Letting off some steam on the monster march


“BODIES” SCREAMED the billboard above the Ambassador Theatre, just in case we hadn’t noticed. And there they were, in their tens of thousands, stretching far into the distance, exceeding the wildest expectations of the organisers – one of the biggest protest marches seen in Dublin for decades.

This was a case of the bankers’ billions versus the worker’s mite.

No contest, sadly.

Never mind how many people marched, or fat-cat placards were waved, or impassioned speeches delivered, the ordinary taxpayer will still have to stump up for the crimes of the banking wide boys.

That was the unpalatable truth behind Saturday’s demo.

For diplomatic reasons, the event was billed as a protest at the Government’s handling of the economic crisis. A general call to arms was issued by congress, inviting private sector workers to muster alongside their public service brethren.

Some answered that call, but very few. The groups marching behind the union banners gave a helpful pointer: huge numbers behind the public sector ones; mere handfuls behind those unions with memberships not directly affected by the pension levy.

Estimates of the size of the crowd were revised upwards as the afternoon progressed. The final tally – this was one occasion where the Garda Síochána was most forthcoming with crowd figures, what with some of their own involved in it – came in at an astonishing 120,000 people.

This was a curious event. Crowds didn’t line the streets cheering on the marchers. Despite the best efforts of the organisers, it still seemed like a “them and us” event, with public sector workers venting their fury at having a particular pay cut imposed on them by the Government, and private sector workers, while not unsympathetic, too preoccupied with financial worries of their own to join in.

Everything is topsy-turvy. Here was a rare thing: a protest march where people were not protesting at having to take a pay cut. Rather, they said they just wanted to be treated with fairness.

Why us? Why should we be saddled with this so-called public service pension levy while private sector workers are hit for nothing? Meanwhile, as the Government waits for a commission on tax to report with proposals, little knots of private sector workers are jumping up and down, trying frantically to get Brian Cowen’s attention, signalling they are willing to sign up for higher taxes in the national interest. And he’s ignoring them. It’s mad.

The marchers were angry with Cowen, convinced that politicians are handling delinquent financial institutions with kid gloves while making public sector workers pay for their catastrophic misdeeds.

A placard summed up the feeling: “Can do our bit. Can’t take the whole lot.” (Most workers suspect that, pretty soon, they won’t have to.)

Some 500 uniformed firefighters marched in formation at the head of the protest. They were an impressive sight, in step behind their pipe band as they crossed O’Connell Bridge.

Standing out in the middle of their ranks was a little boy on his father’s shoulders, wearing his dad’s fireman’s cap. That evocative picture will have given no comfort to Cowen and his beleaguered colleagues.

Socialists Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd-Barrett were out with their megaphones. Garda sergeants and inspectors in mufti walked smartly in front of a noisy samba band, averting their eyes from passing anarchists. Senator David Norris walked in the middle of a group of Dáil ushers.

Lots of people brought their dogs, but hundreds more brought pictures of their cats. Photographs of startled family moggies, lying belly-up in nests of cushions on the good sofa, adorned many of the home-made placards. The plumped and recumbent felines, much too warm and comfy to shift themselves, glowered with red-eyed malevolence.

“That’s not fair. Fat cats take your share!” was carefully written by a young hand underneath one picture of a particularly well-upholstered and dopey looking tabby.

“Fat cats, we feel your pain. Let us buy you more champagne,” read the message beneath an oversized ginger tom, lazily splayed on a bed of chintz.

Cowen wore an Oliver Hardy hat on some placards, and he surfaced among the Kilkenny midwives sporting a Hitler moustache. Mad Cowen Disease references were everywhere. Brian Lenihan became “The Bankster Patriot.”

A very respectable looking group of ladies belted purposefully down D’Olier Street, one of them waving a line drawing of a posterior hovering over a line of thumb tacks. “Soft landing my arse!”

Bernie Grennan had travelled up from Tullamore for the day with the Public Service Executive Union.

“We’re just looking for a bit of fairness and equality and sharing of the pain.”

Further down, Henry Joy McCracken got an outing in black marker on a square of brown cardboard. “The rich always betray the poor.”

A man stopped on the footpath and watched a group of prison officers walk past. He shook his head and declared: “That hungry shower have some neck. They take home more in overtime then I earn in a week.”

A young woman pushing a buggy was protesting against the pension levy. She didn’t want to give her name, saying she worked in education, in “a small unit” and could be easily identified.

“I’m going to take a hit of about €80 a week. My husband has just been laid off, our house is in negative equity, the monthly mortgage is fifteen hundred and we’ve two young kids to feed and clothe. I’m dreading now what they’ll do to the children’s allowance.” Salary? She hesitated. “I’m on good money, I suppose. I take home around €3,400 net a month. But by the time the mortgage and bills are paid, there isn’t much left. It just isn’t fair.”

People kept asking if there was any word on the size of the crowd. “Ask Seanie FitzPatrick to do the counting, we’ll have 300 million on the streets for the six o’clock news,” laughed a man behind a Siptu banner.

On and on it went. The road in front of the platform at Merrion Square filled up as more were funnelling down O’Connell Street. Speeches began as well-dressed women with nice handbags and sunglasses on the top of their heads were still pounding around College Green, blowing whistles with abandon like Premiership referees. One woman marched past Trinity, hitting a small copper saucepan lid with a dessert spoon. As an exercise in letting off steam, the monster march was a massive success. But, as both public and private sector workers brace themselves for more money-saving measures coming down the line, Saturday’s complaints might date very quickly. When it was over, not all flags and placards were placed in the skips provided around Merrion Square. Some ended up lodged in the railings of Leinster House.

They’ll be gone before any offence is caused to ministerial eyes.