On direct action

This is a video about the Greenpeace group who shut down Kingsnorth power station in Kent. A coal fired plant that pumps out 9 million tons of CO2 a year.

     

I think protesters who take direct action on matters like these deserve our respect. There are very few of us who are prepared to put our freedom on the line for the things we believe to be important. But there are certain basic rules that apply:

• the action should be done openly
• the reasons for taking the action should be explained clearly
• the people involved should not run away or avoid arrest
• there should be no violence

We have a fine tradition of people who have been prepared to take such action over things like motorway building, airport expansion, the unfairness of the Poll Tax, votes for women, trades union rights, civil rights, nuclear weapons and other military instalations ... and the Welsh language too. It was very heartening that a recent survey had found that most people in Wales agree or strongly agree that protecting the language is as important as protecting the environment ... 55% in total with only 26% disagreeing, a margin of 29%

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Yes, of course I think that it is always best to use democratic means and peaceful protest to the fullest extend. But I would not condemn anyone who in good conscience decided that they needed to go further in order to make a point that was important to them. They do so in the clear knowledge that if they break the law they must accept the full consequences of doing it. In fact being fined or going to prison is perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive way of showing how much the issue matters to you.

Right or wrong is a matter of morality and judgement. It is most certainly not the same as lawful or unlawful. For example, are the rights or wrongs of say foxhunting decided by what the law says about it? Hunting with dogs was made unlawful because enough of our legislators thought it was wrong. Not the other way round. Nobody would say that it suddenly became "wrong" at the moment the law against it was passed ... it merely became unlawful. We should be very wary of anybody who defines right and wrong solely by what is or is not lawful. Most especially politicians. After all, one of the main jobs of a legislature to make and change laws.

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Anyway, the other factor which prompted me to write this post was the news that Ffred Ffransis was sent to prison for five days for refusing to pay a fine imposed on him some years ago. The action taken by Cymdeithas in 2001 fully fitted the criteria I outlined above.

     

Unlike a few people whose views I have read on the case, I do not condemn the fact that he was either fined or eventually sent to prison for refusing to pay that fine. The law is important, and it is important that the law takes its course. If I were the magistrate hearing the case I would have sent him to prison too. I would probably have been inclined to make the sentence longer. It is important for any society that the law is upheld and that people who break the law accept the consequences of their actions. Those principles have now been satisfied ... and Ffred Ffransis has had his say. Justice has been done.

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But who comes out with more? Well, I have no doubt that it is Ffred Ffrancis and the cause he wanted to highlight by taking the direct action in the first place. In fact the long delay in justice only serves to re-emphasize the point he and Cymdeithas were originally making ... because nothing has changed in the past eight years. That is shameful.

We still do not have a new Welsh Language Act (or now Measure) despite the political assurances that we would. As anyone who was concerned about the issue at the time will remember, Labour were highly critical of the 1993 Act passed by the Tories, and said they would pass an improved Act when they were elected. They were elected in 1997 ... and have had all of twelve years to make good on that promise.

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Also, too many public bodies (or firms to whom the work of public bodies is contracted-out) have simply paid lip service to the requirements of the 1993 Act. The NHS is a good example: even now, sixteen years after the Act, the chances of being able to go to a hospital in many parts of Wales and get your consultation or treatment from NHS staff that speak Welsh are very, very remote indeed.

And so too, as Ffred Ffransis has now been able to highlight, is the prison service. As reported here the largest prison in Wales had no bilingual official forms, no bilingual signs and notices ... not even a Welsh bible.

So again, who comes out with more? These revelations are an embarrassment only to the National Offender Management Service and the government in general, not to Mr Ffransis. It is a supreme irony that the prison authorities have now been shown to have failed to comply with the requirements of the law. I think Ffred Ffransis will smile and say that this alone was well worth the price of admission.

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We talk about a broken political system. But one of the main complaints is that politicians all too often fail to take any notice of what those who elected them elected them to do. For as long as that continues, protest and direct action have important parts to play in building and maintaining a healthy society.

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