Can you give a short introduction to anarchism in Ireland in the past few years?
Basically the libertarian movement has seen a major breakthrough in Ireland over the last three or so years. The basis of this has been a series of very broad libertarian island wide meetings under the title of the 'Grassroots Gathering' out of which numerous actions have now been organised. In the last few months, we have seen the emergence of city-based networks linked to this. The Mayday protests were organised by one of these, the Dublin Grassroots Network.
Can you summarise the main aims of your Mayday protests?
To expose the current policies of the European Union (EU) as racist, militaristic and attacking working people. The actual forms of the actions were secondary to this, but their main aim was to get as many ordinary people as possible out on the streets.
What was organised?
There were eight separate actions each aiming at highlighting specific aspects of the EU. These ranged from a critical mass bicycle ride, to no borders street theatre and picnic, to breaking open a private city centre park, to marching on the EU summit, to a Reclaim the Streets party. More detail on all of these on our website.
How were they organised? Did anarchists in Ireland work together?
They were organised by the Dublin Grassroots Network (DGN) which includes most if not all anarchists active in Dublin. Libertarians from other cities helped organise specific aspects (like food) or simply travelled to Dublin to help cut over the weekend.
Each event was taken on by a subgroup of DGN which fed back into a number of publicly advertised DGN assemblies. This meant the details of each event could be kept somewhat secret while involving a larger number in the organising work. Not of course fool-proof and were ‘infiltrated’ by journalists who ended up dishing out our leaflets.
Irish Indymedia gave a flavour of the anti-anarchist hype the media was peddling. It made the London hysteria seem tame. Why do you think the media did it? Are anarchists in Ireland such a threat to capitalism?
I wish we were! The reason for the media hype was clearly to frighten people away from the protests. There are probably several reasons for this, and one would be the threat of the growing libertarian movement. But this element should not be exaggerated, the state would have seen the republican movement in the 1970's and 1980's as a much, much greater threat. We have grown fast but we are still only a few hundred rather loosely organised activists and a couple of much smaller and more tightly organised anarchist groups.
How did your group respond to the media attacks?
We set up a media group with four mandated spokespeople and a similar number of others to help with background work. This was intended anyway but it meant we could quite quickly start replying to the various panic stories the government were planting in the press, As many of these were ridiculous (' Anarchist army plans bloodbath in Ireland') over time this worked in our favour as people began to support us because of the attacks.
We were able to get articles into many of the newspapers and live appearances on both national radio and TV to put across our position, Probably most importantly about a week before the summit we were on the 'Late, Late Show’ a TV chat show that almost everyone watches (even if no one admits to it). On the simplest level allowing people to see what an anarchist actually looked like made a lot of the media fear stories ('Anarchists plan gas attack that will kill 10.000’) seem ridiculous.
As well as countering the hype, this also enabled us to briefly explain what anarchists actually stood for and to get across that we were protesting at EU policies rather than either the existence or expansion of the EU. Of course many papers and journalists remained hostile to us, but the stuff they were writing contrasted so sharply with the stuff people could read and hear elsewhere that it became very obvious to most of the population that they were lying. This produced a large positive reaction towards us by those who recognised and rejected the lies for what they were.
Was the May Day media madness an isolated case?
We faced a very much weaker version of the same sort of stuff in the run up to our attempted March 1st direct action at Shannon Airport during the Iraq war
. In that case we failed to get our media act together until the last moment and this had a very damaging effect on the number who turned out. We had 300 at Shannon, we had well over 3,000 marching on the EU summit.
What about the state. How did it respond to the protests?
In the last 36 hours it panicked and via the media revealed a de facto ban on one of our events, the march on the EU summit. Basically, they revealed they had ordered the Gardai (police) to attack anyone attempting to march to our assembly point and that the riot squad would occupy the assembly point in case anyone made it that far.
In the fortnight beforehand they also carried out a low-level campaign of harassment of DGN activists seeking to publicise the event. Over three days every door to door leafleting session we organised was stopped by police, who demanded to know the names and addresses of those taking part. This ended once we were refusing to give this information (we could have been arrested but were not) and because we were feeding details of each harassment to journalists. I don't think anything was published but on live shows our spokespeople mentioned it and the Gardai press office had to field queries on this.
How did the left respond to the media hysteria? Was there much solidarity or was it the usual opportunistic attacks?
The organised far left were pretty useless as were the Greens and Labour Party. Basically, the media was carrying on an anti-anarchist witch hunt complete with 'exposes' of some of our spokespeople (‘The anarchist leader who teaches our kids by day'). The left `responded' by suggesting that not many anarchists would take part in the protests! Obviously they felt that everyone except anarchists should have the right to protest! As might be expected the Socialist Workers Party were the worst, they went so far as to announce on radio that our march was cancelled and that everyone should go on theirs!
What happened on May Day itself?
There were several events but the one that attracted the most attention was the banned march. Basically, we announced a new form up point slap bang in the city centre outside the GPO. Several thousand people turned up there and we asked them whether we should just protest at the ban there or defy it and march on Farmleigh
Overwhelmingly people wanted to march (as we expected) so we set off.
