Is civil disobedience an effective means of achieving political gain?

Julie Ann Corr-Johnson is a former Belfast City Councillor and now a Commentator. 

When I think of civil disobedience I think of occupation: sit down strikes in civic buildings, public and symbolic places and the blocking of critical infrastructure such as train stations, airports and ports. Examples of somewhat effective social and political movements agitating for change are dotted throughout our global history.

The Glasgow Rent Strike for example. When during the First World War landlords sought to capitalise on an influx of shipbuilders and munitions workers by raising rents. Owing to the City’s housing shortage – tenants had little choice but to meet their demands or face eviction. That was until Mary Barbour and her army of angry neighbours initiated an eviction resistance; withholding rent and forcibly blocking eviction agents from entering their properties. It is said that some 20,000 households participated in this strike. And such was the impact felt that not only did the City drop the citations it had handed down to some of the strikers but the Government also introduced legislation to restrict rents to the pre-war level.

The 504 Sit-In is another notable act of civil disobedience. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities) was half-baked. The language was broad meaning the policing of and obligations to enforce it were open to interpretation. For years people with disabilities, their families and allies lobbied for meaningful guidelines and regulations to prevent discrimination with no avail. Frustrated and having grown tired of waiting campaigners then issued the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), Joseph Califano, an ultimatum: rights or rallies. Califano refused and on the 5th of April 1977 protesters both picketed and occupied regional HEW offices across the States. The occupation of the San Francisco office in particular not only broke records -having been both the largest and longest occupation of a U.S Federal Building – but also changed the law. Califano folded and gave way to the new regulations merely twenty three days later.

In contrast to these goal achieving acts of civil disobedience we here in Northern Ireland have had an abundance of inconclusive and fruitless encounters.

The decision to limit the days that the Union Flag was flown over Belfast City Hall for example. An event that sparked unrelenting daily protests throughout the December of 2012 and January of 2013 which included; human barricades blocking main arterial routes across the City, the attempted highjacking of public transport vehicles, assaults on public representatives and violent clashes with police resulting only in bloody riots, criminal records and a large dent in the public purse.

The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement is another but rather pertinent example. Despite mass resistance – including the resignation of our Unionist MPs, petitions, the renown ‘Ulster Says No’ rally, strikes and countless acts of political violence – the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government gave the Republic of Ireland a role in the governance of Northern Ireland.

Of course Unionism wasn’t the only protagonist that fell short when agitating for change during this period. Sinn Fein endured a significant setback when the Irish Republican movement pursued the infamous ‘Armalite and Ballot Box’ strategy as a means to “ending British rule in Ireland”. Instead the pro-peace, anti-violence, Social and Democratic Labour Party dominated much of Northern Ireland’s Nationalist politics. That was until the violence stopped.

Which brings me back to that question: just how effective is an act of civil disobedience?

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.