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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 29 November, 2014

Column: Athens is burning – so why are Ireland’s streets still quiet?

We haven’t rebelled at cut after cut, writes Fergal Browne. So are Irish people really such pushovers, or are there more complex factors at work?

Fergal Browne

The streets of Athens have been set alight in recent days as thousands of protesters clashed violently with police over controversial austerity measures. Yet as cut after cut is announced in Ireland, the streets are still quiet.

Here Fergal Browne asks whether we’re really taking this all lying down – or whether there are more complex factors at work.

AS 2011 WHITTLED by, the Economist described the austerity measures here in Ireland as having “been accepted by Irish people with surprising stoicism”. In a year when Time magazine proclaimed The Protester the person of the year, and with Ireland’s history of rebellion, as well as the prevalent and pervasive hardship, it might have been expected Ireland would have been caught up in the wave of protest. But it wasn’t.

While protesting took place from Mullingar over the army barracks to the continuing Occupy Dame Street, little ignited the general public to protest in the tens of thousands in 2011, except the students. This in spite of most preceding years producing at least one demonstration with participation over 50,000.

In the face of austerity, public outrage has surfaced, forcing Government climbdowns on several occasions. Public anger at the budgetary announcement of cutting disability benefit to disabled people under the age of 25 resulted in a climbdown within 24 hours of the announcement. The protest against medical card means testing for old-age pensioners in 2008, which the Fianna Fáil-led government feared would lead to a backbench revolt, resulted in backtracking and attempted face-saving by the government. This would suggest large and emotive protest will not result in a ‘revolution’ – but those who protest loudest and strongest will draw more attention and achieve success.

Even this year’s student protest seems to have a similar effect. The large protest focused attention on Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn’s reneged-on pre-election promise not to increase fees. Fees were increased, but the €250 increase was considered modest, especially in a department where a large section of the budget has to remain untouched due to the Croke Park agreement.

Those who could make themselves heard are the country’s workers. With mortgages in arrears running at 10.4 per cent – an almost two per cent increase since July 2011 – and domestic demand down by 24.9 per cent in the last four years, the working population on average incomes could easily be christened with the British ‘squeezed middle’ moniker.

The large scale demonstrations of previous years were organised by the trade union movement, headed by the trade union federation – the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). So why none in 2011?

‘People considered it a sort of national cleansing’

“Back in 2010, a lot of the anger was focused at Fianna Fáil. So, after the election, there was a honeymoon period. People considered it a sort of national cleansing. Look at the protests in 2011. They were very badly attended. But the anger is rising again”, says spokesperson for the ICTU, Macdara Doyle. “People have to remember that the demonstrations between 2008-10 were the biggest demonstrations in 30 or 40 years in this country.”

Many have been critical of the unions. TDs from the United Left Alliance have called on the leaders of the trade unions “to step aside and make way for a fighting leadership”.

Meanwhile, general scepticism around the leaders ofthe trade union movement, like David Begg, the general secretary of the ICTU and Jack O’Connor, head of SIPTU, exists. They are both people whom the Occupy movement would surely call part of the ‘one per cent’. During the boom, Begg served on the board of the Central Bank, while O’Connor is an active Labour Party member. Not exactly ideal to lead protests against the banks and a coalition government involving the Labour Party.

The wages of the trade union leaders has also raised the ire of workers, with both earning a basic salary of around €120,000 per year. Whether they are entitled to such a salary is a separate debate, but it does seem clear workers have been disillusioned by the trade union leadership, who earn salaries similar to that of politicians and bankers.

This frustration has manifested itself at the demonstrations. At the ICTU march in November 2010, attended by 50,000-100,000 people (estimates vary), David Begg’s speech was widely booed by those in attendance, while Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole’s speech was broadly well received.

Union membership is currently at 34 per cent of the working population, of which 45 per cent are in the public sector. A sector which has been protected, to a certain extent, from cuts as a result of the Croke Park agreement.

“The bulk of protests that have taken place in Greece have been by public sector workers. You can be guaranteed that if Greece had something like the Croke Park agreement, it would immediately diffuse a lot of these protests there”, says Doyle.

‘We have no choice but to cede control’

In Spain, meanwhile, the drivers of the Los Indignados (The Indignant) were the young unemployed – in Spain youth unemployment runs at 45 per cent, compared to Ireland’s 24 per cent. The protests in the summer brought several million people out across Spanish cities last summer. The protests in the Arab world were also led by a young population who, as a part of a burgeoning middle-class, were sick of dictators meddling corruptly in their daily lives.

This suggests Ireland’s youth unemployment has not (yet) reached a tipping point to result in demonstrative anger on a mass scale. Also, social commentators have argued the high level of youth emigration – total emigration last year was 75,000, of which 20 per cent were between 18 and 24 years-old – has stymied mass protest from developing as it has in Spain. There, youth emigration is hard to verify, but the bulk of emigrants are to other EU countries which reported more thab 100,000 Spaniards signing into consulates around Europe in 2011.

It seems language barriers – 56 per cent of Spaniards only speak Spanish – hinders a majority of people from moving to economically-sound English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia. Also, Spaniards live with their parents until an average age of 30. Both factors seem to have prevented youth emigration on the scale seen in Ireland.

The reasons for a lack of appetite for protest don’t just fall into the categories of trade unionism and youth emigration. The media is blamed for being too conservative; Ireland is a conservative society; the belief protesting doesn’t result in change; and Irish people are passive, bordering on lazy – these are some negative analogies. The more benign say we are more rational than our Mediterranean neighbours, recognise that “we all partied” and the bind we are in as a result of our annual deficit and being locked out of the international markets. Therefore, we have no choice but to cede control to international institutions.

Of course stoicism and passivity could still become premature descriptions of the Irish reaction to the economic crisis. With talk of a second bailout, several more years of austerity and talk of a lost generation, before even mentioning a potential collapse of the euro, a lot more pain is on the way before we come out the other side. Only time will tell whether a tipping point will come.

Fergal Browne is a graduate of journalism in DIT. He writes at everythingiskaputt.wordpress.com.

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