A revolution of rising expectations?


Sir, – Noel Whelan (“2014: The year of recovery, or the year of the water uprising?”, Opinion & Analysis, December 19th) writes that historians, when they come to examine 2014, will find it “curious that the most intense Irish popular reaction to the recession came just as the recovery began to take hold”.

There is, however, no mystery in this for the historians. On the contrary, it conforms to the classic model of a “revolution of rising expectations”. Thus, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the French revolution that “it is not always by going from bad to worse that a society falls into a revolution. It happens most often that a people, which has supported without complaint, as if they were not felt, the most oppressive laws, violently throws them off as soon as their weight is lightened”.

In other words, the experience of things getting better and the demand for further improvements are important factors in provoking revolution.

Likewise, and closer to home, current scholarship (taking a cue from work such as James Donnelly’s magisterial The Land and People of Nineteenth-Century Cork) tends to interpret the Irish land wars of 1879–83 and 1886–90 as a “revolution of rising expectations” resulting from the determination of tenant farmers to preserve their material gains made since the Famine during challenging periods of agricultural crisis. The Civil Rights campaign in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s can also be seen in this light, namely as ignited by the modest reforms of the O’Neill era.

So we should not be surprised by the recent unrest in Ireland about water charges and other austerity measures. As conditions get better, we will increasingly chafe at the limits beyond which the easing of austerity cannot go.

Expectations of relief having been raised, nobody will be satisfied with necessarily limited progress.

History tells us that this is the moment of maximum danger, and it needs to be carefully handled. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 18.