Jim Carroll

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The angry republic

The government may think they’ve appeased the water war protestors, but the angry republic is still very much at large

The angry republic compare flags. Photo: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Wed, Jan 14, 2015, 09:22


If you had taken the temperature of the country in the weeks leading up to the end of the year, you’d have concluded that a collective fever was gripping the nation. For the last couple of months, the national blood pressure has been at boiling point. That seething, constant, fervent, low-level fury, which has been a constant since the good times stopped rolling in 2008 and we were told to suck it up because we had all partied during the good times, had turned into righteous anger.

The public protest against the inept, careless, high-handed mismanagement of the Irish Water mess was the clearest manifestation of this ire, but every opinion poll brought further proof of the mood swing. We were angry and we just weren’t going to take it any more, whatever “it” happened to be. The Irish republic had turned angry.

Of course, anger, upset, outrage, fuming and irritation have long been constants in our lives. Usually, we kept them in reserve for bigger sources of annoyance and then, social media came along. Now, we over-react to the smallest and most inconsequential of things, an over-reaction which is then amplified to gargantuan proportions on Facebook and Twitter. Rather than ameliorating how we communicate, social media simply provides switches to flick when minor irritations strike and we want the world to notice. On a daily basis, our timelines zing with people taking offence over the slightest thing and gathering the troops over their dealings with fellow commuters, utility companies and call centre staff, to name three common bugbears for many. Forget crisp sandwiches or bowls of cereal, the real cash is in pitchforks and fire lighters.

We’re selective in our macro anger too. We get really worked up every 12 months or thereabouts about the evil done by religious institutions to children and others in their care in the past, but we only become exercised about this when there’s a new report or court case or tribunal or news story to stoke the anger and remind us that we should be angry about this. We kind of overlook what’s going on in our name in the direct provision and asylum system at the moment because, well, it doesn’t really impact on us. We’ll take an interest in homelessness when it becomes part of the news cycle, but we’ll move on because it’s, you know, December and the office party is on. Patients on hospital trollies? Yes, we’re against that kind of thing and we’re angry about it, but it happens every year so, well…. Our own eldery relations on those hospital trollies? Gimme the damn number for Joe Duffy now. Like I saw, we can be selective with our ire when it suits us.

But the anger which came to the surface in Ireland in late 2014 was a far more interesting substance and manifestation of latent feelings. This was the anger you got when a confluence of different interests all came together for one of the first times in decades. Think of all the austerity measures and cutbacks which have occured since everything went to the bad in 2008 and then work out why it took until the introduction of water charges for us to take a stand. We wrote here last October about how the water wars had united people across class lines, something borne out by the huge numbers who flocked to the marches in November and the subsequent climbdown by the government to appease the more moderate elements of that protest before it turned into a movement they couldn’t handle.

The anger, though, is still around. There are still many thousands of people who have no intention whatsoever of paying the water bills which will drop through their letterboxes later in 2015. There are still stories coming out of Irish Water to cause the anger levels to rise. Those who may have been had their coughs softened by the government’s pussyfooting around bills and charges probably feel a little like the pensioners who struck back in 2008. They can now pick an issue, take a stand and make a difference.

The question is if such a stance will only be taken when it comes to personal and sectoral interests. Take that great OAP uprising of 2008. Did those OAPS, that mass of parents and grandparents who had won back their right to an automatic medical card, make any similar stand when it came to, say, cutbacks in the education sector with growing pupil-teacher ratios and a drastic fall in the number of special needs assistants in classrooms up and down the country? History will record that they didn’t. The real anger is only expressed when your own clan’s rights and privileges are at stake.

All of which makes the water wars such a fascinating event. Here was an issue which brought different communities together across voting and cultural lines. It was a moment when you suddenly saw new potential voting patterns and alliances emerge. No wonder the government were so quick to head that one off at the pass. Add in the blowback from Megaphoneman’s day out in Tallaght with Joan Burton and the Sinn Fein move in December to own the protest and a lot of the potential in those few weeks has been snuffed out.

But perhaps not. The opinion polls which roll in on an almost weekly basis point to voters indicating a preference for independents, non-party candidates and others. They don’t – at the time of writing anyway – show any preference for parties or alliances led or assembled by Shane Ross, Lucidana Creighton or anyone else you care to mention. This state of affairs might change as those potential new parties emerge and gather steam and cash, but don’t hold your breath for one of those parties to kick on in any meaningful way which will make a huge effect next voting time out. The angry republic has decided that they want to go with the indies and to hell with the consequences, despite the wringing of hands and ochón-ochóning from the pundit class about the lack of stability a hung Dáil might mean.

So the angry republic haven’t gone totally quiet since the taps were turned off. All the talk about economic uptakes and upticks don’t get away from the fact that things have not improved all that much on the ground beyond the capital. There may be large scintillas of economic renewal in the big smoke – lots of new cars with 15 number plates zipping around breaking red lights, for instance – but it doesn’t go far beyond the Newlands Cross flyover or the M50. Just as the property market has become a three-track affair (family houses within and near the capital’s core, the rest of the city and the rest of the country), the same applies to this economic recovery you keep hearing about it, but not seeing all that much of.

There are still, then, many reasons to be angry. You can be sure different political parties and individual politicians will tap into that in the hope of shoring up votes for the next election. You’ll have a right rash of gombeens looking to make hay from the current buzz that no amount of Sudocrem will ease. There will also be those who fancied a go in 2011, but stepped down from the butter boxes when it came time to step up.

It remains then to be seen how the angry republic will vote when the chance comes in 2015 or 2016. Make no mistake about it, though: the next election will be fought again about the economy and economic issues. Despite what any vested interests will tell you about the shadow cast by social issues or commemorations or nationalism, it’s still about the economy (stupid).