What's another (terrible) year?
There was an equally familiar ring to the sound of gold dropping into Ministers’ bank accounts. The Irish Times revealed that the combined pensions of members of the Cabinet would cost €36 million to buy on the open market. Even more startling was the discovery that pensions for ministers of State would cost almost €20 million and those for six other office holders would cost over €10 million. Thus Denis O’Donovan of Fianna Fáil, who failed to be elected to the Dáil last year, had the kind of “soft landing” that the economy was supposed to enjoy. Fianna Fáil councillors elected him to the Seanad, where he became Leas Ceann Comhairle. Partly as a result, he has a pension pot worth €1.3 million.
It was hard to feel that much had really changed when a politician most citizens have never heard of, Paddy Burke, is entitled to a pension worth €2.2 million for his sterling service in keeping the Seanad in order. Or that ministers had much moral authority in dealing with the extravagant pay and pensions of bankers. The revelation that 24 executives at bailed-out Bank of Ireland earn more than €400,000 a year; that 10 Allied Irish Bank executives are in the same position and that seven officials at the dead Anglo Irish Bank are receiving more than €500,000 a year in public salaries, added to the general sense that within the storm of misery and anxiety there are balmy islands of plush tranquillity.
Power and protest
Thus, perhaps, the pervasive sense of powerlessness. The pain of so-called austerity has made little difference to economic prospects. The general election made little difference to political renewal. The collapse of the banks made little difference to the privileges of those who run them. If such big things have such small consequences, is there anything that can break the rather ugly mould in which so many people are trapped?
One answer is the old, deeply rooted instinct: change is individual, not collective. You don’t change your society, you change your location.
More than 90,000 people have left Ireland since 2010, voting with their feet and their futures. But it would be wrong to conclude that passivity is the only alternative to emigration. There were protests of all sorts throughout 2012: the Vita Cortex workers in Cork, the Occupy movements in all the main cities, the rallies in support of the Quinn family in Co Cavan, protests about septic tanks and protected bogs in rural Ireland, demonstrations against the household charge, large anti-austerity marches, sit-ins by workers made redundant in Carlow, Cork and Limerick, farmers taking over the streets of Dublin, students marching against fee increases, and very large marches to protest against the death of Savita Halappanavar.
The point was not that people were declining to protest but that they couldn’t really agree what they wanted to protest about. If they could ever make up their minds, they might have some say in their own destinies.
Perhaps, like our ancient ancestors, we are looking for signs and portents. The rare appearance of the Northern Lights as far south as Mayo in 2012 must be a sign of something. The name of the phenomenon, aurora borealis, combines the Latin names for two great forces: the goddess of the dawn and the god of the icy north wind. It seemed somehow apt: the portents in the sky might be foretelling either a new dawn or a continuation of the big chill. Which it is to be may depend on whether the Irish are content for 2013 to be, like its predecessor, just another year.