Five years after the blanket bank guarantee which led to a €69 billion bank bailout being foisted on the people, the Irish haven’t come out in mass protest to demand justice. Jasmin Marston, through a series of interviews with Irish people which was undertaken as part of her research for a Master of Science in International Relations, tries to find out why.
So where were all the angry Irish? More often in pubs than on the street? Maybe. To explore the reasons of the lack of overt contention I decided to write my thesis on the subject and interviewed some of the smart and active folks from Ireland to get a better understanding.
The factors were summed up by one respondent:
“It is more like a nuclear reaction… our perfect storm.”
The following article is an overview of my research, which included 18 interviews and a plethora of readings, shedding some light on why Ireland has seen only limited amount of protests against the bank bailout and austerity measures forced upon them over the past years.
Fear, hopelessness and guilt
“for men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute” – Hoffer, The True Believer (1951:7)
People in Ireland seems discontented yet, as interviewee 14 put it “anger has been paralyzed by fear” and adds that it’s a fear linked to the level of indebtedness.
In fact, Irish households accumulated large debts to fund purchases of property (which now have fallen sharply in value) during the boom fueled by cheap, available money from Europe. Some 80% of the 200,000-350,000 households estimated to be in negative equity are thought to be first-time buyers. The younger age group is hit particularly hard (people in their late 20’s, 30’s and 40’s), and might have bought into the guilt-laden approach presented by Brian Lenihan (former Minister of Finance) responding to a question of responsibility by an RTÉ reporter with ‘let’s be fair about it, we all partied’ (Lenihan, 2010).
Interviewee 15 states: “a lot of people feel that they lost control of themselves, they spend too much money, they borrowed too much money – I think there is a bit of guilt out there.”
For now it seems people “just desperately hoping that this will pass” said interviewee 1.
“If you believe what [the government] tells you, you can be at peace with things. Because they tell us everything is going to be ok, because we are doing the right thing.” Interviewee 16
A vital part of getting involved, for example in a protest, is the feeling that one’s involvement would matter (Passy and Giugni, 2001), yet often a sense of hopelessness in changing the situation is present in Ireland, echoed by interviewee 17: “if I thought there was a way I could actually achieve something […] I would get involved”.
Last but not least in this section on fear, hopelessness and guilt, we have to remember that Irish Society only very recently emerged from the poverty and underdevelopment of the 80’s, which was reflected in the stated belief “that we [the Irish] will somehow return to that, if we upset our masters out there, these bigger powers.”
“The management of processes of information and communication shape the human mind which is the ultimate battle ground for power struggles” (Castells, 2010)
There was a broad consensus that media is an important yet pernicious factor, as it was described as ‘partisan, hostile, and really not sympathetic’ to any alternative argument. The technocratization of politics, and economics in particular, can leave people thinking “that this stuff is too complicated for ordinary people to understand,” (Interviewee 5). Despite the proposed malevolent rhetoric of the media the majority of interviewees felt that it had ‘covered’ the crisis extensively and that the people in Ireland were quite ‘informed’. Yet, the focus on day to day news stories with economic figures on the forefront can easily be confusing and covering up the bigger picture.
The struggle of journalists on a small island not to be ‘frozen out’ and lose access to sources (e.g. politicians, senators or business), has intensified the already low level of political debate. Controversy and discussions about alternatives are avoided.
“It’s not what is said. It is what is not said.
What does not exist in the media does not exist in the society.” (Castells, 2011)
The words chosen– austerity for example might “appeal to the Irish because austerity is like lent. […] It’s not cut backs. It’s not recession. When we talk about austerity, is seem like it’s ‘oh well’, it is a little bit of belt tightening, bread and water for a few day. It’s like fasting. It almost has a religious connotation.” (Interviewee, 4)
As I discovered during my research: structure and organizations are vital parts of a successful social movement; unions, community groups or civil societies are therefore incredibly helpful to bring about change. But these groups were suspiciously quite in Ireland over the past years. One reason is a historic agreement known as “Social Partnership” between the unions and the government, put into place in 1987 (renewed again and again until 2009). It had ensured moderate, but real increases in wages, as well as cuts in income tax in exchange for the workers ‘affectively giving up their rights to strike’.
