An Occupy Dame Street poster in Dublin. Flickr/William Murphy. Some rights reserved.
It has become something of a cliché to compare the passivity of the Irish in the face of the Troika’s brutal austerity programme with the inspirational resistance of the Spanish M15 movement, the Greek movement of the squares and Iceland’s saucepan revolution. Conservative media have even used the contrast as an advertising slogan.
Reports of the death of Irish activism are, perhaps, a tad exaggerated and rely on mistaken cross-cultural comparisons. Different societies have different “normal” levels of protest as well as different cultural orientations towards the kinds of protest which people engage in. Since the crisis began in 2007-8, Dublin has had a couple of demonstrations around the 100,000 mark, which is as large as protests ever get in Ireland (in a city of 1.5 million it represents a sizeable chunk of the population), comparable (for example) to the massive anti-war protests of February 15 2003.
While such protests are not everyday events, they indicate that Ireland is currently experiencing at least a medium level of protest by its own standards. In this sense, it can be compared to other peripheral countries such as Portugal and Italy (and more loosely to anti-austerity protests in countries like the UK and France): Ireland is just not that unusual by European standards. The Irish left also shares with other European countries the tendency to believe that elsewhere, “in Europe”, other people are doing things better in terms of resistance.
Why do Europeans put up with so much?
Looked at differently, there are certainly real questions as to why Europeans in general are so accepting of austerity, only some of which can be usefully answered with the culturalist analysis that assumes a fault in national character. For example, Ireland’s religious past is often blamed for political conservatism; and it is certainly true that the collusion of many in older generations with “normal violence” in schools, clerical sexual abuse, industrial schools and Magdalen laundries makes it harder to challenge other forms of power. Yet Greece and Spain share this history of conservative regimes built on repression and clerical power and representing the interests of one part of the society against another, and in more overt forms.
It might be more accurate to ask how everyday Irish respectability, normality, and avoidance of conflict were built on mechanisms of repression which often operated within the family and community, undermining the ability of the victims to become political subjects on a larger scale as the Spanish or Greek left could – and combining with the use of emigration as a safety valve to remove those who lose out in the Irish process of capital accumulation from the political sphere altogether. Neither process is unknown elsewhere in Europe; but they are perhaps particularly sharp in Ireland.
Ireland’s “social partnership”, one of the other most common answers, probably bears more of the blame. Ireland operated a very late version of neo-corporatism, binding unions to employers and the state and including community groups and NGOs from many different movements in consultative and funding arrangements that left their leaderships effectively a subcontracted part of the state. Understandably, the net effect is that in a crisis the organisational elites of popular movements are mostly oriented to restoring this status quo ante. If partnership in this overt sense is an Irish peculiarity, however, close relationships between trade union and NGO leaderships and centre-left parties are not. Since most such parties interpret “pro-European” as the loyal implementation of austerity, it is a common enough European experience that unions and NGOs act to manage popular discontent and smooth the way for austerity.
Having said all this, there have certainly been major weaknesses to how Irish movements, and in particular movement organisations, have responded to austerity. Many organisations, disconcerted by the rise of popular activism outside the ambit of the state earlier in the 2000s, seized the opportunity of the crisis to reassert the importance of their own state-centric focus: an approach shared by Labour Party fronts such as “Claiming our Future” with Trotskyist organisations. Primarily organisational responses were sought for the crisis, with the construction of alliances for demonstrations or lobbying led by professional activists.
Increasingly, however, these strategies brought diminishing returns, tending rather to underline the way in which organisation-heavy approaches had demobilised popular participation – and hence the lack of active popular support. The state could reasonably look at such efforts, ask “you and whose army?” and proceed to swing the axe of austerity with a will. At present, in the context of severe defeats, alliances are breaking apart and narrow organisational interests are being pursued in the hope of winning internal victories where no external ones are available.
And yet, as Galileo is supposed to have said, it moves. The Dublin Occupy lasted longer than most (until March 2012) and was one of six around the country. Popular outrage at the death of Savita Halappanavar as a result of Ireland’s ban on abortion led to massive popular protests, finally forcing legislation on an issue which the state had avoided acting on for two decades. In the far northwest, popular resistance to the Shell / Statoil gas pipeline in Erris continues, twelve years after the pipe was first approved – and anti-fracking protests are spreading across the midlands. Irish people, it seems, are not as passive as they are supposed to be; and both Occupy and the gas and oil campaigns have highlighted the links to austerity politics.
In more conventional contexts, the state’s first attempt to introduce a household tax in 2012 was met with approximately half of private households failing to pay. Although the campaign was defeated in 2013, this popular split is reflected elsewhere, as with the government’s recent attempt to abolish the senate (which would have given a right-wing government an even freer hand in the implementation of austerity). In both cases, urban and working-class Irish people have been more resistant, with rural and middle-class voters more open to austerity. In very simple terms, those who understand themselves as part of the system and as having interests tied up with property ownership and business are broadly supportive of austerity and hostile to protest: in opinion polls, about half the country.
If Ireland has been unique in European terms, it has been in its tradition of a massively right-wing electorate, with 80 – 90% of votes going to centre-right parties deriving from the independence movement (a pattern shared with other postcolonial countries). In recent elections, a substantial chunk of votes have moved leftwards out of this camp, which is now capable of securing perhaps 55 – 60% in actual elections. Much of this leftward movement is contradictory: supporting the Labour Party, which is enthusiastically implementing austerity as a coalition partner in the South, or Sinn Féin, which is doing the same north of the border. This behaviour is paralleled by actual demonstrations, where the two monster protests mentioned earlier were organised by trade unions loyal to the Labour Party.
For now, many working-class and disaffected voters nevertheless want to believe that they can be adequately represented by the historical labour and nationalist organisations; or, put another way, there is a contradiction between the needs and anger they are expressing and the organisations they use to express that anger. And yet the speed of electoral change, the extra-parliamentary movements mentioned above and the growing vote for far-left and independent candidates all suggests that this support is fragile at best.
If the Irish have a real peculiarity as protestors, it is that they do not like to stand out from the crowd. The result is that most Irish movements consist initially of small numbers of “outsiders” protesting, with others sharing their feelings but anxiously watching their friends, family and neighbours to see if they will be considered strange for expressing those feelings, verbally or in action. At times, very large numbers of people come to the same conclusion at the same time: this is why Ireland is one of the few countries in western Europe to have got rid of nuclear power and one of the few anywhere where the peasants won the land decisively. Whether the present crisis will be another such situation is too early to tell.