With the upcoming student march on November 3rd, Sean Finnan questions the efficiency of mass protests and asks why there are rarely seen in Ireland

Two weeks ago, UCD Students’ Union staged a rally in the Student Centre. This was a precursor to tomorrow’s protest, which the SU and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) are hoping will raise the profile of student issues as well as attracting a large number of students to the protest.

At the time of going to press, it was unclear whether or not the response from students would be positive. However, the government have continued to target students in budget cuts. Some consider tuition fees to be simply inevitable. Does this call into question the effectiveness of mass protests and the power of the people?  The University Observer spoke to Campaigns and Communications Officer, Pat de Brún, on the effectiveness of public protests and the upcoming USI march on November 3rd.

“If they are done well I think so. A march alone is not enough. I think you have to have effective lobbying beforehand, effective lobbying after and you need to show that the people you are representing care as well.”

This is what happened two years ago in 2008 when student marches outside Kildare Street helped steer the government away from their proposals of reintroducing fees.

This year however, there is a mixed reaction from students to the upcoming march organised by the USI against the doubling of the registration fee from €1,500 to €3,000 as well as cuts to grants and assistance funds.

The march also aims to raise the issue of a lack of employment opportunities available to graduates. The USI is predicting 25,000 students from across the country will be attending the march. De Brún is confident that the march will be effective in its agenda.

“We have been lobbying TDs, writing to TDs and the tellyourtd.com campaign has proven to be really effective. Also, this will be the only pre-budget march on the Dáil and that gives us some extra weight and some extra gravitas and I’m hoping that will work. People said that in 2008 a march wouldn’t be effective and it wouldn’t work. People said that fees were guaranteed to come back in, but we came out in huge numbers and fees didn’t come in, so I have a lot of faith in it.”

UCD students interviewed, however, were sceptical about the student march in achieving its aim. First-year Arts student Michael Walsh tells The University Observer: “No, I don’t think that protests are effective at all. I will be attending the march on November 3rd, but only for the craic.”

A second-year Engineering student had a slightly different view on the march: “Of course I will be attending the march. I think it’s vital that every student goes to the march to really emphasise our county’s situation.” When asked whether the protest would be effective in its goals, she adds: “I believe it did a few years ago so I think it should have some impact even though the government can’t really do anything about it.”

A well-known rumour in UCD is that the campus of Belfield was designed with a view to prevent the congregation of a mass student body anywhere in the central area of the campus. Although perhaps just speculation, it is worth noting that the area most central to campus and also spacious enough to hold a huge congregation of students is the area of the lake in front of the James Joyce library.

“It’s never been confirmed to me,” says de Brún. “But I have heard a lot of times that the entire UCD campus was designed to prevent that kind of thing in light of the massive student protest in Paris back in the 60s or 70s. Luckily, it’s not UCD we’re marching on.”

In a time when there is arguably a great need for a change in how our society is managed, it is surprising that there seem to be so few marches and demonstrations occurring on our streets. While the live register hits 13.7 per cent and controversial cuts in education, health care and social welfare are planned for the December budget; there is a noticeable lack of protests and demonstrations occurring on the streets of Ireland.

Perhaps people have accepted the fact that cuts are needed to get Ireland’s deficit under control, but there is also a notion that marching, protesting and striking would not have any impact on government proceedings even if people were to hit the streets.

There have been some demonstrations such as what became know as the ‘Cementgate’ incident on September 29th. But while catching the nation’s intrigue for a day or two, this interest often dwindles out quickly. The University Observer spoke to a number of students asking why Irish people are more reluctant to take to the streets compared to other nations.

“I think it’s the Irish mentality. I think we’re a bit laid back, we are a bit more relaxed,” says Masters student Sean Burke. “My mother’s generation had it tough and kind of suffered through things a lot more than we do. Our generation complains about stupid things; it’s our mentality.”

Evin Joyce, a Masters student who lived in France for three years, comments: “I reckon [the French] have a better mentality. It goes back to history. Their trade unions were way bigger there all the time, so whatever the government puts out they will automatically contradict it, no questions asked. It’s a reaction like that. They kind of shape the government policy in that way, whereas we’ll sit down and complain about it in the pub, they’ll complain about it outside on the streets.”

Joyce continues: “You will have national strike day in February. It’s a national event. Doesn’t matter what exactly the issue is, but they’ll be out on the streets and striking about it. Now it also makes it impudent, because it happens so regularly, but I think it’s a more healthy society. [It’s] more involved with politics than it is here where it’s just passive, where we’ll complain about it together, but we won’t go out on the streets and actually do anything about it.”

Despite the predictions above, on the infrequent occasions that Irish people do take to the streets of Dublin to air their anger, there have been mixed results. Two years ago when the government, for their early October budget, took away the automatic entitlement for persons over the age of 70 to have a medical card, over 25,000 pensioners and students protested on Kildare Street in solidarity against the cuts. The government were then forced into an embarrassing climb down, announcing they would reassess their decision.

Moving away from Ireland, there have been many memorable examples of ‘people power’ success stories. Protests, such as the ‘March on Washington’ organised in 1963 for jobs and freedom for African Americans (notable for Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech), were credited with passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The movement also demonstrated a burgeoning solidarity between black and white communities who marched on Washington that day – between 200,000 and 300,000 protesters marched for equality, showing that the power of the people can often make a difference.

The Student Protests of 1968 in France (that quickly escalated to riots) is another example of what people can achieve if they unite together under one cause. What began as a small group of students protesting at the Sorbonne University in Paris against class discrimination, quickly escalated into a huge general strike involving 2 out of 3 French workers.

The resulting strike brought the economy to a virtual standstill, and the protesters saw it as an opportunity to highlight their dissatisfaction with Charles de Gaulle’s government at the time. Although the march was ultimately a political failure – with de Gaulle’s government returned to power after a general election that followed the protests – it was seen as a watershed moment in shifting the social consciousness from conservatism to a more liberal outlook. On a side note, it also heavily inspired the philosophies of musicians from The Rolling Stones to The Stone Roses.

“Carla, now we all know what it’s like to be screwed by Sarko” was one of the many messages scrawled on placards showing the anger of the French nation. If the strikes and protests of the French people do prove successful, it could serve as a catalyst for demonstrations across Europe, as many European leaders are preparing severe budgets for the future year.

Don’t be surprised if Ireland’s streets see a resurrection of protests over the coming year. Whether successful or not, people have a right to be heard. It is one thing being screwed by Sarko, but thoughts of Biffo on top may just prove too much.