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Housing demonstration: Unity and its discontents

The mobilisation of 6000 demonstrators close to the Dail on Wednesday, 3 October, organised by the Raise the Roof campaign was hailed as an unprecedented demonstration of unity and is a powerful statement of mobilisation around the Irish housing crisis and its effects in terms of homelessness and on the cost of rents and mortgages.

It's difficult to see why this is. Six thousand is an impressive number at lunchtime on Wednesday, but it hardly compares with a sizeable public sector strikes or demonstrations of up to 100,000 brought together by the main organisers behind Raise the Roof, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, at the beginning of austerity. The euphoria was not generated by the size of the demonstration, but by the breadth of the alliance and the fact that the forces on the platform were matched by a similar alliance inside the Dail that was to challenge the government with an all-party resolution.

Yet in truth Raise the Roof was simply the routine manoeuvring by the trade union bureaucracy that takes place every year in the period before the annual budget. A pop-up campaign with a lively name is organised, political parties are invited aboard in a behind-the-scenes meeting and a series of slogans are agreed that the union leaders do not expect to be granted but will serve as the basis for a last minute burst of frantic lobbying in committee with the government that may win some last-minute concessions.

The actual content of the meeting was routine. Sheila Nunan of the Irish National Teachers Organisation danced around the platform in a display of bombast. Speakers took it in turn to rattle out largely identical messages, largely incomprehensible because of the poor sound quality and the decision to use a large video screen rather than view the platform directly. The political message was interspersed with songs and cultural fare, appropriate in some contexts but not in this one. The use of a screen was forced on the organisers because, in an excess of caution, the lobby of the Dail did not actually take place at the Dail. Demonstrations are usually held in Kildare Street at the entrance of the parliament. The demonstration was squashed into a side street which was barricaded by the trade union platform. The demonstrators could not even see the Dail.

ICTU does not have a great deal of credibility. Their last demonstration on the housing question was at Easter, and even them most of the participants belonged to political groups rather than being mobilised by the trade unions. They were pinning everything on uniting different forces and they certainly had a broad platform. Yet there were two types of unity on display. The platform unity, and unity of the different social forces that actually attended the demonstration. One question was: was the unity too broad? It included the Green Party and Labour Party, who had been members of previous austerity governments, and Sinn Fein, who are openly exploring membership of the next government with the right wing Fine Gael. The protesters were in three blocs; the trade union bureaucracy and the political groups, community activists, some from the water charges campaign, and young people who were part of the Take Back the City movement that had organised occupations of derelict properties and had been attacked by the Garda and private thugs.

The two forms of unity came into conflict in the middle of the rally. At the insistence of SIPTU, Ireland's largest union, the Irish Labour party was included in the alliance despite its role in the last austerity government and the treacherous role of its leadership in attempting to jail water protesters on major criminal charges. Labour's presence caused great indignation among the community activists who confronted them, chanting "Labour out". Eventually the Garda had to form a barrier in the middle of the crowd to protect the Labour hypocrites.

The tensions between the different social currents became evident when the rally drew to an end. The bureaucrats rolled up their flags and banners and strolled back to the union offices. The political groups largely gathered together for a post-mortem of the rally. A section of several thousand young people and students, who had provided the energy and vivacity in the event, lined up and moved off on an impromptu march through the city, much to the consternation of the Garda. At one end the demonstration was pointed firmly towards the Dail and lobbying within it, at the other end was a youth movement defiant of government repression and determined to take direct action so that their housing needs would be met.

There was little communication between the youth and the bureaucracy. From the point of view of the union leadership the focus was inside the Dail, not outside. The alliance of political groups that they had brought together were acting together in parliament around a housing resolution. In that endeavour they were successful. The government was defeated, the resolution was passed. Just what that means requires a further analysis.

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