Why have the Irish not protested the crisis and austerity in Ireland?

People are debating why the Irish have not been more like the Greeks and Spanish protesting against unemployment, the bank bailouts, austerity Budgets and cuts to public services? This article delves into that subject and offers some suggestions as to why this is the case and some indications for progressive social movements in Ireland. Firstly, it provides a short overview of the history of protest in Ireland and how this, along with successful state strategies of control, and the decisions of key political forces of opposition have stopped us from protesting the biggest economic collapse in the history of our state. This article is based on my practical experience and academic research into the politics of protest*.

Austerity Kills

History of Protest in Ireland

Protest and opposition has had varying aims and forms and involved a range of groups and classes in Ireland. This has included the poor, working class, the Catholic Church, middle classes, tenant farmers, factory workers, women, teachers etc. Here is a snap shot of some of most well-known protests in the last three centuries of our history.

1840-1880s: Daniel O Connell and the struggle for catholic emancipation which involved ‘monster meetings’, where it is reported between 100,000 and one million people attended one such meeting on the hill of Tara.  There was also the Fenians, the Young Irelanders and the Land League in this period. The Land League fought for the right of tenant farmers to own their own land and organised resistance to evictions, withheld rent, and held monster meetings of tenant farmers with 15,000 to 20,000 reported to have attended some.

1890s-1920s: There were campaigns/movements/armed insurgency for Independence and alternative structures set up parallel to the colonial state administration including the Gaelic League and community co-operatives. Alongside and within these independence struggles was action by the working class for social rights, against exploitation for a fair distribution of wealth. Through trade unions and the Labour Party workers organised the 1913 Lock Out, a General Strike in 1918 against conscription, workers councils (soviets) in Limerick and Belfast in 1919, and a General Strike in 1920. Many were motivated by Connolly’s argument that an independent republic of Ireland would be worthless unless it was built on freedom from exploitation – a socialist republic.

1930s to 50s: The newly independent state was controlled by conservative middle class nationalists and the Catholic Church.

1960s & 1970s: Emergence of civil rights movements; particularly the ‘Free’ Derry (‘Battle of the Bogside’) in relation to housing discrimination against Catholics in 1968, there was the 1971 ‘contraception’ train involving former President, Mary Robinson, and others, then in 1978 over 20,000 people marched against the destruction of Viking Dublin Wood Quay and city council tenant held a series of rent strikes.

Early 1980s: The Dublin Council of Trade Unions organised the massive tax marches and general strikes with150,000 marching in Dublin in 1979. In 1980 350,000 attended in the probably the largest demonstration in the history of the state. There were also the Hunger strike marches in Dublin in 1981 and protests at the British embassy. In 1984 10,000 protested at the visit of US president Ronald Reagan protests. Between 1978 and 1981 anti-nuclear protests and festivals were held at Carnsore Point in Wexford. While in 1984 and 1985 the Dunnes stores worker’s held the anti-apartheid strikes and protest.

Then in 1987 the trade unions entered social partnership agreements with the Government led by Charles Haughey. The unions agreed to ‘industrial peace’ and wage restraint in order to achieve economic development in Ireland and to try avoiding an Irish ‘Thatcherism’ attack on the trade unions.

1990s: There were the on-going Dublin inner city drugs and poverty marches, the anti-water charges campaign from 1994 to 1996 and the X case abortion protests.

2001-2003 There was a significant working class protest against the inequality of the Celtic Tiger through resistance to the imposition of bin charges but social partnership dominated at a national level.

2003: Anti- Iraq war march with 150,000 in Dublin

2004: Anti -globalisation EU summit protests in Dublin & May Day protests with 5000 people attending

2005-present day: Corrib gas, ‘Shell to Sea’ community campaign and protests. The Jailing of the Rossport 5 led to thousands marching in Dublin. Also protests by Ringsend community against a proposed incinerator and similar in Cork.

2005: December. 100,000 people took part in protests and strikes across the country in support of Irish Ferries workers and against outsourcing and exploitation of workers.

2008: First austerity protests: Senior citizens protested against the withdrawal of the medical card

2009: In February 100,000 people protested at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ‘There is a Fairer Way’ protests. A public sector General Strike was held in November and Community, youth and drug projects held a massive 12,000 demonstration in September.

2010: November 40,000 students march and 100,000 attend ICTU protest.

