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Irish People Are Finally Taking to the Streets Against Austerity

After eight austerity budgets and years of massive unemployment and waves of emigration, the Emerald Isle is witnessing its largest protest movement in decades.
November 4, 2014, 4:30pm

Photo by ​John McGrath

After eight austerity budgets and years of massive unemployment and waves of emigration, Ireland is witnessing its largest protest movement in decades. On Saturday, around 150,000 people participated in Ireland's first mass, grassroots anti-austerity demonstration. They gathered in every city and small town, brandishing placards and banners all saying similar things which boiled down to "We won't pay."

While the protests come as no surprise to those in Ireland, many outside are confused. Ireland seemed to have  stoically accepted austerity. Ireland was "responsible", paying back the €67.5 billion ($84.5 billion) bailout from the European Union and the IMF without much complaint. The social unrest of the other PIGS economies--Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain--has bypassed the Emerald Isle until now.

But dissent was simmering. The decisions lauded in Europe were despised in Ireland. Teachers, nurses, and civil servants had their salaries slashed while public sector hiring embargoes led to unemployment. Many of the country's best and brightest were forced to emigrate and families were separated, a pain known only too well to the Irish.

Taxes grew as salaries fell. The Irish government had bled over €28 billion ($35 billion) from its taxpayers in the first seven budgets. F inally, the government of one of the wettest countries in Europe told its citizens they would now have to pay elevated charges for their poor quality drinking water. The Irish Water ​fias​co saw people blocking workers from installing water meters on residential streets, and that snowballed into the weekend's mass protests.

Irish politics to date has been dominated by the two parties that emerged from the 1922 civil war. Fianna Fáil is a conservative party, is held responsible for the Irish financial crisis. The other, Fine Gael, also a center-right party, is currently in government, implementing austerity.

You might have thought the Labour Party, set up by two of Ireland's socialist heroes--James Larkin and James Connolly--might put up a fight. Instead, they're in the coalition government and are complicit in the cuts. Many working-class Irish people feel devoid of political representation.

One community leader, Alan MacSimoin, from Stoneybatter in north Dublin told me how people have been galvanized. "We held a public meeting in our area to see who'd be interested in demonstrating. The response was incredible. We had dozens of people at the initial meeting, which in a small community like ours was unheard of," he said.

"This protest movement has been a game changer for austerity here and I think it's because it's a community movement. If you look around at a meeting or protest you can see your shop keeper, the pub owner, the fella who works in the post office, that gives people confidence to go on, the power of the community. Nothing like this has happened in decades."

The fury has been egged on by careless politicians whose grip on reality seems pretty loose.  One careless Fine Gael Councillor, Laura McGonigle managed to piss off the public in a Facebook post about the water protests. "They should collect all the rain water while out marching and drink that for a week!" she wrote.

Also displaying the political savvy and attitude that, frankly, people have come to expect from politicians,  was Joan Burton--the leader of the Irish Labour party. "All of the protesters that I have seen seem to have extremely expensive phones, tablets, video cameras," she said. As we all know, ownership of phones is restricted to a wealthy elite these days, so the protesters must be lying.

Joe Higgins (left) and Ruth Coppinger (center), Socialist Party politicians

Opinion  ​polls show Fianna Fail and Fine Gael plummeting to new lows, while independent candidates, Sinn Fein and other left groups are gaining ground.

Socialist Party politician Paul Murphy told me that the government's talk of economic recovery has forced people into action. "It's not an accident that this movement is happening now," he said. "The government are putting out 'recovery' propaganda that does not translate to working class people. Irish Water encapsulates this. Irish people will have to pay while the rich--people like Denis O'Brien and the bondholders--will come out on top. This has put fear into the people. They want a change. Something very significant has taken place, the old political system of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour has been smashed."

Derek Byrne who led the protests in Dublin's O'Connell Street said the Irish were moving away from politics in favor of community action. "The politicians here are terrified. Protests here were always lead by politicians, now they're being lead by the people and we're not letting the politicians hijack it. This is a grassroots movement," he said.

"The recent history of Ireland is a history of booms and busts but that is changing," he continued. "Irish expats forced to emigrate left Ireland when the country had no fight left in it, when there was no future for them. Now they can return with their heads high--we're finally fighting back."

One man who felt the bite of austerity and was compelled to action is Jonathan Dunne from Mahon in Cork. "I was inspired by all the community groups being set up. I knew a lot of people who felt the same as me--we've been hit very hard by the recession. I'm 22 and I live at home with my mum. She's on a disability allowance and things at home are tight. I wanted to study applied psychology after college but the €250 ($312) a month grant wasn't enough to live on so I had to get a job in a call centre.

"Everything is a struggle for us. We used to get waivers for the TV license and when that was cancelled we couldn't pay it. Austerity comes at you from every angle. It isn't just something that gets in your face--it creeps up on you, everyone lives day to day. Every day you're cutting back and finding a way to manage. I believe life doesn't have to be like this," he said.

Much like in the UK,  ​encou​raging economic growth figures mean little to people like Jonathan who have borne the brunt of austerity, and they've had enough. Another day of protest is scheduled for December as local groups meet to discuss what actions will go ahead if the government refuses to bend on the water charges.

"It's not a case of not wanting paying the water charges--we just can't," said Jonathan. "If the government won't listen we'll just have bigger and badder protests. This is not going away, it's not one national group they can bully, it's local grassroots groups, people from the community who are friends with each other. That's an impossible solidarity to kill."

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