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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 11, 2008 @ 12:05 am

    Rocking the Cradle of Democracy

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    The Pork and Beef saga at home has distracted attention from the social and political turmoil taking place on the territory of one of our EU partners. Since they’re so far away and get such an enviable amount of sunshine, we Irish think we have little in common with the Greeks.

    However it may turn out that events in the cradle of democracy are a harbinger of things to come in other parts of Europe. If it is true, as the “experts” tell us, that we are heading into the worst economic crisis since the Thirties, then we may well be facing the same level of political upheaval that was seen in those not-so-far-off days.

    There have been issues with the banks in Greece. We are told there is quite a high level of political corruption. There are extremist elements just below the surface of society – we may not have many anarchists here in Ireland, but there are others ready and willing to play the pied piper if our current social and political set-up starts to unravel.

     Today I was asked to give an interview to BBC television about the Lisbon Treaty and Brian Cowen’s plan – which we expect to be revealed at the Brussels Summit this week – to re-run the referendum with some bells and whistles plus a spoonful of sugar or two in order to sweeten up the electorate.

    Soundbites and social analysis don’t mix and I wasn’t able to go into one of the important if largely-unspoken reasons that Lisbon went down. That’s the disillusionment of a large proportion of the population with the political system. TDs and ministers are getting paid too much; there’s too many of them and a goodly number don’t seem to do anything very relevant or useful; many deputies have “inherited” their seats from their fathers and then we have these recurring stories about them hiring family relatives as employees; there are so many junior ministers and committee chairs that backbenchers are becoming a rarity; teams of civil servants spend their days doing constituency work for ministers at public expense; side-deals with Independents mean other constituencies are left out in the cold; and so on.

    There’s also the penchant that our various interest-groups have for using issues such as the Lisbon Treaty to promote their own agendas: remember the way the farmers used it as a bargaining-chip in relation to the world trade talks.

     We have already seen the huge row about the restrictions on medical cards for the over-70s, who took advantage of the free travel for seniors to come to Dublin to protest; we had a very large demonstration about the education cuts last Saturday. The potential for upheaval exists in this country, if the economy continues to deteriorate and the quality of our political leadership fails to improve.

    As a journalist I can see the attractions of covering the story of social breakdown but as a citizen, frankly, I fear for the future. Brian Lenihan in his Budget speech called for patriotism, but there is little sign of this in our society, least of all at the top,  and the  motto seems to be, “Look after Number One”.

     Deaglán de Bréadún

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, I was just working up a piece for SluggerOToole which was prompted mainly by the PAD activities in Thailand. You’re right in that Greece is a more apt point of comparison for us.

      I will say this, if the citizenship referendum or something like it were being run with next year’s local and European elections it would be a much different climate to that five years ago and I shudder to think of the type of reaction we might see on the doorsteps and on the streets. And I’m not trying to echo Enoch Powell in any way.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for reminding me of Thailand, Dan. That was another display of people power. Quite impressive and disciplined too. Corruption was a key issue, as in Greece. We have our own sweet smell of corruption here too, of course. Could there be a display of people-power in Ireland? To some extent we already had it, with the over-70s protests. It could grow, if people don’t acquire more confidence in their political leadership. I was reminded earlier today of a couple of lines from W.B. Yeats who asked:
      Is every modern nation like the tower,
      Half dead at the top?

      Mind you, W.B. had quasi-fascist leanings for a while in the Thirties.

    • Rosemary says:

      My reading of the situation is that the Irish citizen doesn’t have a huge amount of patriotism for a country he/she sees in the present Government; that is to say that, while I have a patriotism for Ireland, my country, I have neither respect nor understanding for a Government that has been seen to do nothing to change my opinions in the recent past.

      While the turmoil that Greece is seeing at the moment is tragic and also not the ideal situation (at all), I would like to imagine that current economic and financial crises, coupled with disillusionment with the Government, and the above-mentioned corruptions and wrongdoings in the public service, will result in a form of anarchy, whereby, for the first time in half a century, the Irish people shake off the shackles of apathy and protest when it is necessary, shout when they need to be heard and sit down only when the fight is over… will it happen? We’ll have to wait and see. The next few months will not be pleasant, but I’m hoping they will at least be positive.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      I share your concern … Greece may be the weakest link in the European democratic chain but these things have a domino effect. And we still haven’t seen the economic precipice we are about to fall over next year yet.

      The two Brians are now telling us that far from the slowdown to positive growth of 1% in 2009 we are facing “negative growth” of 5% (a deep, deep recession with a further collapse of tax revenues, increasing the downward spiral).

      This one will be different though – this will be a recession that affects the middle classes more severely than any previous recession. Already half of the architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers in the country are on the dole. For most, it is their first experience of the government kicking them when they are down. And many were self-employed contractors so have no entitlement to dole at all (in spite of paying PRSI).

      The two Brians are promising to slash public spending further so as to not raise tax. That will ensure that there will be no respite for the building industry. The escape-valve of emigration is also absent this time. This one will be at least as challenging as the 1930s depression that followed the Wall Street Crash. We are facing soup kitchens, massive homelessness, and an explosion of income inequality.

      In that context, gangs of hungry, unemployed, homeless Irish builders on the streets intent on destruction will make the Greek students look like a basket of unruly kittens. Closing airports will be what they do for light relief.

      The chickens have well and truly come home to roost. The neo-liberal agenda is dead and, like the economy, what replaces it is likely to overshoot in the opposite direction. Just how far, is what scares me.

      Political leadership is clearly absent, as it is in Greece. Not until they come out and tell us in words of one syllable where we will be in two, three and five years’ time will we have any trust that they have a plan.

      So far, it looks like the two Brians, far from being in the driving-seat, are actually sitting at the back of the bus hoping that no one sees the cliff coming up, and in the full knowledge that, come what may, they, at least, will crawl out of the wreckage, big, fat state-guaranteed pensions in hand.

    • Deaglán says:

      That’s a stark picture you paint, Betterworld, especially the “gangs of hungry, unemployed, homeless Irish builders on the streets intent on destruction”. Sure hope it doesn’t come to that.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      October 2009 will be the crunch point for the self-employed. Their tax bill for 2007 (the last year they’ll have earned anything) falls due. After that, the revenue will be after them and foreclosures will escalate. The Revenue Comissioners could be exploiting their Dublin Castle address for all its defensive worth.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      We may be looking in the wrong place for our revolutionaries.

      David Begg of ICTU today warned of the danger of an outbreak of fascism in Ireland on Newstalk radio. He based this on a reading of history where the middle classes, when they are thrown on the scrapheap, react by electing dictators.

      He said that much of the recent unemployment created in Ireland involves solicitors, estate agents, architects and other pillars of the middle class. This, he said, had never happened before in Ireland and he looked to Germany in the 1930s for a comparable example. Full employment was one NAZI electoral promise, which was delivered on.

      Given the Greek history of fascist dictatorships, the Greek military may even now be just biding their time before they invade the universities. Crushing the skulls of anarchists is what they do best.

      And Greece is not alone in the economic problems it faces or its political corruption. They also share a history of totalitarianism with more than a few of their neighbours. Much of the EU is composed of fundamentally fascist states of one form or another that have only recently been civilised by the existence of benign economic conditions.

      Soup kitchens change everything.

    • Yiorgos Chouliaras says:

      You may wish to look up “Hijacking Democracy” by Greece’s Secretary General of Information Panos Livadas, posted by “The Huffington Post” on December 16, 2008:

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