Last Saturday saw, according to whoever’s statistics one chooses to believe, 30,000, 100,000 or even 150,000 protesters marching through Dublin. But what became of the people we were all talking about three years ago: the Occupy Dame Street Movement?
The short answer is that, like Monty Python’s legendary parrot, it is dead and deceased. It is no more. The only visible surviving remnant is the group’s original Facebook page, still active, but according to the original members, long-since hijacked by outsiders. The vast majority people who marched on Saturday did so of their own volition; others were part of larger protest groups and organisations.
Rob Dunlop was one of those original members of Occupy Dame Street and was one of the first to arrive at the steps of the Central Bank. He had protested a week or so earlier outside the Dáil on the night of the now infamous signing of the bank bailout and was excited to hear of the planned Occupy protest. “I took myself and my sleeping-bag down there straight away” he says. “I was really concerned about how the economy and society in general were going and did not want to have it on my conscience for the rest of my life that I stood idly by and did nothing.
“At first there was a good atmosphere. People were on our side, and that included the gardaí, who would stand around chatting to us. Anyone was free to come along; the only rules we had were no drugs, no alcohol and no politically affiliated parties. Unfortunately this meant that we had no way of keeping certain flaky elements out, and it was they who were mostly responsible for eventually turning public opinion against us.”
The protest came to an end when the gardaí eventually moved in to clear the camp in February 2012, concerned as they were that conflict might arise as the forthcoming Patrick’s Day parade, with its inevitable component of alcohol, passed right by it.
The protesters were offered the option at the time of moving out for the duration of the parade and returning after, but many were suspicious and refused, believing that once out they would be stopped from coming back. Rob believes that they should have accepted the offer.
Another core member at the time was Darragh Kenny.
“When I heard I went straight down, full of enthusiasm, and ended up camping for two months” he says. “Within a few days I had somehow become treasurer. Someone had to do it because we were getting a lot of donations at the time. The problem was that there was no structure for appointing the right person to the right job; people just volunteered. I was probably the worst person to be treasurer, I knew nothing about it but did my best. There was a lot of that sort of thing going on.”
Would the movement have survived had its members agreed to absent themselves over Patrick’s day and return after? Darragh thinks not: “To be honest it [the protest] was on life-support by Christmas anyway.”
Helena Sheehan, a respected academic and a professor emerita at DCU, was instrumental in the original setting up of the protest.
In November 2011 Occupy Wall Street was making headlines around the world and she tweeted “#OccupyIFSC. Up for it?” The result was a flurry of communications via Facebook and Twitter and on October 8th a group of people came together on the steps of the Central Bank.
A veteran of anti-Vietnam war protests in Washington exactly 40 years previously, Helena deemed it “inappropriate at my age” to camp out and instead slept in her own bed. Nonetheless she says “I look back on that day with fondness, because the atmosphere was so fresh and open, because all voices were equal, because there was such hope in the air.”
So why did the hope eventually die?
Helena advocated political inclusion rather than exclusion right from the start, believing that the way forward was to unite and work with all parties with a similar mandate; however, the general consensus was that ‘this is our movement, it stays our movement and others can leave their own politics at the door if they wish to enter’. Many did turn up at the door, and many were turned away. The result was much bickering and bad feeling, leading to groups which really should have been pulling together pulling in opposite directions instead. From here the movement went into an irreversible decline.
Helena attempted an initiative on a different front. She set up “Occupy University”, an academic forum intended to encourage structured debate on the issues of the day. Sadly this is now also defunct.
Despite this she remains positive. “The movement may have ceased to exist but nonetheless it had an effect. It provoked debate and raised an awareness of social issues. Its members might have all gone their separate ways, but many are still politically active in their chosen spheres and many of those cut their teeth on the Occupy movement.”
And the current Occupy Dame Street page on Facebook?
“They do not represent us. They do not like us and we do not like them. They do not believe in dialogue; they are mostly concerned with antagonism and getting themselves arrested for the publicity it brings. If they cannot get arrested they are not happy.”
Strong words, but words which might go some way towards explaining why no-one from that group, despite repeated requests, came forward to be interviewed for this article.