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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 3, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Ireland’s response: indolence or insurrection?

    Harry McGee

    What was fascinating about Louise Minihan’s brazen, hollw and  self-serving stunt against Mary Harney earlier this week was the infrequency of the impolite protest.

    Compared to Greece and to France, the reaction to the punitive policies of the Government in recent months has been  muted. Sure, there are displays of anger but the Frontline of public frustration is a television programme bearing the name or its radio equivalent, Liveline. Not the streets.

    The trade unions, students and a variety of small left wing parties and collectives have tried to mount mass protests. But when they have been large(ish) they have been once-off and there has been no continuity. A scuffle between a small number of provocateurs and Gardai at the gates of Leinster House generated a bit of hype. But the organisers hope of building it into a mass protest died a death a few weeks later when the crowds frittered away, battened back by a mixture of indifference and persistent Irish drizzle.

    The only mass protest that has been successful in recent years was the very impressive street protest organised by pensioners against the abolition of universal availability of the Over 70s medical card. Indeed, one or two Fianna Fail TDs – then Minister for the Elderly Maire Hoctor and Michael Kennedy – looked for a couple of minutes like they were in danger of being lynched, such was the anger of the crowd.

    That worked because, at the time, the measure evoked widespread sympathy among the population. Two years of incessant misery on the economic front – I would wager – might have reduced the well of sympathy. In other words, they might not get the same purhase with publicity and public support today as they got two years ago.

    The age of the mass protest seems to have ended in Ireland. The massive tax demonstrations of the 1970s and 1980s have not been repeated. Nor have other public protests from unions and from other organisations that ground Dublin city centre to a halt. As a point in fact, the only huge protest in recent years was over 100,000 people filling the streets of Dublin in 2003 to protest against the war in Iraq. The unions and student unions – organisers by nature – have got numbers out on the street once or twice but they have not had the impact you might have expected.

    Why has that happend?  Certainly, three is anger but it seems to me that a majority of people may resent what’s happening and may be privately angry but accept there is no alternative. Secondly, despite the image Ireland has of being a rebellious society, my own impression is that we are a very compliant society. The smoking ban worked a treat. We all wear seat belts and (largely) respect bus lanes and the rules of the road. Thirdly, Ireland is still a small, familiar and parochial country. Sure, there were loads of people who scoffed at, or railed, against Brian Cowen for his Marlon Brando-Godfather impersonation on Morning Ireland. But equally, I think, there were lots of people who felt a bit sorry for him after the hapless performance on the grounds of common recognition: familiarity with the situation the “poor divvil” found himself in.

    The political reality is that a change of Government will mean more of the same. The policies that will be implemented by any incoming regime will be broadly similar. Sure, there will be differences of nuance and emphasis. But if you are all committed to taking €15 billion out of the public economy, you are not going to do it without inflicting pain. You can change dentists and find the new guy recommends Colgate over Sensodyne. But he’s still going to attack your poor gnashers with a nasty  drill.

    The country’s students are marching today to protest against registration fees. I was that soldier once. The anger, though sincerely expressed, will disappear from the public consciousness almsot as soon as the streets return to silence.

    Perhaps protests are not our way of doing it. But there is a dearth of imagination in terms of political response across the entire society. There have been a few attempts by groups and individuals to come up with alternatives. But the difficulty is that the problems are so vast and so complex that it would take an extraordinary human being or group to be able to rally people behind a cohesive message, that is different or radical.

    You listen to Eirigi and People Before Profit and Socialists Workers representatives and they spout cliches, the kind that were targeted by George Orwell in his famous essay Politics and the English language.

    There was an effort at the weekend to build up a movement. But it needs to be ruthlessly focused, not collective. It just didn’t seem to me that that was happening.

    We may posture that we spurn our political class but then we spurn the alternatives any more.

    As a focal scoir, here are the only other dousing incidents that have taken place in recent years (I have thrown in a British example, because of its entertainment value).

    May 2009: At an extraordinary general meeting of AIB, the then chairman of the bank Dermot Gleeson was pelted with an egg which landed on his suit. The egg-thrower, disgruntled shareholder Gary Keogh (65) narrowly missed then chief executive Eugene Sheehy with another egg. “Always aim for the body” was his advice to would-be egg-throwers.

    April 2002: Campaigning during the general election, then Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan is hit with a custard pie in the face as he leaves his campaign bus in Boyle, Co Roscommon. The protestor, a balaclava-clad woman, claimed her real target was Ray MacSharry three days earlier, but could not arrange a babysitter.

    March 2002: Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness is pelted by eggs by unionist students at Queens University Belfast during a debate on the peace process. Sinn Fein blames DUP supporters for the attack.

    May 2001: While campaigning for the general election in Wales, British deputy prime minister John Prescott is pelted with an egg in the face from close range and responds by hitting the egg-thrower an uppercut in the face. He and the protester Craig Evans (29) then get involved in a scuffle. Police have to intervene to separate the two.

