Saturdays Household tax demonstration in Galway at the Labour Party conference saw angry scenes after Garda attempted to keep the protesters out of sight and sound from the conference venue. Students who were being kept off their own campus were particularly annoyed and led a push against the Garda barriers during which several of them were attacked with pepper spray. They did however succeed in removing the barriers with the result that around 1,000 of the 4,000 or so Household tax demonstrators were able to march to the door of the conference center to protest in full sight of the Labour party delegates inside.
A number of WSM members were present at the protest, either with their various local Household tax delegations or with FEE, the student group. One of them was among the people pepper sprayed. We asked them to give us their accounts of what happened on the day.
Brian had travelled to Galway with the rest of the Kildare delegation of Household Tax campaigners. He was in the car park when the pepper spraying happened so told us about what the rally was like up to that point and what people there heard at the time of the pepper spraying.
“Thousands of people gathered in Galway city’s Eyre Square on Saturday in a show of strength and defiance to Irish government and their Troika superiors. Buses carrying people from all over the country converged on the city, many of which had window posters displaying anti household tax messages. By 13:00 there were thousands of people in the square. A number of speeches by Joe Higgins, Richard Boyd Barrett and others were well received with applause and cheers.
There was a particularly good performance by a man who impersonated Enda Kenny, Eamon “economic treason” Gilmore, Michael D. Higgins and David “marvellous to see you all” Norris in turn. At around 14:00 the banners began to form up at one end of Eyre Square and the marchers set off soon after.
The march poured down the Galway streets with support being expressed by a passing fire truck among others. A number of individuals on the march encouraged onlookers to join the march as this was their fight too. The march proceeded at various speeds towards the final destination of the NUIG campus where the Labour party were holding their conference.
As people poured into the car park outside the designated rallying point, the speakers prepared to address the crowd from a stand. Initially it looked like the crowd was going to assemble in front of the stand for the usual round of speeches but, upon being notified by one of the stand personnel that the Labour Party conference was some distance away, a steady stream of mostly older people went to find the conference. Banners, placards and people trickled over a grass margin with many clearly curious to see where exactly the TDs were.
Most people continued to stand in the car park and listen to the speakers until a woman on a megaphone could be heard asking for people to come around over the grass margin and move closer to the conference venue. At this request, the trickle of people who were initially moving in became a steady stream moving from the car park.
This stream of people began to build up at a small bridge that was an effective bottleneck around which movement was difficult. Two sections of a crowd control barrier and a line of around 8 police held back the crowd so they could not cross the bridge. The assembled protesters held position here as more people continued to swell their numbers.
Many people were clearly determined to get at least within sight of a Labour TD and attempted to skirt around the police line resulting in the Guards pushing people back. While people were eager to get to the conference venue they were clearly unsure of how to get past the obstacle that the Guards presented. From our side of the bridge we could see that a number of protesters had already made it to the paved area on front of the venue but still people merely stood their ground and waited.”
We talked to a Galway WSM member who was part of the first group to push through the barriers. He was with the student group FEE.
“When we (FEE) got there, there was already a crowd at the barricade who were just standing there shouting. We linked arms and pushed our way to the front and began to push the barricade. At first the cops and private security were able to hold it, but it started to give way when we began to push it back and forth while one person removed the supports from underneath. When the barrier finally gave way there was a surge forward to which one cop responded by using pepper spray. 4 of us and at least one older man were sprayed.
“The crowd stayed there for a bit, while people were treated for the pepper spray. Then there was another surge forward, which managed to break through and about 80 people got through the barricades before the cops managed to close the gap again. Shortly afterwards, people who were inside the cordon decided to go back and get more people through by basically coming at the cops from both sides at once. This was successful.
“The cops attempted to arrest a number of people at this point, all of whom were successfully de-arrested. Shortly afterwards, the cops seemed to abandon their attempts to hold people back and instead focused on keeping us out of the building itself. At some stage a member of Occupy Galway was arrested and brought to a van at the side of the building. This prompted a surge of people who vastly outnumbered the 4-5 cops there and some people attempted to rush the barricade between the crowd and the police van. RBB arrived at this point to "negotiate" in front of the cameras, but the release of the prisoner had more to do with the cops being scared of the militant angry crowd in front of them.”<
We also spoke to one of the women pepper sprayed, also a Galway WSM member with the FEE contingent.
