An Irishman's Diary

 

I STOPPED BY the Occupy Dame Street protest on the way home the other night and what struck me most was how extraordinarily nice the whole thing is. It’s so polite and well-behaved that it could almost be some new kind of civic amenity laid on by City Hall, maybe from the same people who brought us the bike rental scheme.

After all, no southern European capital (economically southern, I mean) is complete these days without a tented protest camp. And the one at the Central Bank plaza certainly adds to the atmosphere of the area, which adjoins Temple Bar, from where tourists now emerge occasionally to take photos and enjoy the buzz.

It’s very much a miniature version of the one in Athens’s Syntagma Square, which I visited earlier in the summer. But unlike there, the protesters in Dame Street have banned alcohol, making it (at least when I was passing) the only fully sober stretch of pavement in Temple Bar.

Even their slogans are polite and, compared with most such protests shockingly well-spelt. True, I saw one poster referring to “western capatalism”. But I’m not sure the “Pat” wasn’t some sort of clever wordplay about the Irish version of the genre (the “western” hinting at the number of cowboys involved), or maybe a comment on the role in the banking debacle of the former financial regulator.

Even the verb “occupy” seems to have been shorn of its usual aggressive meaning. If the protest continues as it has started, one can imagine a participant applying for a job at some future date with, say, an accountancy firm. And where the form asks “most recent occupation?”, he’ll be able to write “Central Bank plaza 2011” without prejudicing his prospects.

I’m not sure whether it’s come to something good or bad. But it has certainly come to something when participants in an Irish presidential campaign have worse manners than those in an anti-capitalist movement. Either way, I suspect Vincent Browne is in some way responsible, for bringing rudeness towards authority figures into disrepute.

Maybe these young protesters have concluded that, since being rude doesn’t seem to work, politeness can be more subversive. They might be right. Marvelling at the propriety of their campaign the other night, for example, I found myself looking at the building behind them in a new and harsher light.

I was reminded that the bank is, essentially, ring-fenced: which is why the protesters can’t get any nearer to it than they already have. Of course, one always hears of money being ring-fenced. But that’s usually just a figurative expression.

Whereas, in the Central Bank, there’s an actual circular railing around the steps, erected a few years back. Not to keep our currency safer, mind, but to stop skateboarders.

This is only one of the plaza’s anti-skateboarding measures, which range from prohibition signs to metal obstacles embedded in benches. And it seems a quaint idea now that skateboarders were ever considered so big a threat to the banking system that any semblance of light-touch regulation of their activities had to be abandoned. But there you are.

Another thing I noticed – for the first time – was the big warning sign at the bank’s rear entrance. Yes, it’s a standard sign, versions of which are affixed to the works entrance of most public buildings. Still, in the wake of what happened to the banking system, a large-print warning to visitors that the Central Bank is a

“hazardous area” seems a bit pointed. It’s certainly as rude as any of the slogans at the front.

A running theme of the latter, incidentally, is – as aT-shirt slogan put it – that “the Irish should be more like the Greeks”. The implication is that if we were, we would be a lot more militant in opposing the cutbacks being imposed on us by the other occupiers of Dame Street, the IMF, and then the protest camp would be a lot bigger.

But it depends on which Greeks you mean, really. The Irish have a lot in common with some of the ancient ones. Specifically the Stoics, whose school of philosophy remains very influential here. The Cynics too have a sizeable following, albeit not one that Diogenes might recognise. So have the Sceptics.

And even if all these Greek thought systems died out here overnight, I suspect apathy and inertia might still prevent people taking to the streets in large numbers. The national default, however bad things are, is to shrug and carry on, hoping things get better (while expecting them to get even worse). If action is required, we can always emigrate.

The dilemma for the Dame Street protesters is summed up by the name of another, nearby thoroughfare, the one that runs directly behind the bank. A metaphor for life in Ireland, now and at most times in history, it’s called Cope Street.

Aptly enough, it’s short, a bit grim, and dimly lit even in daytime, because the huge bank building separates it from the sun. Not that there’s much to see on it, anyway. In fact, the best thing about being Cope Street, for most people, is the belief that sooner or later we’ll turn the corner, and then maybe things will pick up.