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Five years older and deeper in debt... So why don't the Irish protest more?

In the last few years, there’s been a noticeable decrease in the numbers taking to the streets to voice their anger. We asked the experts — why are the Irish so reluctant to protest?

TOMORROW MARKS THE five year anniversary of the announcement of the bank guarantee. Just two weeks after that blanket €440 billion guarantee of all liabilities in the banking system, we had the first of the austerity budgets — prompting some 25,000 people  (mostly students and pensioners) to take to the streets and protest outside Leinster House.

In the intervening years, we’ve experienced a number of large-scale trade union-led demonstrations — with over 100,000 turning out for two ‘days of action’ in 2009 and 2010. Smaller protests — by students, farmers, carers and anti-property tax campaigners — are also, by now, a regular feature of Irish life.

However, as the effects of ‘recession fatigue’ have taken hold in recent years, there’s been fewer and fewer people taking to the streets. Over five thousand signed-up via social media for a protest to ‘lock the Government out of the Dáil’ earlier this month — but on the day, just a few hundred turned out.

Elsewhere in Europe — Iceland for instance — sustained weekly public protests led to the collapse of governments. There’s also been massive social unrest in Turkey, Greece and Spain – to name a few. Egypt even made time for two revolutions.

So — why don’t the Irish protest more?

Well, as you might imagine — there are no simple answers. TheJournal.ie has been speaking with an economist, a youth campaigner, a left-wing MEP and an expert in political and economic geography….

THE ECONOMIST

Tom O’Connor lectures in economics and public policy at CIT and is the author of a forthcoming book ‘The Soul of Irish Indifference’…

First of all, you know, there’s no one factor on its own that can explain it. There’s a whole combination of factors — but when taken together they give quite a powerful explanation.

I’ve looked at attitudes to welfare and the welfare state and what kind of people we were before the Celtic Tiger — and then used the statistics from that to see what way we were likely to react during austerity. There are five or six fairly big studies done on the area, and basically what the results show is that though Irish society does have people who are kind-of radical, many are more self-centred, and they don’t look to the government for solutions — they just get on with their own lives.

I’ll just give you an example: in 2006, 79 per cent of the Irish population said there should be some restriction on immigrants, which is generally viewed as a kind of self-centred, kind of a right-wing view. 73 per cent said that taxes should be kept low even if it means more inequality. 70 per cent then believe that the wealthy should be allowed pass on their own wealth without having to pay any taxes on it.

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Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae is heckled by protesters at the ‘Dáil Lockout’ protest earlier this month [Photocall Ireland]

The Irish mindset

The Irish psyche, you know, really goes back at least to the famine…

There was a class of people — a relatively thin stratum of our society — who did well after the famine. They realised that being totally self-centred as a class and being totally focused on their own affluence — that that was the way to go. When they came into independence, this class of people were modelling a type of government which was about looking after certain sections of Irish society, and not really about a proper welfare state.

Ordinary people in the street saw that you had to be a ‘cute hoor’: look after yourself; go to you local politician if you want to get planning… They saw subsequently that those people who were well in with Fianna Fáil in the building industry did well, or that farmers who were close to Fine Gael did well. They created over decades this type of behaviour which was being called ‘sleveenism’ or ‘gombeenism’ or whatever, and that has brought us to where we are — so if you want to look after what you have, you vote. It was very easy to turn the Irish, the teachers and all the rest of them around on Haddington Road — because you look after what you have, and protesting doesn’t get you any money.

Trade unions

The trade union movement has been a major factor in the maintenance of the status quo. The reality is that there is no organisation in the country that can mobilise sufficient numbers of people to actually protest other than the trade union movement. Protests — such as they have been since the end of the Celtic Tiger or since the austerity started — if they muster four or five thousand people amongst a coalition of anti-water-charges or anti-household-tax people or whatever that would be a big protest. That’s just too small — and what the unions have tended to do is just flex their muscles, have one or two major rallies, show a bit of strength and then send people home.

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A student fees protest in November 2011 [Marc Stedman/Photocall Ireland]

THE CAMPAIGNER

Ruairí McKiernan is a youth and social change campaigner, who founded the advice website SpunOut.ie. He is also a member of the Council of State

There’s no one easy answer as to why we haven’t seen ongoing mass protests.

There are so many factors at play, including many Irish people putting their faith in Fine Gael and Labour at the last election. The unions are a traditional source of protest power but they’ve been focused on the likes of the Croke Park agreement — whereas the left wing parties are too small or don’t appeal to the masses for whatever reason. The emigration of 300,000 people over the last four years is a factor, as is the weakness of civic society organisations and their reluctance to speak out for fear of losing funding.

Fear is at the heart of inaction, fear that if we rock the boat we’ll be ridiculed, isolated or punished in some way. Too often protest is seen or made to be seen as something done by hippies, lefties or some sort of rent-a-crowd rather than as an important tactic used for generations by people like Daniel O’Connell, James Larkin, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mary Robinson and Michael D Higgins.

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Protesters from Occupy Dame Street confront IMF economist Johan Mathisen in April 2012 [Photocall Ireland]

Many of our rights and freedoms are the result of people giving up their time to campaign for the rights of all. Our culture and education system has taught obedience and conformity and critical thinking has been discouraged. Many Irish people feel beaten down and a lot of the anger is being internalised and dealt with through alcohol, depression and, sadly, through an increasing suicide rate.

As I said it’s a complex issue so it’s not black or white.

What can we learn from experience elsewhere?

