Ireland’s response: indolence or insurrection?
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.