"I got pepper sprayed along with a few comrades. It was fucking agonising. The day was still a huge success and I'm so proud of everybody who helped push through the barricades. I'm okay now, but wasn't for like 30 plus minutes afterward. It felt like my face (and eyes in particular) was on fire and the flesh was burning from my face. Not nice. But whatever, I'm just delighted we managed to break through the barricades. It was amazing."
Brian who was towards the rear of the crowd told us what he had heard as rumors came back as to what had happened. His account of what happened differs somewhat as he was reporting what he had heard rather than what he saw.
“Word filtered through the crowd that a young woman had been pepper-sprayed by the Guards and at this people slowly began moving toward the bridge, again curious to see what was happening. This forward motion increased the density of the crowd at the Garda line and it was plain to see the worry on the faces of the Guards as they were hugely outnumbered. Both crowd control barriers were picked up and passed back through the crowd leaving only a Garda line to hold the bridge. After some more waiting and half hearted attempts to push through, the determination of the mass of protesters produced a ponderous surge forward which the Guards simply couldn’t hope to repel.
Within a matter of seconds the Garda line was engulfed in the crowd and the Guards, despite attempting to hold the line even after it was clearly pointless, retreated. A cheer went up from the marchers who had surged through the bottleneck and sighted the convention centre ahead.
As the Garda line was overwhelmed, people seemed as concerned with holding onto their homemade banners and placards as they were with the attempts at obstruction by the Gardai. The density of the crowd was such that banners were becoming entangled and this was effectively tying groups of people together even as they attempted to cross the bridge. It was quite a muddle until the Guards decided to stand aside.
Hundreds streamed towards their desired protest point outside the conference venue and proceeded to position banners and raise their voices against the Labour politicians strolling around inside the building. A lively protest was held outside the glass facade of the venue with Labour party members clearly visible on the ground and first floor of the building.
A megaphone arrived and several people spoke out against government policies, in particular the household tax. At this point people had been standing and marching around for some time and many were simply in need of a sit down and a bite to eat. People began to slowly filter away from the assembled protest with this interest in mind.
On the returning Co. Kildare bus campaigners were were overwhelmingly in favour of the direct action after the event with the exception of one woman who said she was "disappointed”. We were all eagerly listening to the radio and watching the state response online. We were unsurprised with the horseshit that RTE was spouting and in particular with Emer Costello's self righteous load of bollox where she attempted to label the protesters as being anti-democratic. A number of restrained yet firm condemnations have been posted to her Facebook page by campaign members."
Apart from the tearing down of campaign posters in several parts of the country this is the first confrontation that campaigners have had with the state. It is also the first time that pepper spray has been used against a mass demonstration in the south. For those of us who have taken part in protests in Rossport where police & private security violence is the routine rather than the exception, Saturday’s attack on the protest is nothing new. For many campaigners who had not yet witnessed such Garda actions first hand and who perhaps had been inclined to accept the mainstream media’s line on the Rossport protests, this is perhaps a somewhat unsettling development
We would argue that such scuffles are almost inevitable when the state not only refuses to give in to the popular will but starts to use physical force to try and ensure protests are less effective. In this case by trying to keep the demonstration out of sound and sight of the Labour Party conference. In Iceland when the state played the same game, protests at their parliament building escalated to the point where it was put under siege and the windows were smashed in. In London in 1990 the attempt to suppress the very similar Anti-Poll Tax movement resulted in a massive riot that engulfed much of the centre of the city.
About half the households in Ireland have refused to pay the household tax, far, far more people then who voted for either of the government parties. Of the half who paid many left it to the last minute and clearly did so only out of fear of the consequences if they refused to obey the state’s demand. The government strategy seems to be to try to scare and intimidate those who have refused to pay into paying. In this they are reliant on a passive individual response so that over time, home by home, the massive amount of non-payers will be reduced. Once that is achieved they may, as they did in the bin tax struggle, even seek to jail individual campaigners. Saturday’s militant response to the attempt to reduce the effectiveness of the protest should be welcomed as a demonstration that this strategy will not work, that repression will be met by resistance.
Written with the help of a number of WSM members including those quoted in the text
For more photographs from the day see our Facebook album