It feels like a lifetime ago that Brian Cowen slurred his words on the radio, the IMF landed and Bertie got collared outside the Dail signalling the booting they were about to get. Well it’s not been a lifetime, but it has been an “electoral cycle” as they call it. In this review of the Fine Gael-led coalition, Shane Ragbags takes us through how the Irish eventually learnt to hate the regime.
Since the 2011 election, we’ve somehow gone from the biggest majority in the history of the state – to the first ever minority government. This year the Civil War parties couldn’t muster 50% of the vote between them. If we witnessed one historic “riot in a ballot box” in 2011, we’ve now witnessed two in succession. So, what happened?
“Labour’s way” turned out in fact to be Frankfurt’s way. And pepper spray, as the chant went. Also: evictions, a housing crisis, bank bailouts and bonfires of the meagre social supports people have to pay for it all. A visit to Brussels reversed the election pledge that they would not give one more red cent to the bondholders, and made a new one that they would pay anything, in full and on time.
In their first budget billions more were cut, including an increase in student fees and a new household charge. The Jobbridge scam was launched, leading a whole new programme legitimising unpaid and precarious labour.
The student movement had already been cleared off the streets by Gardai on horseback, while Labour and the trade union leadership had joined the government, pulling a lot of the NGOs in with them. People had already been robbed at source for things like the USC, their wages taken away in social partnership agreements, their jobs let go at a rate of thousands per week. Resist? How?
But a property tax on top of bubble-era mortgage debt only highlighted the contradiction of a new property tax to pay for services that no longer existed. It needed a subtler man than Phil Hogan to impose this while billions upon billions were being poured into toxic banks. In effect, it was going to the bondholders of course.
So people mad as hatters across the state self-organised to not pay the charge, creating new networks of resistance independent of the officialdom. Several important protests took place such as at the Labour Ard Fheis in Galway, the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Dublin, the 2012 budget protest with DCTU. It created the environment where public sector workers could reject the latest social partnership stitch-up – the same week Margaret Thatcher died! Jelly and ice cream were had in celebration, though a new deal was later forced through.
Future Labour senator David Begg and ICTU had been forced to call a demoralising protest of their own to keep a lid on things – it was, remarkably, in support of the government’s non-efforts at debt renegotiation. In the end, the state had to ditch the charge and take the property tax through Revenue from 2013. The campaign was smashed, but opposition to the regime was shown to be possible. Blood had been drawn.
2012 was the anniversary of the X-Case ruling which had mandated the state to provide for abortion in cases that a pregnancy caused a threat to the woman’s life. Twenty years of governments including Fianna Fáil, the Progressive Democrats, the Greens, Fine Gael, Labour and gombeen independents had managed to successfully ignore the ruling. In the spring, Clare Daly, one of several new leftwing TDs elected in 2011, put forward the first ever X-Case legislation which Fine Gael and the nominally pro-choice Labour Party batted away.
Towards the end of the year, Savita Halappanavar, tragically died in a Galway hospital for want of exactly such measures. It sparked an intense movement of protest across the state and shone international attention on the constitutional abortion ban. Eventually the government were forced into legislating a characteristically cruel means of access to life-saving abortions, but a new generation of pro-choice activists intent on repealing the 8th amendment had emerged.
By now, we had entered the centenary of the Irish revolution and the Dublin Lockout of 1913. A “Lockout” themed protest took place in September drawing together groups that said ‘No’ to Austerity. A group in Cork had inspired other groups in Dublin and elsewhere to protest weekly against the debt. A protest in Wicklow in the summer of 2013 managed to stop Bertie returning to pick up the Coillte forests for his vulture fund mates. A modest “People’s Assembly” protest to welcome the returning Dail a couple of weeks later modelled on the successful Coillte protest brought these together.
As 2014 got going, the defeat of the household charge campaign had started to wear off as resistance networks approached a critical mass. The summer local and European elections helped re-politicise the atmosphere. The government would ultimately take such a hit that Eamonn Gilmore would have to retire as Labour Party leader and Tánaiste, for Joan Burton.
In August, another tragic case of a woman being effectively denied a life-saving abortion was revealed. Migrant Y was a resident in a Direct Provision centre, and her case highlighted the intersections between the patriarchal Irish state and its contribution to the Fortress Europe border regime. The pro-choice coalition returned to the streets with its demand for a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment, alerted to the institutional racism of the state.
And at this time Direct Provision centre residents themselves, losing years of their lives interned under threat of deportation waiting for their applications to be processed, had enough. They took control of almost half of the centres insisting that the system of Direct Provision and deportations should be abolished, and they at last be let participate in Irish life. In a contender for their most shameful moment, the Labour Party in government would use their relationship with NGOs to diffuse these protests with the promise of “reform” which never came.
Lockouts at Greyhound Recycling drew confrontation in Dublin, which replicated the spirit of effective direct action in the Paris Bakery occupation which preceded it. Both successful. In the Spring, some organisers of the “People’s Assembly” protest held a conference opposing water charges and privatisation while people in Ballyphehane started to block Denis O’Brien’s water meter installers. This spread to Limerick and Dublin where blocking water meter vans had the benefit of lessons from the earlier blocking of Greyhound trucks driven by scabs.
The conference had called for a broad anti-water charges protest for after the election, initially in August, then September before settling on the Saturday before the budget in October. In the Autumn, blocking of meter installation and vans, street meetings and local protests had engulfed working class areas. These all came together in that October 10 protest where 100,000 more people turned up than even the organisers themselves had expected.
The government was rocked and scrambled in the days before the budget to withdraw cut after charge after cut to the point where they tried to sell it as fiscally “neutral”! They went so far as to declare Austerity was over! Neither true, obviously, but the eejits had demonstrated to the whole country that organised resistance works.
So, of course, they went protest mad everywhere.
Two similarly massive and self-organised protests in the following two months meant that the government’s support in opinion polls collapsed. Hundreds of thousands joined together to say “fuck the regime” and engaged in mass protest and a boycott movement that has all-but sunk water charges.
Come the summer of 2015, an old quip from an Athenian protestor broadcast on RTÉ that the Irish didn’t protest was a distant memory. As it turned out, resistance had to rebuild itself anew outside of the old channels and officialdom safety-valves built up over the last century. It was well symbolised by the image of Fr Ted kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse which went viral in celebration of the Marriage Equality referendum result.
When the election came around, the old Two-and-a-Half party system of replacing tweedle-dum Fianna Fáil with tweedle-dee Fine Gael and Labour was gloriously dumped. Only that the movement was demobilised by the autumn, could it claw a little back in the zombie resurrection of the undead Fianna Fáil.
This was consummated in the vote to suspend water charges and kick them to a committee, hopefully never to be seen again. Enda is back as Taoiseach, but not for long. They’re dropping unpopular measures like pay-by-weight recycling, the broadcasting charge, Jobbridge and promising goodies at the rate of a minority regime that knows it’s fucked.
All-in-all we’ve had nearly a decade of mass unemployment, emigration and record levels of enforced deprivation – and Fine Gael-Labour masterminded the last 5 years of it. In response, to recall a memorable The Week in Politics from February 2011, the “ragbags and misfits” have exacted some measure of revenge by clearing half of them and their political system out.
Photos by Jamie Goldrick