I think the Icelandic people have gone a long way towards upholding their dignity as people. Their protests and movements may not have solved every problem but they have helped create major reforms and saved their economy from complete debt slavery. They can hold their head up high as a proud independent sovereign people.

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The ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ in Iceland was instrumental in bringing down the administration that presided over the country’s 2008 financial meltdown [AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti]

The future

I do think Irish people are starting to question more and more and are beginning to speak out.

I think the culture is changing where we realise that we all need to play an active role if we are to have a democracy that puts our interests before those of bankers and investors. Young people who have observed the work of Wikileaks, Manning and Snowden realise that radical change is needed. The next step has to be finding better ways of coming together, of joining forces to work on issues of common concern. We have to reclaim power as individuals, as communities and as a nation or we will continue to be walked on and lied to.

It’s a huge challenge but I believe we can do it if we choose to wake up and claim our power.

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ICTU President Jack O’Connor speaks at a major union-led demonstration in November 2010 [Photocall Ireland]

The MEP

Paul Murphy is a Socialist Party MEP for Dublin…

I think it is explainable and quite explainable the levels of protest in Ireland relative to Greece or Spain or whatever.

I think there’s a number of different factors but I think the most important factor, and its pretty dominant I’d say, is the question of the role of the trade union leadership in Ireland. We did have two very significant protests called by ICTU which then went nowhere. They went into Croke Park 2 and Haddington Road which amounted to defeat for people — for working class people who were opposed to austerity.

The key question is why there hasn’t been leadership by those who are meant to lead, who have the responsibility of leadership.

The end of the Celtic Tiger

Well I think there definitely was a major shock factor [when the recession started].

It was a very big change from the Celtic Tiger to a very significant and deep crisis. Certainly, because of the Celtic Tiger many people would have hoped that ‘okay it’s going to be bad but hopefully we can quickly get out of it’.

At this stage I think that the shock factor is gone. Clearly we’re five years, five to six years really into the crisis. The main point I’d make is that, ultimately bad leadership by the trade union leaders will not be capable of stopping big protests happening. People are opposed to austerity.

Is the situation likely to change?

I think the most important way it will change is by people themselves moving to a situation of understanding that austerity has failed from the point of view of the majority of ordinary people, and it has worked from the point of view of the one percent in our society — the bond holders, the rich and so on.

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Chris Malendewicz, who secured himself with a crook lock to a radiator in the Tax office on O’Connell Street in protest over the property tax back in May [Photocall Ireland]

We’re getting to a point where the people, the majority of people, feel the need to mobilise — I think you saw a little glimpse of that, without very huge protests on the streets, but nonetheless with massive participation and a certain element of protest on the streets, in the movement against the household tax for example. You did have fifteen/twenty thousand people protesting on a couple of occasions. I think it’s very difficult to say right now what will be the turning point that will mobilise a lot of people again, but I think it’s very difficult to see such a turning point not coming. It could be around the budget or it could be next year.

I think the Government is likely to exit the bailout at the end of this year, but things aren’t going to get any better and in reality we will be in a sort-of second bailout. When that becomes clear to people, I think that can be an important turning point.

THE POLITICAL/ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY EXPERT

Rory Hearne is a lecturer in political & economic geography at NUI Maynooth and a community worker…

I think primarily it is an issue of a lack of leadership from trade unions, left political parties and civil society such as community groups, charities and NGOs. If we look at other countries like Iceland, Greece and Spain, these groups have played a key role in mobilising large numbers of people in protests.

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Meath man Tony Rochford, who staged a hunger strike over the property tax earlier this year [Photocall Ireland]

I think the model of social partnership that dominated the way these groups interacted with the Government and the state through the Celtic Tiger means that they are now reluctant to be publicly critical and they have been incorporated into submission by the Irish State. I also think that there has been a lack of alternative strategies to austerity up until more recently, which has meant people are confused about what to protest for. Finally I think a lot of people had an expectation that the Labour/Fine Gael government would burn the bondholders and change things, and the trade unions are reluctant to protest against the Labour Party in Government.

The Iceland example

I think we can look at Iceland and see that they have got debt forgiveness at a national and household level. Huge numbers of people have had their mortgages written down.

That’s because they protested and forced their government to do it. Similarly, in Greece, the country got a write down on its debt because the Greek people would not accept austerity. We can also learn from protest at home -from the parents who protested against the Special Needs Assistants cuts, the people who marched to save our forests, and the elderly who stopped their medical cards being taken away. The political class in this country doesn’t like people protesting in large numbers and it shows we have a power to change things if we want to.

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Middle Ireland on the March: On 31 August last, Charlie Allen of the Rodolphus Trust led about 250 people in a bid to retake the Kennycourt Stud Farm in Kildare from receivers acting for the IBRC [Photocall Ireland]

Change?

I think that there is change taking place. How can it not? Young people are facing unemployment rates of 30 per cent and thousands are emigrating. There is no job security any more. New public servants are on a lower wage. Rents are massively inflated again and people can’t access mortgages. That’s not to mention the illegimate debt that has been placed on our shoulders.

The left significantly increased its vote in the last election, but then Labour went into government and the opportunity of a left-led opposition was lost. Sinn Féin and the ULA are likely to significantly increase their support in the next election. Will Sinn Féin do what Labour have done and squander another opportunity for fundamental change by going into Government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael? I think young people have to stand up and demand more radical changes to this country.

Read: Bruton: Of course I’m worried about the emigration brain drain >

Also: The leader of Iceland’s ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ reckons we have a thing or two to learn about protests>

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