We’re dreaming of a better Ireland

‘Twas World Human Rights Day and, all through the centre of Dublin, the streets were awash with colour. The city was stirring on 10 December – it was alive with chants and laughter. From pensioners to babes in pushchairs, thousands assembled at Merrion Square for another mass demonstration against water charges. There was no sign of the ‘weather-bomb’ forecast the previous night – blue skies and crisp sunshine boosted the high spirits of the protestors. Not much evidence of trouble either. A few minor altercations with Gardaí caught the media’s eye, but these occurred beyond the main gathering. Marching from O’Connell Street, women tried to cajole police officers to join and, although their invitations were declined, the exchanges were good-humoured.

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The overall mood of the protest was jovial and welcoming. While certain political elements sought to score opinion poll points from their involvement, they couldn’t monopolise this display of public dissent. Community groups were by far the most vibrant participants, with their handmade placards and wit. Taking part, even for a short time, felt empowering. And meeting an ‘old flame’, demonstrating on his lunch-break, was a tiny bit nostalgic. Though amid a throng of folk who hailed from Cork, Clondalkin, Dundalk, and all the way from Detroit… there’s a fair chance you might find a lad from Sarajevo!

Large protests on this issue, which have been held across Ireland since the autumn, have forced the government into making concessions. In November, it promised that water bills would be capped until the end of 2018. But our leaders would be ill-advised to think that the problem is solved or to dismiss the concerns of the electorate. Demonising those who continue to object to these new charges is destined to backfire. Unlike prominent politicians, most families in Ireland don’t consider €160 a negligible sum. There’s also widespread fear that while payments for water may initially be fixed they will inevitably increase in coming years.

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People can’t trust an evasive, arrogant government. They’ve lost confidence in the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Although his view, however cynically expressed, that the protests aren’t just about water is essentially true. They’re about all the penalties imposed on the population of Ireland over the last six years of austerity. Repaying international lenders for the recklessness of bankers has been the official priority. Our ministers are now taking (faking) a sudden interest in the environment and conservation. After they poured taxpayers’ money – more than enough to repair every leaking pipe in Ireland – into the sewer of a bailout that has drained the country. Water charges are the latest in a series of cuts to household income which has impacted most severely on the poorest. Funds for public services have been slashed. The health of the nation has been jeopardised. Education has also been targeted, with children from Traveller and immigrant backgrounds and children with special educational needs among the worst hit.

The human cost of Ireland’s deepest ever recession is enormous. Its toll can’t be calculated in euro alone. Yet the government has the audacity to tell us our situation is improving, based on figures of little relevance to daily life. It crows about employment statistics without acknowledging that these disguise the frustration of thousands of capable people whose options are limited to internships and precarious positions that are often nothing more than exploitative. Meanwhile it woos multinationals with lucrative tax incentives. It boasts of job creation – in software, in finance, in financial software. The property market is buoyant again. Rising rents are forcing families into homelessness. But for landlords ‘tis the season to be jolly…

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Is this the most our country can aspire to – the glorification of greed and the growth of inequality? Events over recent months suggest a hunger for new ideas. Post-colonial politics, peddled by twentieth century parties for their own gratification, has failed. Approaching the centenary of the founding of our state, perhaps it’s time for reflection. Especially when, for many people – despite reports of booming sales – tidings of comfort and joy remain distant dreams.

There’s a well-known Irish tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window at Christmas. It’s worth remembering, though, that it originated from our history of oppression – it was once a symbol of resistance and solidarity. Maybe we need to revive this custom in our hearts. To fan flickers of inspiration which can reach out to others and kindle a brighter future for us all.

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Happy Xmas (war isn’t over)

The first anniversary of the abduction of Syrian human rights defenders, Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi, was marked in Dublin on 9 December. A few of us gathered at the Amnesty International memorial sculpture, on a traffic island near Busáras, to raise awareness about this brave group of people known globally as the ‘Douma Four’.

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Lawyers and activists, the four have striven to protect the oppressed in Syria, both before and since the uprising began there in 2011. For over a decade, Razan has defended political prisoners. Her husband Wa’el is one of the founders of the ‘Local Co-ordination Committees’ which, among other vital functions, deliver humanitarian aid to communities affected by the war. Samira has worked to help women in the city of Douma and has written about her country’s notorious system of detention. Nazem is another lawyer engaged in activism – he’s also a poet.

