours. I think it was intimidation and thuggery. It felt like a violation, it was a violation.Nevertheless, the organisers of the protest are in large part motivated by genuine concern about the way the most disadvantaged in society are being treated:
We’re all aware of the smear test scandal, thousands of patients on trolleys, the medical cannabis bill, the extravagant costs of the new children’s hospital and the nurses' strike, who we fully support.It is not that the issues raised lack in authenticity. They are very real and substantive and have given rise to a lot of justifiable anger within Irish society. The events surrounding the building of the new Maternity hospital has long been a fiasco. Initially it was feared that the wicked hands of the nuns might have a grip on it. They were prised off. The grip of the avaricious has proved more durable. While incompetence might explain it, it smacks of brown envelopes being passed above and beneath the table in voluminous quantities. There was no oversight. The public purse looks as if it has been fleeced to the extent that sufficient finance for four such hospitals has been squandered on producing a mere one. Irish society might have moved on from the nuns but not from the rapacious profiteers whose greed is boundless.
Whatever the role of Simon Harris, there are ways to protest that the government do not like and which can be effective nonetheless. Whiney Joan Burton was not surrounded at her home but while attending to matters of state. The Gardaí in a follow up political decision were frustrated in their bid to successfully prosecute the protestors. Jobstown was a site where political ideology clashed with political ideology, not with homes and babies.
The incident has been condemned by the Irish Nurses’ and Midwives Association (INMO) who said in a statement that the organisation and its members “condemn in the strongest possible terms the protests today outside Minister Harris’ family home”, adding: “The protests are completely inappropriate.”
Unless wholly unavoidable in a situation of dire emergency, deliberation about protest has to give consideration to the strategic aspect - whether it draws or alienates support. If the nurses and midwives' statement is an accurate barometer, the action at Simon Harris's home was a grave strategic miscalculation.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.
Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre