“Radical Ireland’s Dead And Gone”: The Protest Outside Simon Harris’ Home

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave”. Thus wrote W.B. Yeats over 100 years ago in his poem September 1913which castigated the Dublin middle class for their part in the Hugh Lane bequest controversy. Lane, an art dealer and collector, sought to offer his paintings to Dublin Municipal Corporation. The city’s middle class, however, descended into frenzied condemnation of the proposal and of the art – which included pieces by French impressionists Degas and Renoir – on moralistic and economic grounds.

Yeats had also put pen to paper for September 1913 in the wake of the Great Dublin Lockout of that year, when “Big” Jim Larkin and James Connolly had led the city’s tram workers and the ITGWU in a protracted battle with the bosses and their figurehead William Martin Murphy. Yeats’ lines in the poem describing men fumbling “in a greasy till” to “add the halfpence to the pence” are understood to be attacks on the mean-spiritedness of both the middle and upper classes of Dublin during this period. With his reference to the Fenian, John O’Leary, a long-standing member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Yeats yearned for an Ireland of upstanding political characters but despaired that such an era was “dead and gone”.

In the hysterical reaction of the last few days by what is often termed “Middle Ireland”, as well as by those purporting to be on the left, to a protest held outside the home of Simon Harris, Minister for Health, it is clear that “radical Ireland is dead and gone”. Indeed, we might ponder whether it ever existed.

The protest appears to have been organized by a small amalgam of groups including the Fingal Battalion Direct Action Group and the Anti-Eviction Flying Column. It was held the day after a massive march of upwards of 50,000 in support of a nurses’ strike in Dublin over the weekend. The intention of the small protest outside Harris’ County Wicklow home, it seems, was to exert more pressure on the embattled health minister and one of the banners held by the protestors bore the slogan “Bring it to their doorsteps”.

Now, some on “the left” have condemned the politics of the protestors as “far-right” and have linked them to the sham that wasthe Irish manifestation of the Yellow Vests. This was not the case, I believe, in this particular instance. Yet, the mishmash of anti-austerity, anti-water tax and anti-eviction groups that have materialized since the crash of 2008 have certainly provided political homes for all manner of cranks, egotists, and xenophobes. Such groups, by defining themselves on single issues, rather than stating what they are for politically and socio-economically, leave themselves open to such criticisms.

Leaving aside the politics, or otherwise, of the individuals involved, we might consider the rationale behind holding a protest outside a minister’s home. Harris has been mired in controversy since his inception as Minister of Health. Not only is he refusing to meet the demands of the nurses and their union, the INMO, for better pay and conditions, but he has also presided over a cervical cancer check scandal from which women have died, and are dying. More recently, he has overseen a massive cost overrun in the building of a new flagship children’s hospital at St. James’ in Dublin. On top of all this, he has done nothing to alleviate the endemic problem of underfunding and a trolley crisis in the health system. Harris, of course, is not the first Minister for Health to come under flak in recent years. The problems of the health service are systemic and originate in a two-tier model which sees the public side run down so that the private side can cream off massive profits from health insurance policies. Should Harris step down, another right-wing Fine Gael Yes-man or -woman will simply replace him.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Harris presides over a system, which by virtue of its classist nature, inflicts violence on those too poor to afford decent healthcare, and despite clear corruption and lack of accountability around the various controversies he continues to hold the line for government and the Health Service Executive élite. If Harris is willing to adopt the brass-necked position of obfuscating and refusing to be held accountable, then it is to be expected that some will try to call him to task in ways which do not conform to the “respectable” notions of political activity held by politicians and their cronies among the corporate media.