2011: Election of Fine Gael/Labour government. Ballyhea ‘anti-anglo debt’ protests start, Occupy Dame Street commences, Vita Cortex workers organise their ‘sit-in’ occupation, and the Roscommon Hospital Action campaign protests.

2012: Over 50% non-payment of the new household charge. 15,000 protest at pre- Budget march against austerity, teachers protest over cuts and salaries, in Waterford 15,000 march against hospital downsizing.

2013: In February 80,000 protest across the country in the ICTU organised ‘Anglo Not Our Debt’ protest.  Public servants oppose then agree to Croke Park wage agreement, the Wood Land League protest against sale of our Forests, Special Need Assistants, parents and teachers protest education cuts.

Understanding Protest in Ireland

This short snap-shot of protest in Ireland reveals a number of features of the nature of protest in Ireland and helps explain our (lack of) response to the crisis since 2008.

This history demonstrates clear evidence of significant protest and rebellion. For example, Ireland’s population is 4.6 million, France’s 65 million and the UK 63 million. This means that the 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin marching against austerity are equivalent to 1.5 million in Paris or London, so ours are relatively, extremely large.

However, given the extent of oppression and famine as a British colony and then poverty and economic stagnation as an Independent state culminating in austerity and crisis in recent years, it is surprising there hasn’t been a lot more rebellion. This can be explained by the various strategies adopted by both political forces and individuals in Ireland. There is evidence both of strong solidarity and extreme individualism.

In particular, the issue of nationalism and independence has been prioritised over exploitation of workers and social rights. The nationalist, conservative middle and upper class leaders, along with the Church, have used nationalism to ensure protest movements have not fundamentally challenged the power structures of Irish capitalism. This has been underpinned by a particularly cruel, ‘right-wing’ and individualistic streak to the Irish elite (senior civil and public servants, Government politicians, big business leaders). In the face of extreme hardship for the majority of the population this elite has, since the Famine, been prepared to accept a significant proportion of the Irish people as ‘collateral damage’ in order to hold on to their power and privileges and avoid the transformation required to address the issues affecting the majority. We can see this in the way the elite consistently use emigration as a ‘pressure valve’ to rid the country of its ‘problems’ like the unemployed workers and educated youth who might challenge societies’ structures.

The state has also successfully co-opted the principal forces of potential opposition – the trade unions, left political parties and charity and voluntary sectors within a programme of national development.  From the 1980s to the current period trade unions and charity NGOs have chosen to be part of ‘social partnership’ agreements rather than developing alternative ideas and proposals and mobilising protests.  Through social partnership agreements the Irish state managed to get these groups to agree to sign up to ‘non-political’ action clauses. This meant that trade unions could not organise strike action on any issue that was not directly related to wages and conditions of their members and community and voluntary organisations could only use state funding for providing services and not to engage in ‘political’ action. Therefore, these political forces could not engage publicly in a critical manner in the key issues of inequality, the nature and form of the welfare state and the Celtic Tiger, public services, democracy etc.

This has resulted in a shocking lack of leadership in the current crisis period from these groups. This is a key factor in explaining the lack of protest in Ireland as in other countries these groups are the key mobilising forces in organising mass demonstrations and arguing for, and articulating in the public space, a vision for society based on radical transformation towards social justice, equality, democracy, sustainability. These forces are weakened by their fear of being seen as ‘political’ and taking radical, critical positions or challenging the status quo of neoliberalism. They do not provide a rationale for people as to why they should protest and thus many people feel protest is pointless. There has been little faith or belief amongst the leadership of the ‘Left’ and particularly the Labour Party in making the case for such values and vision and in the role of mobilising ordinary people. Instead they have pursued an elitist form of politics that is focused on being in Government. Power is considered only to lie in the Cabinet and not as an active opposition.

In the last election, where people turned to left and independent politics – the Left increased its number of TDs from 34 to 64 TDs – Labour squandered the potential for a realignment in Irish politics to radically challenge the system, by entering government with Fine Gael. If they had stayed in opposition and united with Sinn Fein and the Socialists it could have provided a mobilising and empowering opposition.

