Jim Carroll

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We all protested

After the parties come the protests. In the last 12 months, you were no-one if you didn’t get out there, do some fuming, shake your fist and say that you were as mad as hell and were not going to …

Mon, Jan 23, 2012, 09:03


After the parties come the protests. In the last 12 months, you were no-one if you didn’t get out there, do some fuming, shake your fist and say that you were as mad as hell and were not going to take this anymore. Students, old age pensioners, the residents of Ballyhea and Clontarf, the various Occupy banner-holders, the Vita Cortex and La Senza workers, hospital patients, Dubs with bins, rural dwellers with septic tanks, well-heeled dog-owners and everyone else seemed to get annoyed, irked, unhappy, cross and raging (and even a mite dirty, in the case of the bins and septic tanks). People who don’t normally protest, really. We all protested.

In some cases, the protests had the desired effect. A massive nationwide unhappiness with what happened towards the end of 14 years of Fianna Fail-led governments resulted in the Irish electorate turfing out the FF dynasties and failures last February to replace them with a Fine Gael and Labour government.

Within six months, though, we were protesting at that FG/Labour government and the measures they were taking. The house never loses, but the government of the day who end up having take unpopular, unpalatable decisions which were agreed with our new paymasters under the previous regime and which never formed part of their raft of election promises can never win. It’s the reason why we don’t protest at the opposition all that much. Suddenly, the bet that FF will be back in power after the next general election doesn’t look as much of a wildcat punt as it did a year ago. We’ll probably protest about that too, if it happens because we vote for it, with those politicians whose default setting is protest (probably protesting at the fact that they’ll never get into power) leading the way.

But while protests are a handy guage of popular anger about an issue of the day (or the issue of the day which gets the oxygen of a Liveline outing), you have to wonder what gets changed in the long-run. We’ve had the protests, but what’s next? Sure, there are short-term victories – for instance, Clontarf residents will point to the lack of a big wall blocking their houses from the sea as a victory, though none of them were getting too exercised about this three or years ago when it was first mooted – but such victories are more kick-the-can-down-the-road affairs. What will happen the next time that Dublin Bay decides to sweep across the Clontarf Road? Will every closed-down shop now mean worker sit-ins like La Senza before they get wages and payments to which they’re legally entitled?

The bigger issues remain as constant as they’ve always done, yet our failure to tackle those issues is never quite addressed because we’re too busy fuming about other stuff. Take that well-worn, right-on political meme about the need for reform. Most of us pay lip service to this, but the truth is that we know full well that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. The people who can make the move on political reform are the politicians in power and we all know how that one goes. Political reform is a great aul’ argument to throw out when the chattering classes need something to chew over, yet the public appetite for it just isn’t there no matter what we think. If it was, movements like We (Some of) the Citizens would have greater strength and support. It’s a big issue, it’s an important issue, but it’s not an immediate issue so it gets kicked down the road.

It’s easier to protest about stuff other than the stuff which really matters because we know in our heart of hearts that we haven’t got the will or the way to change the bigger picture. The big issues, the economic and political stuff of the nation, remain the same from one protesting or accounting period to the next. It’s as if we fear what might really happen if these were to change. We will fume and fumigate about the austerity budgetary measures being taken and extra taxes being applied to allegedly get this country out of the economic mess it’s in. We cheer when a couple of lads from various troika organisations who are sent out to answer a few questions get Brownebeaten on TV. We give it all a dirty look and let that pass for protest. You see, despite what we might think, we still have too much to lose to go hell for leather down a road which leads to the kind of change we think we’re for.

It’s when you’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain that protest really works. Look at the changes in the Arab world in the last year. Look at the chances and sacrifices and blood, sweat and tears it has taken to transform countries which many though would never change. From Egypt to Libya, the protests happened and changes, in one way or another, occured.

In 2012, there will be many more protests in this little country. More taxation and punative measures to pay for the high jinks and gallivanting of the 0.5 per cent will mean more anger, but probably little resolution or change. At some stage, though, the question needs to be asked: we’ve all protested, so what the hell is next?