These are just snippets from the profiles of those courageous individuals who were involved in human rights monitoring with the Violations Documentation Centre in Douma before they were seized a year ago. They struggled for justice against all forms of terror in Syria – from the brutality of government forces to abuses perpetrated by organisations such as the so-called ‘Army of Islam’ which is believed to have abducted them.

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In the twelve months since December 2013, Syria has been steeped in even more blood. The barbarity of ISIS, whose emergence was in no small part facilitated by world indifference to Assad’s torturous regime, has wreaked further suffering. According to a new report published by Amnesty International, approximately 4 million refugees have fled the war in Syria. 98% of them are hosted by five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. These surrounding nations can barely cope with the influx. They’ve started closing their borders. The World Food Programme for Syria’s refugees, which aims to meet their most basic requirements, recently faced suspension due to underfunding. Families are enduring yet another freezing winter in exposed camps. While, within Syria itself, millions more are displaced and in dire need of assistance.

The crisis is now apocalyptic. But the response of the world’s richer countries remains pitiful. Calls on their leaders to accept at least 5% of the refugee burden have been ignored. On 9 December, Europe committed to admitting a further 38,000 Syrians – about 1% of the total. In 2014, Ireland has taken 90 people from Syria through a very limited resettlement programme and has pledged to provide a similar number of places in 2015 and 2016. Another 111 Syrians, who have family members already resident in Ireland, have been granted temporary permission to come here. Although, in the cases of those qualifying for this provision, their relatives have had to prove that they can fully support them.

Such reluctance to resettle Syrian refugees compares poorly with Ireland’s acceptance of over a thousand Bosnians during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. This previous scheme included medical treatment for the injured and fairer criteria for family reunification. Sadly, however, the current Irish effort mirrors that of most EU states. With official channels so restricted, Syrians – like many others from regions of unrest – have tried to enter Europe by whatever means they can. This often involves crossing the Mediterranean at the hands of human traffickers. It’s a dangerous journey – an estimated 3000 asylum seekers have drowned en route in 2014 alone.

The tragedy of Syria has become so huge, it’s almost unthinkable. Ironically, this seems to ensure that we deny it any thought. But imagine if around 80% of the population of the Republic of Ireland had to flee as a result of war… Where would we go? What welcome would we expect? Or if your partner, sister, brother or friend was taken captive for defending human rights… How would you feel? What would you do?

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Our plan to light candles at the Dublin memorial was thwarted by heavy rain and gale-force winds. It was hard enough to hold on to our posters! Yet, from within the sculpture which was commissioned as a reminder of prisoners of conscience across the world, a gas flame burned behind us. That stormy night, the chains and bars enclosing it represented the fate of Razan, Samira, Wa’el and Nazem. The dim light inside signified our wavering hope that Syria’s detained and disappeared will, one day, be free. It leapt with the warmth that Ireland could offer vulnerable Syrians… if our country chose to shine as a source of refuge.

For further information please see:

Irish Syria Solidarity Movement (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/IrishSyriaSolidarityMovement

Front Line Defenders – Syria: No word on four abducted activists; A year on, no information on Douma Four (9 December 2014):

http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770#sthash.cUz6zmh1.dpuf http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770

Amnesty International – Left out in the cold: Syrian refugees abandoned by the international community (December 2014):

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/047/2014/en/f9a8340f-d247-4c84-b3b8-ce4e8cbebf0d/mde240472014en.pdf

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Water – the demo date

Like old times… meeting at a protest. On this occasion, Irish water charges have proven zadnja kap u punoj čaši vode. ‘The last drop in a full glass of water’ – Bosnian has a more aquatic way of saying ‘the final straw’. The smug commentators could add that phrase to the stream of metaphor effervescing from their descriptions of the largest demonstrations Ireland has seen for quite a while. It’s easy for them to make puns when they’ve never been trapped in the sinkhole of austerity. They don’t know the reality… that fear of another bill.

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After six years of financial torture, the cuts which had scarce impact on the rich are garroting the rest of us. But Ireland was Europe’s poster-child for bearing unequal pain. We weren’t like those bolshie objectors who took to the streets in Greece and Spain. We tended to vent our anger in private. Apart from a few who phoned radio chat-shows… as if presenters on fat salaries could empathise with their woes. Or those who shared their discontent on the internet and often had their honesty savaged by heartless trolls. Most of us just lay awake at night, worrying.

