Merrion Square West, behind the Dáil, was filled with people. The closer you got to the stage, the thicker the bodies were pressed. To get around the corner to the other side of the square meant squeezing through a very slow human traffic jam. After trying, mainly to get a look at what kind of crowd was on Merrion Square South, I changed lanes and turned back. In front of me was a sea of people and a rich array of flags and placards.
A guy later described to me how he stood in front of the stage and rang his friend, who was down near Trinity. Neither one, from where they stood, could see any end of the crowds. Many people stuck down on Nassau Street couldn’t even get to Merrion Square.
The Guards and the media said that there were 30,000 people out on December 10th. We need to bury that myth quickly and securely. To be sure, 30,000 is a huge number of protestors. The student protest in 2010 was 30-40,000, and the one in 2011 was 20,000. Both were gigantic, awe-inspiring turnouts.
But there is absolutely no way that December 10th saw any fewer than 50,000, and to hear that there were 100,000 out would not surprise me at all. In other words December 10th was at the same point on the Richter Scale of protest as the historic October 11th and November 1st days that shook the government into making big concessions, cutting the water tax and delaying the bills.
The size of the demo is an extremely important question. The government’s U-turn was supposed to have satisfied everyone and ended the upheaval. December 10th proves that that has not happened. People realise that if we start paying, then the bills will sooner or later be hiked up and privatisation will be only a matter of time.
So what were the Guards and the media at, saying there were only 30,000 there? It’s obvious: trying to spread the impression that the government’s u-turn has worked and that the protest movement has been whittled down. “The middle ground lost interest after our colossal u-turn,” as one Labour member put it.
Another coping mechanism for the establishment is to claim that the crowd on December 10th, big and all as it was, doesn’t really “count” because apparently it was mostly composed of Sinn Féin supporters and socialists. “There is a lot of Sinn Féin and hard left branding,” one Fine Gael member pretended to observe.
I say pretended because I saw the demo with my own eyes and I know that’s nonsense. The “______ Says No” contingents were more numerous than Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party or People Before Profit. Most placards were home-made and improvised with clever (or weird) individual messages. The photos I took completely bear this out. But the Irish Times tells us that “[The] View from the stage was dominated by SF flags, socialist groups and unions.” Unless there was a huge concentration of such flags just in front of the stage, this is fiction.
In any case, what are they saying? That Sinn Féin and the left can summon tens of thousands onto the streets at will whenever they want to have a “counterfeit” protest? Were these tens of thousands of people present at the last demonstrations (which the journalist Fiach Kelly has forgotten the dates of) or were those demonstrations composed only of “real”, “ordinary”, “reasonable” people? Surely if SF, the Socialist Party and PBP can now count their active members and close supporters in the tens of thousands, then that deserves to be a headline all on its own?
This “supporters” myth, the legend of the counterfeit protest, is beneath contempt in terms of self-delusion. Maybe Fiach Kelly wants to believe it himself or maybe he spent more time behind Garda lines with coalition hacks than he did looking at the protest he was supposed to be reporting on.
It was an awesome turnout, the mood was brilliant and the people marching were not all Shinners and lefties who sprang out of the ground. But the mood on the ground was not really matched from the stage.
Place yourself in the scene. We all gather at 1pm, all fired up and anxious to hear some politics; at the highest pitch of enthusiasm Brendan Ogle, who is MCing, tells us a band is going to play. The band is OK, but we’re not here for a concert. And you can see people start to move in the first twenty seconds after the first note is played. In the crowd of tens of thousands, hundreds are moving away from the stage. Lines of people are trickling away. And you think: why the hell did they put on a band? Why do they always do this?
A bit of music and poetry and spoken-word art can be good on a protest. But there was far too much of it, and sometimes it didn’t even seem to be political. Every time the music or the poetry started up, lines of people trickling back down to Nassau Street would appear amid the crowd. People went down to O’Connell Bridge to block traffic or to Kildare Street to have an aul push-and-shove with the cops.
Speakers had come all the way from Detroit and from Greece to speak. By the time they got up there, 4 or 5pm, only 30% of the crowd was left, at the very most. This was still a sizeable crowd, but it was a sad remnant of the surging throng that had been there earlier. What a sickening waste. Next time, Right2Water need to front-load the politics and keep the poetry and songs for later on, or maybe for a short interlude in the middle of the speeches.
The second point of criticism: when are Right2Water, Brendan Ogle and People Before Profit going to cop on and start talking about non-payment? Is the alliance with Sinn Féin more important than the key tactic that can bring down the water charges? Non-payment should be front-and-centre. We need to maximise the numbers who don’t pay. That is the key struggle right now.