“A lot was gained,’ but it “weakened the capacity of the union because [it was] such a comfortable arrangement” interviewee 3 says and adds that union activity such as that displayed in Greece and Spain (i.e. general strikes) were never a tradition for unions in the first place. Since 1987, slowly but surely, trade union leadership started to have more in common with their social partners than with their members.
Similarly civil societies were effectively institutionally entrapped within the confines of Social Partnership, while the community and voluntary sector was given a seat at the negotiation table in 1996. Partially because they felt that: “the things we are doing should get funded and we should get policy access,” interviewee 7, who adds that the overarching “belief that the state is on your side” guided decision making. Ultimately it weakened the sectors as they are now left with a limited number of skills, such as legal or media fundraising, instead of ‘knowing how to get people out to a protest’.
“Civil society movements tended to buy into the euphoria of economic and social success” (Interviewee 8), and they tried to redress any deficiencies that it saw through dialogue with the state.
Deprivation of alternatives
The lack of alternative ideologies in Ireland, as well as worldwide, was lamented by many interviewees. However, the Irish case is particular with its extreme benevolent and conform public debate of the existing economic system.
One reason is the ‘hegemony of the Fianna Fáil state, which dominated Irish politics and public life from 1932-2011, and shaped it to be profoundly populist and localist in nature and culture (Kirby and Murphy, 2011). In 1990 Mair described Irish politics as deviant from European democracies with its ‘striking electoral debility of class-based, left-wing parties’. Again, history reveals explanatory factors. The Labour Party – Ireland’s oldest party and one that could be expected to be the barer of a socialist tradition – had decided not to contest in the key 1918 elections, largely because it wanted to maximize support for Irish Independence. It never recovered or sustained an effective alternative.
The National Question!?
For the first decades after partition and independence Ireland still had a strong (non-labour) intensive agricultural sector, and an essentially rural culture. “Well, we don’t have a history of a left movement here. That is: Ireland’s politics have always been based on the national question”, states interviewee 4. The National question, rather than class, dominated the political discourse after independence. Class existed and still does, but why haven’t they been mobilized? Mair (1990) sees the Nationalist mobilization, on the one hand and a Catholic mobilization on the other as the reason, as it united the Irish and formed Catholic nationalist uniformity and homogeneity (against the British). Interviewee 10 describes it as “[w]e always pretended that we don’t have class like in England.”
The end of moral authority – Catholic Church
The Catholic Church has been, and still is responsible for a large part of the education system in Ireland. Interviewee 9 sees its encouragement ‘not to think’ and ‘accept things the way they are’ translated “through the education system and the nature of our citizenship.” The education system underwent a transformation along with the rest of the Irish economy during the years of the Celtic Tiger. O’Sullivan (in Ging et al.,2009) lists the Council of Education’s aim to be ‘the formation of God fearing and responsible citizens’ in 1962, while by 1990 the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) argued that ‘principles of consumer representation, participation and accountability’ should be reflected in educational management and the decision making structure.
As interviewee10 phrased it “People were actively de-politicized. All the education, training and social pushes from government was to calm, to de politicize, neoliberalize, to replace the church with financial markets.”
Interviewee 15 counters however, that “the Catholic Church, despite various scandals, still had more credibility in 1990 and 2000 than it does now, and yet in that period, in a period in which greed and materialism became widespread facets of Irish life that catholic reverence for austerity seemed to have no cultural influence at all.”
Legacy of the Celtic Tiger
With a model closer to Boston than to Berlin the embrace of a free-market, neoliberal paradigm led to an increase in the standard of living for many, in the 90’s and beyond. The Irish were ‘living through a golden age’ as Colter and Coleman wrote in 2003. It ‘enabled people in the Irish republic to banish the austerity of previous times in order to become sophisticated consumers, akin to their neighbors in the other western European state.’ Yet this development also had an atomizing effect among people formerly renowned for their sense of connectedness. As people have grown less attached to one another, they have inevitably grown more attached to things (ibid).
The “Celtic Tiger years have a huge influence, because they were really suffering from the anti-intellectualism, and lack of social awareness that those years did to us. They numbed a lot of people. They made a lot of people feel that they compromised financially […], as a result of mad spending,” highlighted interviewee 10.