Now the powers that be are pouring acid on our wounds with their spiel that things are improving. For whom? Not for those of us who didn’t ‘lose the run of ourselves’ during the boom. We, the people, who aren’t implicated in any Luxembourg leaks… we, the ones who never wrecked this country. Unlike our former leader who’s been appointed by a national tycoon to the board of his petrol company. Mind you, the same mogul is also dabbling in the water debacle alongside the present government. Ah, the links forged by liquidity!

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Meanwhile we’re still submerged in hardship. Our penance for the bailout into which, the ECB letters reveal, Ireland was blackmailed. Stoically, we wore the hair shirts thrust upon us. We struggled for work. We got extorted – both by the banks and by the state. Water charges, the Troika’s legacy, are the latest in a swathe of penalties. From the ‘Universal Social Charge’, which hit low earners hardest, to a property tax that exacerbates the nightmare many face. The latter is allegedly required for local services – like repairing potholes, like supporting libraries. Like providing water? Not any more. Our H2O has been gifted to a quango that hires expensive consultants and promises hefty bonuses to its top brass. Finally, the people are saying no.

A huge demonstration in Dublin on 11 October was followed by protests against the water charges all over Ireland on 1 November. These were expressions of widespread public frustration and most of those involved were simply frightened citizens. Many were demonstrating for the very first time – the elderly, families – declaring that we’ve already borne too much austerity. Inevitably, some opposition politicians tried to exploit the event by shining the spotlight of attention on themselves. But, as a speaker in our town stressed, this was an issue that went far beyond political parties. It was about people who’d reached breaking point. About human rights and solidarity…. Our common despair coalesced in this act of defiance.

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It was lashing rain in the square. My husband had walked from the start with the gathering crowd. I’d driven back from Dublin, where I’d been that morning with our two younger kids. I’d been thinking about going to one of the city demos – there were plenty to choose from – when he rang. Instead, I headed homewards. Hoping no roadside cameras deemed my sense of urgency to be slightly over the limit. Getting yelled at by a man for ‘scaring his horse’ because I honked at his pony-towing car when he dashed into a newsagent’s at the traffic lights on the main street. As the lights turned green… then red again. The things you do to make it to a protest! And we got soaked. Although the multitude of umbrellas seemed appropriate. In our town alone, the figures ran to thousands of protestors. Estimates say about 150,000 people came out altogether, across Ireland. Perhaps more…

What will this achieve? Well, the government has been plunged into disarray. Still clinging to its plan for charges, it’s trying to appease the public with unspecified concessions. In recent days it’s also warning of a ‘sinister fringe’ to the popular movement because the installation of water meters has led to isolated skirmishes with the law. A typical tactic employed by those in power when the, usually passive, masses dare to voice their wrath. One that was used, for example, in Bosnia in February, when people who protested in their thousands against economic misery were dismissed by politicians as ‘hooligans’ after a minority rioted. However, given the unexpected strength of resistance in Ireland, the water controversy may have significant electoral consequences.

Mauerfall 1989 / Begrüßung einreisender DDR-Bürger am Grenzübergang Helmstedt

Whether the waves of dissent rippling through regions of Europe worst affected by recession will lead to any fundamental change is less certain. It’s clear though that, twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the continent is not a paradigm of successful democracy. In many ways, Europe is more divided than ever. Diehard capitalism has evidently failed us. We citizens need to come up with alternative ideas.

1989 may now be remembered as a historic ‘watershed’. But those images of Trabants traversing a border that had marked the Iron Curtain were soon followed by scenes of bloodshed in the Balkans. Though, as with the brutal conflicts of 2014, it was easier to tune out and ignore this. For the few who found that impossible, the least we could do was protest. November 1994. A small group holding placards and candles, we tried to remind Dublin of the horrors that were occurring in Bosnia. I’d stepped out from college and, along with a handful of Irish friends, some of the injured Bosnian lads arrived. And, yeah, I noticed a tall, black-haired fella as we displayed our posters. Apparently, he made enquiries – discovered that I was a student and, fortunately for him, over sixteen. I heard the whole story afterwards. That night we just stood in the cold, outside the city centre branch of the Bank of Ireland. An institution which would become our nemesis – saved at the expense of the country in the crash of 2008. Yet I’ll always associate that place with a special person…

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So fancy having a date with the same guy, at a protest, two decades later! Under the woolly cap he was wearing that afternoon, his hair has receded a little but it’s still pretty dark. And being there reignited our first flame of unity – a belief in speaking out against injustice. Finding what we’d cherished long before we were swamped with the trials of austerity. At a demonstration, in a downpour… Who knows what might happen?