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1953 Leacock Medal - Political Lessons from Baltinglass

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As one whose life has weaved in out of politics, the media, and government, I read The Battle of Baltinglass through my own peculiar filters and was struck how sophisticated and savvy the residents of 1950 Baltinglass seemed.  They were not public relations experts, professional lobbyists or even all that politically aware. 

Yet their campaign in rural Ireland not only succeeded in overturning a firm decision taken by an intransigent politician, it spread to affect and change the whole country.  While their actions may not be a guaranteed formula for victory in every political context, they can be categorized within a template that professional political influencers might recognize and could serve as a helpful primer for political science students or those seeking to exert political pressure in any time and any place. Or - maybe, they might just be ironcially amusing.
1)      Committee Structure

Almost immediately upon the collective decision to fight for the reinstatement of Helen Cooke as their sub-postmaster, the core group of concerned Baltinglass citizens seized upon the idea of establishing a formal Protest Committee.  The proposal was accepted and the body was duly named “The Helen Cooke Protest Committee.”  This Committee arranged public meetings, ensured momentum, and provided the protest movement with an important governance framework for the actions to follow and to manage them strategically, thus ensuring that the collective efforts amounted to more than the sum of scattered noisy parts.

2)      Core Instigators

A protest like that of Baltinglass needs the energy, dedication, and persistence of at least one or more individuals who will provide continuity, motivate others, and prod the movement along through all of the inevitable ups and downs.  These people do not necessarily need to be the identified or named leaders.  In fact, sometimes it is best if they are doers who put things into action. Baltinglass had such people.  According to the book (The Battle of Baltinglass, Lawrence Earl , one key personality  was Bernie Sheridan, an outsider and a different man, who had come to Baltinglass a mere “five years before, (and without whom)  it is possible that the battle might never have been fought." Baltinglass, with its eight hundred and more inhabitants, is in County Wicklow; and "Wicklow men - they say, tend to mind their own affairs closely and are slowly wrought to anger.”

3)      Media  Relations
Somehow the village Protest Committee and its supporters instinctively understood how to engage the media, primarily the Irish newspapers, but also magazines and media from Britain, the U.S., and elsewhere and to present their issue as one that “titillated” the journalists.   They not only invoked human values, the cause of the weak,  and the David-and-Goliath story of “a mountain village standing brashly up against the Government of Eire,” but also one with drama, conflict, and controversy linked to political favoritism and the whiff of scandal and corruption.  They also staged protests, stunts, and events focused solely on the human interest angle for potential media coverage: even engaging an airplane, mobile public address systems, and leaflet campaigns in the cause.

4)      Rapid Response

     The villagers also recognized early in the protest that there was a need to have a capacity to respond rapidly to counter any actions taken by their powerful opponents.   The government’s decision to appoint a new sub-postmaster meant moving the post office and installing new infrastructure.  Whenever related work was being undertaken including running new phone lines and other construction , the protesters send out the word through every means possible including air raid sirens to gather the troops to block and impair the work.   This combined with barricades, a boycott of the general store where the new post office was to be installed, and letter writing was a vital part of the strategy to maintain the option of reversing the decision and reinstating Helen Cooke.

5)      Framing Issue as a Demand for “Justice”

Many ideas and proposals can inspire individuals depending upon the circumstance.  A fight against corruption in government may seem to have wide appeal, but it extends only as far as those who believe they are benefiting directly or indirectly from the corrupt regime.  Perhaps because the root is the word “just” or fair, an appeal for “justice” or a fight against a flagrant “injustice” is often more effective. This approach enjoys the simplicity and difficult-to-assail notion of restoring balance and being fair against an undisputed benchmark of moral rightness, rationality and accepted equity.   The Baltinglass battlers knew this well as they articulated their cause as a quest to reverse “the injustice done Miss Cooke.”  According to the book, in rural County Wiklow, Ireland,  it also helps and seems appropriate to amplify the injustice with adjectives beginning with the letters “g-r:”  “great injustice,” “grave injustice,” and “gross injustice.” Easy to remember - as G-R is also a popular 21st century acronym for the vocation of Government Relations.

6)      Focus, Focus, Focus

Unlike many protests that flounder and fail, the people of Baltinglass had a clear, unambiguous objective: to get Helen Cooke reinstated in her job.  This clarity forced the Government to respond either by rejecting the proposition directly or offering up proposals framed by it.  This clarity also allowed the protestors to easily judge the effectiveness of tactics, to know when success had or had not been achieved, and to persist and persist over the many months and close to two years needed to achieve victory.