Gillian Brien is the People Before Profit candidate for Dublin in this year’s European elections. Barney Doherty sat down with Gillian for Rebel, to find out more about this new voice in Irish politics.
Gillian Brien’s journey to becoming candidate for the European election was undoubtedly shaped by the inequality and hardship she faced in her younger years. She wants to use her platform, if elected, to challenge such inequality and to give a voice to the voiceless.
Born in Dublin’s inner-city, her childhood was steeped in the class inequalities of the capital. King’s Inn Park, the community where she grew up was a working-class one. But at its heart was The Honourable Society of King’s Inn – Ireland’s oldest legal institution and School of Law. The area’s contradictions have had a lasting impact on her.
From the day I was born I’ve seen a tale of two cities. I saw the lavish lifestyle of the judges from King’s Inn driving around in their Bentleys, while my ma and da struggled to put food on the table for our family of six, who had to hide from the Provident man on a Friday.”
In her youth, Gillian was ensnared in the poverty trap. She left school at an early age, feeling left behind by an education system which failed to diagnose her dyslexia. And as a teenager, she became acquainted with the justice system and its relationship with working class communities like her own.
My friends and I were harassed, put through invasive searches by the Gardaí and this put us on a platter for the gangs. They knew we mistrusted the guards and that we could be easily pressured into doing things for them as a result. Things that we otherwise wouldn’t have done.”
The spiral was broken by youth workers who Gillian describes as having saved her life. When she found herself pregnant at eighteen, they were able to remove her from that environment for a few months and give her some direction. Those simple yet invaluable efforts—like explaining the grant system and helping with college applications—helped Gillian get back into education and complete a Liberties College course in Youth and Community Work. Her sense of determination grew.
I remember holding my daughter for the first time and thinking I need to do better. I need to fight back. I wanted to give back and help others facing similar situations as mine.”
Today, Gillian has nearly two decades’ worth of experience in human rights. She spent four years in frontline services, working with other young people who had fallen victim to local gangs, helping many to get out and start anew. She worked passionately for people with drug addictions, those who found themselves homeless, the Traveller community, asylum seekers and refugees. Today she is a Youth Work Manager in BeLonG To; an organisation that advocates for and works with young LBGTQ+ people.
As she explains, her drive and commitment to helping those who are suffering comes from a place of empathy—she had been there and she knows what’s needed to overcome it.
The experience of these different groups in many ways mirrored my own experiences growing up. They faced the same repression from the state, the justice system, the education system and housing system. My own experiences opened my eyes to the widespread oppression in society, but working with others sharpened my resolve to fight back against that oppression.”
On top of her advocacy work, Gillian is also a formidable community activist. She still resides in the north inner-city, having made her home in the Constitution Hill flats, and sees her story as part of a history of struggle and activism in the inner-city.
I was around activism all my life because we had to be, whether it was local community campaigns for youth services or the other resources we had to fight for. I still remember the women from the flat complexes who were on strike in Dunnes Stores supporting the rights of black people in apartheid South Africa.”
Gillian belongs to a new generation of activists who cut their teeth, in terms of wider national activism, in the wave of struggle in recent years. In 2014, she joined the Water Charges movement which brought once disempowered communities across Ireland onto the streets to organise and fight together against Fine Gael and Labour’s austerity measures. In 2015 the LGBTQ+ community mobilised huge numbers to finally win marriage equality and Gillian, as part of BeLonG To, played a major role in the campaign across Dublin. She was also heavily involved in the campaign to win Repeal, and the wider move towards the separation of church and state on this island.
A Tale of Two Cities
These movements have pushed Irish politics forward, and those who took part gained confidence in their collective ability and have undoubtedly raised their sights. People are talking about a different vision for society in a way that hasn’t been seen for a long time. For Gillian, that vision came into conflict with the worsening effects of gentrification and the housing crisis in her community. Dublin, like other major cities, is becoming more and more difficult to live in. People are struggling to pay mortgages and high rents, ridiculous transport fares, and the high childcare costs as wages continue to stagnate.
Gillian has played a leading role organising the Dublin City Council flat residents to fight back against gentrification—whereby particular renovation leaves chunks of the area unaffordable for the generations who grew up there. In 2016, Gillian and her neighbours organised a protest which blocked construction on the new LUAS line on their doorsteps. They highlighted the state of disrepair and the safety issues facing residents and their children. The community campaign was called Constitution Hill Rising and for three weeks they held up the works until a playground was won for the children in the flats instead of a wall which was intended to block any view of the flats from the LUAS. They fought Dublin City Council’s attempts at putting working-class communities out of sight and out of mind, and in this case they won.
