Belfast Telegraph

Fear factor puts out Republic's flames of revolt

Austerity measures brought Greeks onto the streets, but all the Irish could muster was a few snowballs, says Henry McDonald

If anyone seeks reasons as to why the Irish, unlike their Greek counterparts, are not taking to the streets in their thousands to protest against International Monetary Fund/ European Commission-imposed austerity policies, they might care to read this passage from a Dublin-born writer:

The workmen's discussions, he said, were too timorous; the interest they took in the question of wages was inordinate. He felt that they were hard-featured realists and that they resented an exactitude which was the produce of a leisure not within their reach. No social revolution, he told her, would be like to strike Dublin for some centuries.

It is an extract from James Joyce's collection Dubliners (published in 1914) and the sentences are taken from A Painful Case, a story about an ascetic, hermit-like bookish intellectual who finds it difficult to be comfortable with the rest of humanity, even while he professes the socialist faith in the brotherhood of man.

According to Joyce, James Duffy "abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder". His only close connection with others came about through a brief, but fateful, relationship with a married woman and his membership of "an Irish Socialist Party".

In regard to the latter, Duffy's disappointment in the lack of revolutionary ambitions of the ordinary working men in the party is matched only by his disdain for its factionalism.

Joyce's observation about the faction-ridden nature of the Irish Left is as relevant today as it was in the first decade of the last century. However, the divided Left in Ireland does not alone explain why there seems no prospect in the Republic of a major social upheaval in response to the injustices of the bank bailout and the failures of capitalism.

Some may point out that Joyce got it wrong in 1914 because, two years later, there was a revolution in Dublin, albeit a nationalist one rather than a socialist uprising.

However, the Easter Rising did not have popular support among the Irish masses - that came later when the British over-reacted to the rebellion. Moreover, the final outcome of that Pearse-led putsch led not only to the partition of the island, but the creation of a socially and economically conservative southern state.

If Joyce's ghost could soar through the streets of his native Dublin today, he would wonder if much, beyond the architecture, or the arrival of Anne Summers, had really changed down there.

In the face of the worst economic crisis in decades, the Irish have acquiesced rather than rioted; have tightened their belts rather than use them to string up the nearest banker from a lamp-post.

While the Greeks threw petrol bombs and stones during their numerous demonstrations, all a handful of Irish anarchists could muster outside the Dail last year were a couple of snowballs.

There are several reasons why the Irish continue to disappoint the latter-day James Duffys of the Left. The workers - especially those still with jobs in the unprotected private sector - are still the "hard-featured realists" that Duffy was so disdainful about.

The majority, although revolted over the billions pumped into the universally-despised Irish banking system, are not prepared to revolt over the harsh medicine the nation is being forced to swallow. Their attitude thus far is one of smouldering resignation rather than outright social rebellion.

Perhaps, more crucially, there is the fear factor that chills the blood of almost every citizen of the Republic. It is a fear factor that will be deployed to sell any new EU treaty in a referendum next year, the option being vote Yes to stay in the euro or vote No and exit the single currency.

It is a fear factor that will make most people grumble, but accept that they have to pay the €100 universal social charge rather than refuse to do so, as some left-wing and hardline nationalist TDs are vowing of late.

The fear of the alternative - namely the absence of any support from the European Central Bank - is greater than the understandable fury the mass of people feel about bankers, speculators, rich tax-dodgers, the European Central Bank or the IMF.

In politics, it is always prudent to never-say-never - radical change can come about when it is least expected.

Perhaps the Irish will get off their knees (as James Connolly once urged them to do) and get onto the streets in huge numbers to resist the era of austerity.

However, two recent events - one in Spain, the other in Ireland - suggest otherwise. For nearly a year, tens of thousands of young Spaniards have held mass demonstrations in cities and towns across the country.

These so-called 'Indignados' have been protesting against the huge youth unemployment rates in their country and, like Occupy, have captured the attention of the world's media.

Nonetheless, when the Spanish electorate went to the polls a few weeks ago, a large majority voted the conservative Partido Popular back into power, throwing out the Socialist government and rejecting the alternatives offered by hard-left parties.

Meanwhile, in Bray, south of Dublin, in the second weekend of December, one of the most hated men in Ireland was in Garda custody. Sean Fitzpatrick, the former chairman of the disgraced Anglo Irish Bank, was being questioned over the allegations of massive fraud at the former borrowing bank for Irish builders.

Only a handful of angry protesters turned up at the station calling for Fitzpatrick to be prosecuted.

It is fair to assume that, had this been Greece, the riot police and water-cannon would have been needed to hold back the Hellenic tide baying for his blood.

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