At an individual level, perhaps it is our Catholic guilt and associated self-loathing or post-Colonial inferiority and tendency to ‘tip our cap to the Landlord’, that we believe the crisis is ‘our fault’. We have accepted the explanation put forward by Fianna Fail and Enda Kenny and the mainstream economists  that the cause of the crash and austerity is that we all ‘partied too hard’ in the boom and borrowed too much to fuel our ‘excessive’ lifestyles. We believe we are to blame, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The political establishment in Ireland has been extremely successful in convincing the Irish people with this narrative. This leaves Irish people with a problem. If the boom and subsequent crash was our own fault then who do we protest against? Ourselves?  This has also lead to an individualisation and internalisation of the crisis as the stresses of mortgage distress, emigration, unemployment etc. are kept within us and our families and is expressed through isolation, depression, suicide, family break up, alcoholism etc.

The Irish political system does manage to respond to some of the issues raised by these groups and individuals through complicated processes, at local and national level, of ‘clientelism’. In this system you must make your case in an intelligent and pragmatic way. If you are persistent and effective the system will address your problem and thus avoids the potential for individuals and groups to organise collectively to demand systemic change. This also legitimises the ‘gombeen’, ‘cute hoorism’, that Dr Tom O Connor has written so well about. If you keep your ‘head down’ and don’t ‘rock the boat’ you will be ‘ok’. It is also a reflection of Irish people’s ambivalent attitude toward the state that ranges from apathy to hatred and powerlessness. It has meant that rather than trying to reform the state people have opted to do it themselves in their communities through the St Vincent de Paul, community development projects, youth work, homework clubs and the GAA.

Our educational system has also taught us obedience and conformity and critical thinking has been discouraged. Subjects which might teach people to think about how society is structured are not thought in second-level. At third level, critical, ‘Left-wing’ Irish academics have been incredibly silent in the public sphere on the crisis that has engulfed the country.

The surprising thing is that protest and campaigns have been quite effective and successful in Ireland. There was the successful struggle for independence, workers’ strikes and protest achieved better working conditions and pay and the right to join a trade union, the Carnsore festivals stopped the development of nuclear power in Ireland, the inner-city communities’ marches achieved improved funding for community projects and the pensioners protest in 2008 maintained their access to the medical card.

Protests also achieve something more fundamental. In the coming together of individuals in a collective space of protest and campaigns, human dignity is asserted, if even for those brief moments. The individualised and internalised depression and powerlessness that dominates our lives is transformed into a sense of purpose, a collective power, a collective space. The alternative is a destruction of our humanity as we live without resistance and just accept the daily misery of oppression and injustice. There is a freedom in resistance, a sense of achievement, purpose and solidarity in defending and fighting for the rights of your fellow human beings.

It also takes many, many different forms that can be effective in their own way. From St Vincent De Paul’s postcard campaign against austerity, to Oxfam and Social Justice Ireland’s alternative Budget submissions, to youth campaigning against Jobsbridge, the Claiming Our Future public discussions, the disability sector mobilising through press conferences, the Simon Community radio adds against homelessness, ordinary people phoning radio shows, people voting ‘No’ in the referendum on the Seanad, the non-payment of the household charge, voting for alternative parties and candidates in the election, emailing politicians, engaging in community work.

Despite our collective failure to resist austerity during this first phase of the post-Celtic Tiger crisis there remains significant potential for the emergence of an alternative politics. When we ‘regain our sovereignty’, post bailout, the social landscape will be scarred by unemployment, youth emigration, mortgage crisis, apartheid in our health services, and the injustice of a €64bn illegitimate public debt created as a result of private banking and not written down in order to save the European and Global financial system. Within these lie the opportunity for new politics and social movements to challenge and mobilise for progressive transformative alternatives.

Rory Hearne

*Rory Hearne has been involved since the late 1990s in issues of social justice, equality, democracy and sustainability. He has spent many years in political activism which included being president of the Students’ Union in Trinity College and organising protests against the G8 leaders in Genoa in Italy 2001, bin charges protests in Dublin in 2003, the anti-war protests in Ireland, the anti-globalisation 2004 protests in Dublin, the Ringsend community campaign against incineration, saving local hospitals amongst others. He also worked as a community worker on human rights and the regeneration of a disadvantaged community in Dublin’s inner city from 2007 until 2013. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Geography in NUIM and is involved in a voluntary basis in the Claiming Our Future network. You can listen to him discussing the history and effectiveness of protest in Ireland with a member of the Senior Citizen’s Parliament, a disability activist and a Labour Party Senator on a recent edition of RTE Radio 1’s Marion Finucane show on the Politics of Protest broadcast on Sunday Oct 13th.