In 2018, she organised residents to resist efforts to purposefully run down inner-city communities. This time the Constitution Hill flats were joined by residents of flat complexes in Dorset Street, Dominick Street, Blackhall Street, and Queens Street. They marched towards the DCC offices and occupied the Chief Executive Owen Keegan’s office until he agreed to accept the list of demands from the residents, including tackling damp in the homes, the rat infestation plaguing the flats, and more.
It seems Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael have a very different picture for Dublin. It truly is a tale of two cities. Their Dublin is a great city for businesses, with fancy hotels and gleaming office blocks. It serves the need of the bankers, financiers, developers, judges, and barristers. It completely abandons the working communities.”
Gillian’s ‘Tale of Two Cities’ message echoes working-class communities across Ireland. Importantly it also speaks to the recent radical housing movements which asked ‘Who’s city? Our city!’ and threatened to ‘Take Back the City’. The stark image of the wealth gap between the King’s Inn judges and the residents of the DCC flats is replicated on a larger scale when comparing the area of Dublin4 and the IFSC to working class sections of Dublin.
Gentrification is a strategy of the establishment to further the interests of the wealthy. Across Europe communities are being crushed by the interests of big developers and corporations. Gillian Brien is giving voice to the fightback not only in Dublin but in cities right across the EU, like Barcelona, Berlin and Paris.
The situation in Dublin is not totally unique. All EU countries are facing similar housing issues. Around half of young people in the EU currently spend more than 40% of their income on housing. And across these countries, communities like mine are fighting back.”
Gillian says that the EU itself is also responsible for this mess;
The EU has enforced limits of state powers to invest in public housing. The EU is a bureaucratic machine that imposes rules and directives, without any democratic mandate. There are 25,000 corporate lobbyists working in Brussels who represent the banks, financial industry, vulture funds and companies like AirBnB, all of whom profit from the housing crisis across Europe. Therefore, having representatives of working-class communities using the European election platform to challenge the influence of big developers and corporations is essential.”
Gillian’s vision for society is one with real workers’ rights, fair wages and access to housing; true equality for women and the LGBTQ+ community who have faced the brunt of a decade of austerity; and the immediate, drastic measures needed to combat the looming climate chaos. She points out that:
The EU shares none of these goals. Instead it is determined to build a European Army via PESCO, implement austerity, drown or scapegoat migrants and generally push the agenda of corporations and multinationals.”
“The EU is a bosses’ club that has no concern for the plight of working class people like me. Unelected and unaccountable EU Commissioners on €22,000 a month have almost all the power at EU level. We need to see that power challenged and taken back into the hands of the people.”
On the question of Brexit, Gillian is adamant that neither the Tories in London or the bosses in Brussels have the interests of ordinary people at heart:
Brexit is a mess, and the Tories in London couldn’t give a damn about people in Ireland. But I have no faith in Brussels in their handling of the border question in Ireland. The experience of Greece and the barbaric treatment faced by the Catalonian people shows the EU’s contempt for democracy when its own interests are threatened.”
“We have heard that the Irish government is willing to erect a hard border if the EU wants one. This isn’t surprising since the same Irish government signed the bank bailout when asked by the EU, but it should be challenged. I will push for the Dáil and the EU to categorically rule out any possibility of a hard border on this island. And I will call for and help build a movement of mass civil disobedience to resist its implementation if such a thing is enacted.”
“I want to end Fortress Europe and tear down the Donald Trump-esque wall which surrounds the EU and has refused entry to vulnerable refugees and lead to the death of thousands of children fleeing persecution and war. I want to stop EU investment in the arms industry and to protect Irish neutrality. We shouldn’t direct money to weapons and war, but instead, to the most important causes facing us, like fighting climate change and the housing crisis.”
Thorn in Their Side
If elected, Gillian hopes to stand in the great tradition of James Connolly, and be a thorn in the side of the establishment.
A People Before Profit MEP would be what James Connolly called a ‘disturber of the political peace’. I stand for the interests of the ordinary communities, not the interests of big business. Our governments should be answerable only to the people, not the bosses in the European Union.”
“I want to challenge the way that neoliberal policies are locked into EU treaties and break down EU jargon so that the people of Dublin and across Ireland understand the detrimental impact these policies have on them.”
“It’s time for a Europe for people and planet – not for profit.”