    • robespierre says:

      I think catholic guilt has a lot to do with it Harry. I lot people privately feel like Nurse pulled down their pantaloons and spanked them with the wooden spoon for getting above their station.

      I genuinely think that that is why there was an outpouring to some extent over things like Murphy and Ryan but not over the partial collapse of the economy.

      All of that said, and notwithstanding our current difficulties, the real economy is still ticking away and there is a real danger that too much focus is put on what we are not (or are not any longer) rather than what we are.

      There is a saying that you should never waste a good recession. One thing Bertie Ahern used to talk about (but do very little about) is to look at how issues relating to a lack of a sense of community can contribute to a collective sense of powerlessness. Of course he never said this – he merely mention Bowling Alone by Thomas Puttnam.

      There are a lot of “other things” that people could be enabled to do were enough oxygen be given to it in the public debate like visiting elderly neighbours, attending to community facilities, tidy town, amateur dramatics etc. etc.

      We surrendered some things during the nineties and the last decade that perhaps should not have been surrendered and bought into a mirage or two – just like Narcissus. Hence we are now enduring the echo.

    • minXie says:

      The only revolutionary thing that will come out of that despicable paint-throwing incident (which this commenter has aired her strong views against on as many forums as possible) is a fashion statement (which I alluded to, also on Deaglán blog when the incident happened). I actually took out my “little black dress” from the wardrobe and painted little petals of red with a Rimmel red nail polish (the shade is called “passion”) across the front of the dress. I now intend to get my hair cut to the style of Mary Harney’s. Whatever about the politics of the situation – and we all have our very strong views – one woman attacking another woman like this is totally unacceptable – but Mary Harney wins out imo since out of the incident arises a bold and exciting fashion statement.
      (PS – The first person to admonish this commenter on account of a perceived lack of seriousness with regard to Health matters gets a metaphorical pie in the face).

    • The effort at the weekend is basically a Labour party outreach effort intended to get those on the broad left to transfer to the Labour party when it comes to the general election. They came up with a group of aspirational vagueness which are about as much help as suggesting the future must be purple, nice and pleasant and feature the numbers 8 and 347 and the letters G and Ó. It could well work.

      But the core problem is not, as many at that event suggest, that no one is listening to ordinary people, it’s that no one is actually engaging in a conversation with ordinary people. Ordinary people up and down the country are talking a mile a minute on Joe Duffy, Frontline, their local radio version of those shows and in the local press etc. And they are being listened to. The problem is that no one is willing to respond to those same people with the cold hard uncomfortable facts or with a consistent viewpoint that they might not find 100% to their liking. Why? Because by in large no one gets elected by what is commonly viewed as lecturing “arguing with people” but is in reality treating them like grown ups and trying to tease out what in practical terms they want and how they might be prepared it to be paid for, it is far better to nod in agreement with them and then go off and do nothing. And you know what the people vote for the head nodders and the ones who are good at empathising! Empathy and Sympathy get you elected, being practical and working out a plan or a pathway out of a situation don’t.

      There was a time in the 80s when the PDs were formed and the Worker Party were making inroads when it dawned on some people both on the left and the right that stuff has to be paid for, the left thought the solution was more takes and the right thought a solution was less stuff paid for from the public purse. but both were at least equating having stuff with paying for it. Sadly, the PDs once in office lacked the courage of their own convictions and told people they could have the lower taxes needed so they as individuals could choose to spend it on their own schools or health insurance. They would have choice along with the money to exercise it. Except the PDs didn’t tell inform them that this should mean those individuals would have to pay for their schools and health insurance costs cos the economy started to boom and the PDs let wider society to continue to pick up the tab for more and more services while letting the tax base get smaller and smaller while the individual funnelled their money into bidding wars for 3 bed semi and frippery of big screen TVs and fashion couches and redecorating. This failure meant that we’ve ended up with a politically dysfunctional electorate who think they can have things with they paying for them. As if the state has it’s own paper round out of which to get the money to fund services.

      Everyone appears to want a major hospital in every county or even the large towns, but no one wants to pay increased taxes or hospitals charges to fund the.

      Everyone wants their own taxes to be lower but thinks those of someone else should be higher.

      Everyone appears to want education to be free but we want those working in it to be paid top dollar but we can’t have too much of a differential between those whose skills are harder to come by and those who we might have surplus of.

      Almost everyone appears to think that they’re amongst the most vulnerable in society and that they must be protected. We have the Labour party defending the universal payment of child benefit to families with six figure incomes on the basis that the main bread winner might be a tight fisted so and so and hence we have to ensure the mother has a few quid to feed the kids. Next people will be suggesting we give extra tax credits to those who abuse their spouses!

