09 November 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - Education and Accountability

Eoin Ó'Broin hosts an #OccupyUniversity workshop on the Eurozone crisis
#OccupyDameStreet, Dublin, Tuesday 8th November
As I have mentioned before #OccupyUniversity, the series of talks and workshops conducted al fresco on Occupied Dame Street, is one of my favourite aspects of the whole shebang, but it too is not without controversy.

As you all are hopefully aware at this stage, #OccupyDameStreet is a "leaderless resistance movement with people of many nationalities, backgrounds, genders and political persuasions", that any person is invited to join, but they are asked to leave their political party at the door. While the main focus of this edict has been external political groups that would like to come down en masse with banners and leaflets, what happens when a prominent member of a Political Party actually wants to come down to Dame Street as an individual, not as a representative of their Party?

Over the course of the last two days we have had a number of folks do just that, to very different receptions. Monday saw Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, hold a workshop on the History of the CPI, to mark the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the party. Aside from one rather drunk student who insisted on heckling him (and everyone in the camp) for being lazy, shiftless lefties, the talk was well received and focused more on the current economic crisis than it did strictly on the history and views of the CPI. While I wouldn't be a supporter of their ideology, the CPI, and particularly Connolly Books, have been a good friend to #OccupyDameStreet, even letting us run a workshop or two in the bookshop when the worst of the Irish elements made us wish for #OccupyCork's lifeboat.

Yesterday saw three workshops, the first by Mark Malone from Seomra Spraoi (and member of the Workers' Solidarity Movement) who offered concrete advice and suggestions from one autonomous collective to another on the practicalities of self-organising, followed by two somewhat more esoteric classes on the nature of the Eurozone and Ireland's Energy Future. The Eurozone workshop was hosted by Eoin Ó'Broin, authour, columnist and Sinn Féin party strategist, who narrowly lost the last seat in Dublin Mid-West to Fine Gael in the February election. Ó'Broin's talk was again very well received, he clearly knows what is is talking about and surprisingly when arguing for renegotiation on the Anglo Irish Bank promissory notes has a much more positive view of the ECB than I would have imagined, and I am a fan of much of his writing despite disagreeing with most of his Party's platform.

Actually that last part isn't strictly accurate - I find myself in agreement with much of his Party's social and economic platforms, but cannot separate it from the whole supporting-terrorism-for-so-many-years thing. The other note of caution I have with Sinn Féin is the fact that in the North where they are actually in power, they have not pursued a hard-left agenda, adopting far more of a centrist platform while in government. While this may be a compromise forced upon them by the realities of power-sharing and coalition governance, the fact is that it is easy to espouse a radical platform when you know you have no chance of being called upon to actually implement it. No matter, the point here is not to criticise Sinn Féin, it is more to say that I respect Ó'Broin's knowledge even if I don't subscribe to his wider beliefs.

Eamonn Ryan hosts an #OccupyUniversity workshop on Ireland's Energy Future
#OccupyDameStreet, Dublin, Tuesday 8th November
The day's other speaker proved to be far more controversial, Green Party Leader Eamonn Ryan. While the Socialist Party's MEP Paul Murphy has been a frequent visitor to the camp, even speaking at a march, there were mixed feelings towards Ryan attending because while he is no longer an elected representative he is still the leader of a Political Party and moreover a Minister in the last Government and thus implicitly or explicitly responsible for many of the decisions that have left the nation in the mess we are today, the very reasons for #OccupyDameStreet's existence.

After the whole debacle when Senator David Norris visited the Camp I had real concerns that anger and outrage would drown out respect and civility, but all-in-all I was pleasantly surprised by how everything went. Ryan arrived on his own with no advisors, handlers or minders, and no press in tow. At the start of his workshop the facilitator agreed some ground rules, that he would be able to speak on his chosen topic without interruption and then field questions both on that, and on his time in Government, and aside from a few isolated heckles that is pretty much exactly what happened. He was challenged strongly and passionately on his belief that capitalism is compatible with environmentalism, his record on Rossport and the Garda brutality on display there, the sell-off of our natural resources by his predecessor (and successor), and on the Green Party support for NAMA and the Bank Bailout and on his participation in the most destructive government our nation has experienced in general, and to my mind this is exactly the type of response from politicians that #OccupyDameStreet has been calling for.

While I myself may reject the current parliamentary structures as being woefully undemocratic, that does not mean that I chose to ignore them altogether, and I believe that those whom we elect must be completely accountable to the citizenry for their actions, and the actions of those parties to which they belong. Eamonn Ryan came down to what he knew to be a hostile audience and accounted for his actions, we may not have been satisfied with his answers, and it is highly unlikely that he won anyone over to his side of the arguments, but he sat there alone and engaged directly with his fellow citizens, and I respect the man for this though I hold both him and his Party responsible for almost all the ills our nation currently suffers.

This is exactly the sort of direct accountability that we have been demanding. I would love to see Brian Cowen or Bertie Ahern visit Occupied Dame Street and answer for their actions, but somehow I cannot see that coming to pass.

The last two day's events at #OccupyUniversity show a maturing on Dame Street, that we are strong enough in our own voice to be comfortable with those with more established voices coming along to offer their thoughts and advice, or to be held accountable. It also shows that there are those with strong political beliefs capable of engaging with us as individuals, and leaving their parties and party baggage at the door, a lesson that other political groups would do well to learn.

Not everyone involved in #OccupyDameStreet would be happy with some of these speakers being given a platform, and their participation in #OccupyUniversity certainly doesn't indicate an endorsement of them or their party, but as we call for a conversation amongst the citizenry we cannot exclude those voices we disagree with simply because we disagree with them, for those are the tactics of the 1%. Once any individual is prepared to abide by the ground rules established by consensus at the Camp, then they should be free to speak; not to preach, to evangelise or recruit, but simply to speak and engage with their fellow citizens on the issues we are trying to raise.

Surely that is what Democracy looks like?

#OccupyUniversity has a pretty impressive schedule, to see what is coming up or lament what you have missed, check out the timetable on the #OccupyDameStreet website here.

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