Certainly, these so-called journalists have come to Harris’ rescue. The wagons have been circled with the manufacturers of consent describing the protest outside his home as “disgusting”.  A recent report in the Business Post told of how half a dozen journalists had been hired by government as “special advisors” (i.e. media spin doctors) in the last year and a half alone since Leo Varadkar was anointed Taoiseach (Prime Minister) by Fine Gael. These positions, according to the report, can command salaries of upwards of €110,000. Little wonder then that the journalists who roam the halls of Leinster House gossiping with government figures understand where their class interests lie. No doubt many of them also attended the same private schools and third-level institutions as their politician pals.

The most ridiculous condemnations have come from those who claim radical roots, such as Sinn Féin. The party’s health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin bellowed that “in any and all circumstances, mounting a protest at the home of a government minister or anyone in public office [under which] the family are clearly going to be discommoded is inappropriate.” For a movement that likes to play up its militant republican heritage and involvement in armed struggle, to utter such pro-establishment criticisms of a peaceful protest outside a minister’s home is particularly perplexing. Ó Caoláin’s comment lays bare the thinking of Sinn Féin’s upper echelons – politicians who make decisions which inflict systemic violence on the populace should be able to continue to operate in their private sphere where their actions have no real or personal consequences. Simon Harris thinks the same way. As the Irish Independent of Monday 11 February reported the Minister of Health “also made it clear that the action at his home breached an important line in politicians’ and their families’ privacy and security.” Sinn Féin’s support of maintaining a gulf between “public servants” and citizens is unsurprising since the party has spent the last number of years flying kites in an attempt to be accepted in a role as junior partners in coalition government with right-wing parties such as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin understand that once they also have to make these “tough decisions” in the Twenty-Six Counties, and engage in “Realpolitik” (in other words, act on behalf of the capitalist class), they will also incur the wrath of the populace.

Figures of the Trotskyist left have also condemned the protest outside Harris’s home, but on the grounds that it was strategically ill-thought out and has played into the minister’s hands by allowing the media to play the sympathy card for him. There may be an element of truth in this, and the nurses’ union, the INMO, have condemned the protest in the strongest terms. Yet, since the weekend, the same union’s leadership has also postponed the nurses’ strike by awaiting Labour Court rulings – a tactic long used by government to quell street mobilizations.

Why should activists allow their parameters for activism be determined by what the establishment media say? The same media will always find some means by which to slander and undermine any type of direct action. The same media jumped readily on the charge that former Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Joan Burton had been “kidnapped” by activists in Jobstown in 2014, when she was merely held up for a couple of hours by an indignant crowd of protestors after she had the gall to attend a function in a community which her cuts had devastated. Some might argue that it is incumbent on activists to take a litmus test of public opinion before engaging in direct actions, while others might argue that public opinion is too conservative and therefore too far behind where various social movements need to be at in order to affect actual change. In the latter case, direct actions, if done in a correct way with clear and coherent politics behind them and led by credible figures, can raise class consciousness and demonstrate leadership.

In historical terms, of course, direct actions have often been a feature of social movements in Ireland from the Land War of 1879-82, the Plan of Campaign of 1886-91, the Black and Tan War of 1919-21, and into the 1960s with groups such as the Dublin Housing Action Committee utilizing radical action and Irish language group Misneach not shy of picketing ministers’ homes. It was telling that when a more recent manifestation of Misneach held a sit-in of the Department of the Gaeltacht in 2017, one of its functionaries condescendingly told the protestors that “this was not the proper way of doing things” and that they should “go through the proper channels, send letters and emails”, and so forth.

By allowing those politicians and civil servants who continue to break the social contract channel discontent down the well-worn paths that they can easily manage those who rail against systems of inequality play into their hands. Worse still, they bolster the notion that democracy exists in the state, when it clearly does not. Ultimately, this episode of a small peaceful protest outside Simon Harris’ home strikes to the heart of the lack of accountability inherent in representative democracy. Should the left continue to play the right at their own game? Or should it launch new initiatives which focus on the utilization of non-violent direct action? If it chooses the former option, rather than the latter, “radical Ireland” will certainly remain “dead and gone”, and fundamental change will exist as nothing but a pipe dream.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.