      Everyone appears to think that the decisions of the last decade and more were made in secret by a few dozen
      people with the active support of no one in the wider population.

      Everyone appears to think that they had no hand, act or part in any of the political decisions of the last decade despite going out and voting in 3 general elections. And at each election rewarding the most self indulgent of promises without a care for how they would be paid for. If politicians lie to the people, it’s only because the people reward the liars and cast out the others.

      Everyone appears to want Scandinavian levels of public services but US style incomes taxes.

      Everyone in business wants less red tape and for the state to get out of their way but they also want loads of grants, export subsidies and to be bailed out when things go south for them.

      We are to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams prepared to believe six impossibly contradictory things before breakfast and then complain when someone in power doesn’t make them so.

      *my use of the expression everyone isn’t correct as there are in each case small groups of people with enough common sense to realise this is ridiculous but they, for the most part, know better than to raise their voices against the overwhelming majority who think otherwise.

    • Liam says:

      I guess when the greater population is in receipt of €15billion a year net unearned why protest now. There is contempt out there for the establishment but so long as people are enjoying the “hair of the dog” there will not be any meaningful protests. Also most middle class people wont attend the same rallies that the usual leftie types frequent. Lucky government! as for the rest as long as there is X factor and footie on Sky, the proles will be kept distracted.

    • Liam O'Mahony says:

      While I will never vote for Sinn Fein until the IRA-spawned generation has passed on, I applaud Ms Minihan for her action. ‘Blood on her hands’ was quite appropriate in the circumstances given the prefligate waste of Ms Harney’s dept. and especially the HSE with their myriad of needless management layers and armies of HR people …while front-line nursing and hospital services are being decimated. Witness the plush new ensuite toilets for ministers while cystic fibrosis patients die for want of the same (only much more modest) facilities.
      And how many correspondents decried Ms Minihan’s action for its ‘brutality’ …such brutality is tiny compared to the state brutality of letting sick people die! I for one, hope we will see many more paint-throwing episodes and only hope that non-Sinn Fein people will have the courage to do so. I’d welcome the opportunity myself!

    • robespierre says:

      Liam while I understand what you are saying that comment is grossly unfair on at two hundred thousand people who were in work and contributing to the benefit they are now drawing down.

      While those of us with jobs are working harder to remain relevant, nobody is bullet proof and I meet enough clients through my work to know that while things are now just about manageable for the businesses that are still around that could all change next month.

      The structural long-term unemployed (i.e. the 200,000 that were not working during the boom and bubble) is an entirely different question but you need to be careful what you wish for when talking about what is merited and what is not merited.

      Like Father Ted hammering out a dent on the bonnet of his car, the law of unintended consequences of cutting into the means of the most welfare dependent households has consequences elsewhere.

      What I would be sure of, is that no household should be able to claim 45,000 euros tax free as some are currently able to in Ireland for milking the system. I like Geogre Osborne and IDS’ approach to:
      a) Rationalise and streamline benefits into a manageable amount of headings
      b) Ensure that the totality of benefits does not exceed (or even compete with) what is available to working families on the minimum wage.

    • rebelrouser says:

      Oh my god..I can hardly see to type for laughing…whoever said ‘those who the gods intend to destroy they first made mad’ could not have hoped for more conclusive evidence…
      Painting petals on a dress with the cheapest nail polish on the market called ‘passion’…Hope you’re getting all the subliminal messages here boys…
      Anyone who’d want to emulate Orca’s institutionalised Rounhead haircut haircut must be stonewall mad…
      Stop the lights…Oh Thank-you thank-you thank-you God…
      I didn’t think today could get any better after the judgment in the High Court but that’s just crowned it…
      I might just go and slip into a little red number called ‘fashion’ to celebrate…

    • Harry McGee says:

      Sorry about the slowness in moderating the comments. It was very busy earlier on and the comments have all been long and involved. Dan Sullivan’s is a blog in itself. Indeed his own site http://www.dansullivan.ie/blog is always worth checking out.

    • minXie says:

      @ 7 – Clearly it is difficult for you, since you (and your multiple personalities) thrive on negativity but please, OMG, pretty please, one of you, try to come up with something original. It is as though my comment is “the photograph”, or “positive” image and your comment is just “the negative” of that.

      @ Daniel Sullivan – such a long post and you are basically saying that it is prudent to be silent at this time?? But I enjoyed reading it.

    • rebelrouser says:

      Le Rouge et Le Noir…Red is obviously the new black this season darling…what you might call Sinn Fashion..!

    • dealga says:

      Dan’s comment deserves to be tidied up and published in the Opinion section of the paper.

    • minXie says:

      [Sorry, Harry (i know it's only a little thing) but could you stick an "o" in what i think is meant to be "hollow" in the first sentence of your post.]

    • mark says:

      @10 — Are you for real?
      The red paint on black dress incident as “fashion statement” belongs to minXie.


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