This week saw what has been described as the largest demonstration in the history of the Irish state, as an estimated 150,000 people marched through Dublin city centre to protest the Irish government’s draconian new austerity budget and the arrival of the IMF. They came from all over the country and from all walks of life, united in the belief that there is a better way to deal with Ireland’s economic woes. The march had been arranged by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
The evening before, I had ventured out through the frost and snow to gauge the mood in my town in the rural south of Ireland. “Well, march on,” a young man laughed, “there is nothing we can do about it, but we can always loot as the country burns. It’s Armageddon! My band is playing tonight,” he continued, “we’re like the last band playing on the Titanic!” Another guy scowled into his pint. “What are they marching for,” he scoffed, “it’s not going to change anything. The politicians won’t give a damn. That march is just an excuse to go on the piss in Dublin.” A woman dismissively waved her hand at the mention of the week’s events. “I stopped watching the news,” she told me, but went on to add that the cuts in the minimum wage which are outlined in the new austerity budget would spell disaster for her. Another man was more militant in his anger. “If the Government let this happen, they’ll have to leave the country. Otherwise they will get shot.” When I asked by whom, he shrugged. “Take your pick.”
As I sat on the Dublin-bound train that morning, I wondered what to expect. Two elderly gentlemen next to me were earnestly discussing where to buy eggs to throw at the Dáil, while a mother fussed over her children’s woolly hats and gloves. The Gardaí (Irish police) estimated that up to 60,000 people would attend, but the atmosphere in the country was so tense that this seemed a low figure. On the other hand, severe snowfall might discourage many.
As the crowd began to gather at the rallying point in Dublin, the mood was nervous and excited. “Ready for a riot,” a young man jokingly asked, a sarcastic glint in his eyes. His friends laughed nervously. The crowd was surrounded by police. Flags were unfurled and signs raised as the march was begun, led by the drone of bagpipes and the shrill screech of tens of thousands of whistles.
The entire city center was engulfed by the march, a sea of red trade union flags, banners, Irish tricolors and protest signs. “There Is a Better, Fairer Way,” one popular sign exclaimed, “Cowen Out!!” another. “Fianna Fáil: You Fail and You’re Fired,” read another. “6.7% – Nein Danke,” another exclaimed, referring to the then reported interest rate demanded by the ECB/IMF for the €85bn bailout. Despite the somber occasion, wry Irish humor still shone through. “Educational Cuts Means my Spolling is Terracle,” a sign joked, while a man climbed the steps to the Dublin city council hall to wave a huge sign at the protesters, reading, “You Useless Bastards!” He turned his sign with a grin, and the other side read: “Not You, The Government, Obviously!” A lone representative of the apocalyptic contingent brandished a sign stating: “The End Is Nigh! Jesus is Lord!”, and it was widely agreed that it takes all sorts.
As the march reached O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare of Dublin and site of the declaration of the Irish Republic in the 1916 Easter Rising, acclaimed journalist and author Fintan O’Toole climbed the podium to address the crowd.
“We are here today to say that we are not economic units whose only function is to behave ourselves and to pay off the gambling debts of our masters, we are not children who must take our medicine or be sent to bed without our supper, we are not subjects, we are citizens and we want our Republic back,” Mr. O’Toole told the cheering crowd. Chants of ‘out, out’ broke out.
Mr. O’Toole went on to say that the Irish government’s austerity budget is not about saving the Irish people but instead represents a plan to save the Irish elite, who will always look after their own. “We know what this deal is. On the one side we will borrow yet more billions to bail out the bankers and the other side of this deal is that this society is supposed to declare war on the poor and vulnerable”.
Next, the crowd fell silent in ominous reverence as the 1916 Declaration of Independence was read. The sound of more than 100,000 people falling silent at the same time is perhaps even more striking than the sound of them chanting for the fall of a government.
More speakers appeared on stage, representatives of the young, the retired, the unemployed and others who will suffer considerably under the next austerity budget. But when Irish Congress of Trade Union leader Jack O’Connor addressed the crowd, he was greeted with a roar of contempt. Mr. O’Connor is regarded with suspicion by many, because he has reportedly served on the boards of some of the failed Irish banks – and because he, as the top representative of Irish public servants, is paid with vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. “Look at him, trying to be the champion of the people,” the man next to me scoffed as Mr. O’Connor faced the booing. His colleague, former banker David Begg fared no better.
The booing was never reported by the Irish main media outlets. Instead, the march was represented as being possibly violent and considerably smaller than the 150,000 people reported by protesters and organizers. It’s not surprising. RTÉ, the main news channel in Ireland, is after all a state-sponsored organization, meaning that its reporters are civil servants and unlikely to look kindly on the reaction to their champion. Irish civil servants are among the highest paid in Europe, and flatly reject the idea of having to suffer the same cuts as their private sector countrymen.
espite the anger of the Irish people, the march passed peacefully. A group of a few hundred broke away from the crowds of O’Connell Street and went to the Dáil (Irish Parliament). A picture of Brian Cowen, the disgraced Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was set alight, and firecrackers were thrown. But when riot police appeared with their dogs, the group apparently decided to call it a night.
There was only one reported arrest, hours after the main demonstration had dissipated. Despite the freezing cold, tens of thousands of Irish people from all walks of life and all corners of the country marched to protest what is seen as the suicidal and morally indefensible strategy of the reviled Irish government. More marches are planned for the days ahead, leading up to December 7th – a day universally dreaded as the official launch of the fourth austerity budget. It is to be hoped that they will pass in the same constructive and peaceful manner.