The time period of unprecedented economic growth also left its mark on the Celtic Tiger Youth which experienced this time as a rule rather than an aberration, fostering what interviewee 15 calls “a huge sense of entitlement.” In addition to what interviewee 1 calls the ‘embrace of postmodernism’, described by “a sense of timelessness or rootlessness, living in a world of images” he describes that the “response to the crisis is rather to go to Australia than try to stay and change things at home.”
Interviewee 8, an academic that recently researched emigration, focused on the choice between exit or protest during a crisis, and adds “clearly there are few countries in the world in which the exit option has been so widely used as in Ireland – and who goes? the brightest and the best go, the most ambitious, the ones that want a better life, the people that are pissed off, the people that in any society were there wasn’t exit would be out on the street protesting, would be demanding, would be the architects of radical proposals for change, who would be supporting left wing and radical parties because they are pissed off with the establishment.”
By mid 2011 the emigration rate had jumped by nearly half to 40,000 (from 27,700) indeed (Edwards, 2011), and by the end of 2011 76,400 had left the country, with 90% under the age of 44 and 45% of those emigrating under the age of 25 (Barry and Conroy, 2012).
Influence of the European Economic Community
Joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 had a profound influence on Ireland’s development (Kirby and Murphy, 2011). As interviewee 1 described it: “Elites and trade union thought higher standards of living would come through integration with the European Union. The war in the north extenuated that,” and he adds “people have come to deeply believe, in a way that they find it very difficult to question, the idea that European integration is good.”
This image of the EU might have shaped the almost welcoming atmosphere towards the Troika (IMF/ECB/EU) when they first came to Dublin in November of 2011. The lack of financial competency within the government might have helped this sentiment to grow.
Understanding human behavior inevitably will lead to the discovery of complex structures and reasoning. The above mentioned factors are some, and in my opinion the most important. Further notice should be given to inequality (some parts of society hit much harder than others), the welfare state (taking good care of the unemployed, as well as the higher living standards before austerity), localism (also patronage based politics), maybe ’the troubles’ (even though there were conflicting opinion on whether or not they were influential), and last but certainly not least, the role of women (which plays a crucial role in social movements – after all they make up half of the population – but as interviewee 3 describes it “the role of women has always been under attack”).
Oh, and maybe, just maybe, it’s the weather.
Barry, U., and Conroy, P., 2012, Ireland 2008-2012 Untold Story of the Crisis – Gender, Equality and Inequality, TASC Thinkpieces, May 2012
Castells M., 2010, The Power of Identity, Second edition with a new preface, Preface, West Susex, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing
Castells, M., 2011, Communication, Power and the State in the Network Society, Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media 2011, 16 November 2011, Available http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-ubCGAV3iw&feature=relmfu [2012-05-22]
Edwards, E, 2011, Emigration rate jumps by nearly half to 40,000, Irish Times, 16 September 2011, Available http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/0916/1224304194602.html [2012-08-08]
Ging, D., Cronin, M., and Kirby, P., 2010, Transforming Ireland: Challenges, Critiques, Resources, Manchester University Press.
Goldthorpe, J.H., and Whelan, C.T., 1992, The third Joint Meeting of the Royal Irish Academy and the British Academy, Oxford, 1990, The British Academy by Oxford University Press
Coulter, C., and Coleman, S., 2003, the end of Irish history? Critical reflections on the Celtic Tiger, Manchester University Press
Hoffer in Gamson, W., 1990 (1975), The Strategy of Social Protest, Second Edition, Wadsworth Publishing Company
Kirby, P., and Murphy, M., 2011, Towards a Second Republic: Irish Politics and the Celtic Tiger, Pluto Press.
Lenihan, B., 2010, on RTE, Brian Lenihan ‘We All Partied’ on Prime Time 24/11/10, Available http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YK7w6fXoYxo [2012-05-20]
Mair published a Chapter (Explaining the Absence of Class Politics in Ireland) in The Development of Industrial Society in Ireland, edited by Goldthorpe and Whelan
Passy, F, and Giugni, M., 2001, Social Networks and Individual Perceptions: Explaining Differential Participation in Social Movements, Sociological Forum, 16 (1): 123-153
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