How to make protest effective

We need to do more than march from A to B if we want political change.

It’s so difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said about the crisis in Europe. This past Saturday, I watched closely as Portuguese rallied in enormous numbers against the foreign imposed austerity measures. The energy of tens of thousands filling the streets is momentarily intoxicating as ever, especially when they sing Grandola, Vila Morena, a song charged with revolutionary energy and optimism. But as soon as the last verse is sung, the crowds begin to demobilise; videos, photos and memories are the only evidence that there was even a protest of such scale. Because the next day, as the political leaders remain indifferent, the discussion already switches to the next austerity measures and the next bleak economic headline.

This has played out countless times in each crisis hit country in the eurozone. The social anxiety of the public spills out onto the streets as anger and then recedes back into anxiety. Then, a sense of defeat sinks in during the following weeks and months, until the latest provocation of yet more sacrifices transforms that anxiety into yet more protests by thousands of angry, crisis-fatigued citizens.

I think the reason for this is obvious, though I suspect many who attend, promote and organise these protests don't want to hear it. The protests aren't to challenge the government, but only to probe the government's resolve. When the government's resolve proves to be unshaken, since there is no policy alternative within the current framework of the Troika, there's nowhere to go but to return to that state of social anxiety. The point A to point B marches play it safe, expressing their demands but not setting out an objective that is to be reached through various tactics. I would call it public relations but I think organisers of protests like Que Se Lixe A Troika on Saturday sincerely believe mass marches every few months can stop the austerity. I'm here to say that this is a miscalculation.

It’s easy to see how opposition to austerity will eventually triumph, the policies undoubtedly cause tremendous economic and social damage. Each round of cuts and tax hikes align more people against the government and the international creditors known as the Troika. Inevitably, the protests in Spain, Greece, and Portugal has swelled with each passing year. But this slow grind of declining legitimacy for governments in southern Europe has great risk. As we can see in Greece, a neo-nazi party, Golden Dawn, has surged onto the highest stage of Greek politics, now polling 3rd overall, this as its militias violently attack immigrants on the streets. Spanish society, if eroded by a similar amount of austerity, could see regional and cultural differences hardened. Portugal, with no parliamentary far-right in existence, could be tempted by similar extreme nationalists in the years ahead as frustration with mainstream parties grow.

There is a clock ticking away in Europe, but it isn't necessarily counting down till the day when the streets banish the troika's authority. Rather, this is a clock ticking down to when that far-right menace erupts to break up the European project on its own terms, all the while fanning once-dormant national rivalries. This isn’t without precedent in Europe. It was during the 80s that another federation of nations, Yugoslavia, was subject to fierce austerity which provoked strike action like we see in Europe today. But they fell short, and by the early 90s, nationalists would assert themselves and give Europe another bloody chapter of warfare and ethnic cleansing.

The forces opposed to austerity must set political objectives, and deploy tactics to reach those objectives. This doesn’t have to mean preparing for insurrection and the siege of congress like some in Spain are organising for. In Portugal, daily mobilisations could replicate the success of the recent protests in Bulgaria. With the right-wing coalition government in Portugal plotting further austerity to the tune of 4 billion euros in cuts, the urgency should be widely shared. The streets must themselves become political actors, not merely a visualisation of the discontent politicians see in any monthly political survey. There has to be a willingness by anti-austerity forces to fail, to overplay their hand. It doesn't require the approval of the whole country or hundreds of thousands of people to get involved. Even thousands, if they are committed and share common purpose and tactics, can achieve a government's resignation. Those thousands shouldn’t be hard to find amid the misery that exists across southern Europe today.

This is a cross-post from David Ferreira's blog Igualitárista

A demonstrator at Saturday's protests in Lisbon. (Photo: Getty.)
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution