We may top the austerity class but the pain is very real
On Wednesday night the social media news agency Storyful tweeted a video link to clients headlined “Protesters clash with police after Ireland approves another austerity budget”.
When asked later whether this headline over-dramatised the events on Kildare Street after the Dáil debate, Storyful accepted that scuffles was probably a better word than clashes. The Irish newspapers the next days also reported how a few people had been involved in the incident which involved mainly “pushing and shoving” with gardaí. Pushing and shoving has been the Irish response to austerity. Athens it isn’t.
To many abroad, and, indeed, some at home, it is a real surprise that Ireland has managed to pass six austerity budgets in a row without riots on our streets. It would be wrong, however, for either our national leaders or our international lenders to be complacent about the Irish capacity, psychologically or financially, to absorb austerity. Ireland may be the best boy in the austerity class but Ireland is still hurting.
It is true that anyone looking from without would have to look closely to find signs of significant dissent against the austerity programme. The various protests in Ireland on either side of the abortion debate in recent weeks have been larger and more intense.
Over the last six years the trade unions and others have organised a handful of well-attended anti-austerity marches but these have been more rallies than riots. The impact of the most recent of these got lost in disagreement between the organisers over whether they were calling for a general strike.
The only ones actually taking to the streets on budgetary issues of late are the disabled or ill, their carers and their supporters. In fact the cut in the respite grant for carers may end up being the only measure in this austerity budget on which the Government faces serious heat or has to backtrack.
The Government has handled most of this budget with political skill. Confining deliberations to Kenny, Gilmore, Noonan, and Howlin worked to contain misinformed speculation and public agitation.
Once the budget provisions became the subject of discussion at the wider Cabinet they leaked extensively but in a way which helped to soften the public up for the more controversial proposals.
By far the most significant aspect of this budget is the introduction of a domestic property tax. It affects every domestic property owner, and will take in about half a billion euro. By deciding to cross this Rubicon, treading as he does on Irish sensitivities about home ownership and household taxes, Noonan has shown more political bravery than most.
The fact that the property tax has been set at the relatively lower rate of 0.18 per cent and will only apply from July in 2013 makes it a little easier to swallow. Joe Higgins and others who campaigned against the household charge will no doubt manage to get hundreds to gather for marches against this new property tax but there will be no mass protests.