We actually covered about six of the 9km before the Gardai managed to form a solid enough barrier to stop us. As DGN had advertised a non-violent march we stopped some 100m from this police line. A section of the march then broke away to try and push through the police line, which most of the participants followed. Those who remained with the DGN banners formed up to prevent them being cut off and so that we could march back into the city centre together once their attempted breakthrough had been repelled. We had always made clear that we respected the choices of other groups to take more militant action which meant solidarity could be maintained between both blocs.
As there were two waters cannons and thousands of riot police waiting for those trying to push through, it was clear that the attempt would fail - but it was good they made the point by trying to do so. The police opened up with the water cannon that they had borrowed from the PSNI (RUC). This was the first time water cannon had been used in Ireland. Riot police also batoned protesters as they pushed them back down the road and a number of broken bones resulted.
We then all marched into town as a block with the riot police and water cannon launching limited attacks on our rear that were obviously designed to panic us into a rout so they could send in snatch squads. However, although some people defending the rear were arrested, we did manage to march all the way back into town as a single bloc.
Did the media have a negative impact on the May Day protests in terms of numbers? What about state repression?
No. The smear campaign was so crude that it resulted in a lot of sympathy for us. Getting people onto the media meant that we could announce details of many of our events. Finally, the attempted ban on the march meant that in the 24 hours before the protest our new assembly point and time was one of the first news items on many TV and radio shows.
State repression appeared to have a small effect at first in making some activists reluctant to engage in further public activity. But we still managed to distribute the 50,000 leaflets we had printed explaining the protest. And it clearly backfired as that it meant many people came out to defend our freedom to protest.
The state repression is not however over. Over 30 were arrested and many have been denied bail by a court specially set up to try them despite the fact they are facing very minor charges. Right now DGN are working on their release and demanding that all charges are dropped.
Has the May Day protests and hype increased interest in anarchism?
Yes although as yet we don't know how long lasting this will be. Beyond this interest though the several thousand people who choose to take part in a libertarian organised event will mostly have had a positive impression of doing so.
What lessons did you gain from the experience?
Don't be afraid of using the media, it is not a question of getting accurate articles published but of getting enough accurate information so that those sympathetic to our position can at least recognise it. Even some of the ‘exposes' were quite good in this respect, they simply served to polarise the situation so that while right wingers would hate us more those who had problems with the current set up would recognise what they had in common with us. By the end even the most hostile media found it necessary to include quotes from our press releases.
But don't rely on the media for getting your message across. The media were very interested in talking to us about the potential for violence, they had almost no interest in talking about why we were opposing the direction the EU is taking or what our alternative was. In getting across these long-term ideas the 50,000 leaflets we distributed were essential. Printing these consumed the bulk of our fund raising in advance of the protests.
Secondly make sure you are trying to explain yourself to and mobilise all working people and not just the much more limited number of activists. Internally we had quite a bit of debate about whether this was possible but in the end the number who turned out for the Farmleigh march, 95% of whom were not members of anything, demonstrated that we could indeed reach a least a small minority. This small minority is something to build from in the future.
Thirdly that state oppression can be used as a way of mobilising people in itself. In particular through Indymedia we could inform activists of each step as it happened and our response to it. This and the media hype meant that by the time the state moved to ban the march quite a head of anger had built up that we were able to tap into. This probably doubled or trebled the number of people who turned out.
Fourthly, while for tactical reasons it can be wise to limit the tactics you intend to use, you can still maintain good relations with those who wish to carry out more militant actions. Above all else making it clear that you won't condemn those who choose to carry out more militant but separate actions is essential to this. Of course, this is a two-way process and those who favoured more militant tactics also worked hard at maintain a sense of solidarity and common purpose.
Has the media commented on how wrong its pre-May Day hype was?
It would be more accurate to say that the media fractured in advance of May day and has remained fractured since. Some continue to run ludicrous stories and insist that the massive security operation somehow stopped their worst predictions coming true. A minority have published articles that we could almost have written ourselves. Indeed, one journalist who was soaked by the water cannon reportedly joined in the chants of 'fuck the police' as we marched back into town.
There is little point in imagining you can win all or even most of the corporate media over. What you can do in some cases is get enough counter information into the media so that many people become aware that the scare articles are just that and so stop taking them at face value.
What now? What are anarchists in Ireland planning to do next?
In the short term we will be active in mobilising a no vote to a racist referendum being held June 11. After this George Bush is in Ireland for an EU summit at the end of June and we are already mobilising to disrupt this. A busy month is ahead,
And what about next year's May Day?
I don't think we should get too hung up on always pulling some sort of spectacular on May day. Apart from anything else this can make it seem to those outside the movement that this is all we are about, That said I’m sure we will continue to take part in the union marches and organise our own events like RTS.
But I think in the longer term the real question is how do we turn our success in mobilising around the global issues of the Iraq war and the EU into mobilising around local issues in the workplace and the community. Building a real movement that can withstand state repression over the longer period requires this.