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Column: Why don’t the Irish protest against austerity?

There is not much coverage of protests in the media, with the result that many people either don’t know about them or don’t feel like joining them, writes Julien Mercille.

Julien Mercille

SOMETIMES WE GET the impression that the Irish have lost any hope of getting out of economic crisis and life under austerity.

Where is the dissent and protest? The traditional media have not paid much attention to the subject. To be fair, they sometimes do talk about it, but it’s usually to disapprove of it.

To give a couple of examples among many, a piece in the Sunday Independent entitled ‘Why union blackmail must be faced down’ argued that the ‘selfish, sneaky and reckless actions of the public sector unions show how out of touch they are’ while an Irish Times editorial entitled ‘Strikes will solve nothing’ argued that industrial action ‘damages the broad national interest’ and postpones the time when union leaders can ‘engage in straight talking with their members’ to convince them that austerity is the right path to follow.

So, media coverage certainly accounts for the lack of protest in the country. But that, in itself, is begging the question of why dissent is seen in such a negative light in the first place.

What explains this state of affairs? A new book by Kieran Allen and Brian O’Boyle entitled Austerity Ireland sheds light on that question by taking a critical look at government policy since the crisis erupted in 2008. It’s definitely an enlightening account of many issues we currently face as a country and society.

Lack of protests

They explain the lack of protest in Ireland—contrary to places like Spain and Greece, for example—by pointing to two factors. One is the economic boom during the Celtic Tiger years, which they say convinced many people that market-based policies were the best option for Ireland.

But unfortunately, that left people unaware of alternatives when the crash came. The second factor is social partnership, through which trade unions have been co-opted by the government ‘into serving the needs of capitalism’.

The high degree of consensus between union leaders, employers and the government weakened unions, which have shrunk as a percentage of the workforce during the partnership years. Therefore, when austerity policies started to be implemented in 2008, many workers had no means of fighting back.

But there are deeper explanations for the power imbalance between elites and ordinary people in Ireland.

Policy

This is what historian Conor McCabe, in his new book Sins of the Father, seeks to explain. He traces the privileged position of the banking and property sectors within the Irish economy through the twentieth century. He shows how their leaders were able to control successive government policy, and how they closed ranks in 2008 in order to protect themselves from oblivion.

That led the government to bail out the banks, establish NAMA, and impose a harsh austerity programme to socialise the costs of private debts, while working actively to stifle dissent that opposed that strategy.

There are not that many quality books that take a critical look at Ireland’s current predicament, but the two just mentioned have begun the task of shifting the prevailing supportive discourse around austerity.

And in fact, there are some protests taking place. Some are organised by the group in Ballyhea and Charleville that marches every week against the repayment of bank bondholders and to oppose austerity. Another organisation is the Anglo: Not Our Debt campaign. There’s also the People Before Profit Alliance and some others.

Protest groups

But there is not much coverage of them in the media, with the result that many people either don’t know about them, or often don’t feel like joining them.

A search on news databases showed that since the beginning of the crisis, the Ballyhea group has only been covered in three short articles in the Irish Times, in one 300-word article in the Sunday Business Post, while it got a mention in one Irish Independent piece along with a few more in the Sunday Independent, almost exclusively from one columnist, Gene Kerrigan.

The Sunday Times has not published anything on the group. The organisation Anglo: Not Our Debt has received even less coverage. The Irish Times had one 95-word article on it, but the other traditional media outlets just mentioned have virtually ignored it completely. Can we have a more open media, please?

Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin and the author of the forthcoming book The Role of the Media in the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland.

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