Rory Hearne: A short while back, I was asked the question for the This Week Rte Radio 1 show was ‘why aren’t the Irish protesting?’
I thought about it and on reflection developed this analysis. What is it about France, Spain, Greece, Iceland – that they have all had significant protests in the last year against the cuts to public sector, increasing retirement age, fiscal austerity and bailing out of the financial system. Why are we not seeing any here? The answer is complex. It’s not just a case that Irish people just like to ‘moan’ from bar stools or on liveline and no other action.
When the first austerity budget was being proposed in late 2008 the pensioners organised (through, amongst others, the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament) themselves and protested. They successfully managed to get a roll-back on the plan to abolish their automatic entitlement to a medical card.
However, their momentum and success did not translate or effuse into the wider population. Last year, as the economic crisis deepened and the recession continued, there was an emergence of a division between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sector approaches. The public sector, represented through the unions, planned and held strikes against pay cuts. They explained that they didn’t cause the crisis and, therefore, why should they be paying for it. The emergency budget in April 2009 imposed a levy on the public sector and left the private sector generally untouched (either taxed or provided employment support). The private sector and the newly unemployed argued that they were suffering pay cuts and job loss while the public sector should feel lucky to at least have jobs. This division was heightened and manipulated by Government and other interests in an attempt to divide and conquer.
Then this year as the scale of the property collapse, the billions required for the bail outs, the drop in tax revenue for the government and economists and government threatening that the IMF and the ECB could have to come in with even more severe austerity, all led to a fear and associated paralysis taking hold in the Irish people. A fear that, literally, the country was going to be shut down through bankruptcy. The fear was successful from the point of view of the establishment as the scale of the crisis terrifies people. Unsurprising then in April the majority of the public sector unions agreed, on the basis that there was no other alternative, to the Croke Park deal and it was ratified by their members in June.
Throughout this period then while ICTU have argued for their ten point plan, in reality the Croke Park deal meant they have been restrained in the strength to which they can argue and organise protest for the other aspects of the plan such as stimulus through employment schemes, increasing taxes etc. Their case for an alternative approach has not gained popular support.
Meanwhile Labour has articulated different ways to tackle the crisis. But they have been unclear to the extent it is very different from the Government’s approach. Their position has been, not to organise protest, but, in line with its history and tradition, to argue that change will come through an election.
When we look at other countries it is the trade unions, large left political parties and civil society that have organised the protests. Here in Ireland, we can see from above some reasons for why such sectors have not led protests against the Government’s approach in the last few months.
In terms of Civil Society, there are small movements happening – the local hospital protests, the community sector mobilisations – for example. There is the Claiming Our Futures conference on October 30th which is looking to build, from the grassroots, an alternative vision.
But there is also something more fundamental going on. The Celtic Tiger period promoted an individualism that was underpinned by, in essence, the values of the American Dream. Big money was being made – by many people - apprentices, carpenters, builders, architects, retailers, hoteliers, developers, financiers, bankers ... the list is very long.
The unions had partnership where they won significant wage increases for their members. Concepts, values and policies of solidarity, discussion on what sort of public services do we need, of the distribution of wealth, taxation, and the organisational structures that would require articulation and mobilisation around progression on such issues were dismantled, were replaced by the values of individualism, and money was thrown by Ahern’s government at whoever made any noise. Now we are suffering from the fallout of 20 years of ‘partnership’ and the Celtic Tiger. This has left us divided, unorganised and, intellectually, unable to mobilise for or articulate alternatives.
Of course, our history has also had an impact. The left in Ireland is relatively weak in comparison to other countries. The North dominated politics for the majority of the history of our State. Social issues and the debate about what type of society we lived in were secondary. Just when the North was being ‘sorted’ in the late 1990s and social issues began to be raised, the Celtic Tiger repressed them again. Protest is not the key issue or question. Change is. How can we bring about a fundamental change so that we get away from the unsustainable boom bust model?
Dr Rory Hearne has worked for the past three years as a regeneration community worker in Dolphin House