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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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?

Austerity – tearing the spirit

‘It’s the death of hope that gets you,’ she said. ‘You try to keep on going. But in the end… there’s nothing.’

Her words are clipped, her tone self-critical. She’s to blame. Because, this time, she can’t come up with a solution. It started with the finances. Now it’s swallowed her whole… eroding her integrity, her family. Reducing her to bills and bank statements she’s afraid to open. Figures misrepresent the full story.

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Months waste into years. Stable employment? No chance. Only short-term projects that demand intense attention, then fizzle to zero. The contemporary curse of ‘casualisation’… Build up your portfolio – take on as much you can, for the least remuneration. A lot of her work is unpaid. To retain her ‘professional profile’ – whatever that is. She’s burning out in the process. But, of course, the worker has always been expendable. Today’s business ethos shows little change from that which underpinned the Dublin Lockout of 1913. Connolly and Larkin must turn in their Commie graves at its centenary celebrations. Or maybe they’ll have the last laugh… at market forces devouring the neoliberal masses.

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She’s tried recruitment agencies. They’ve told her she’s over-qualified. True, she’s rife with certificates – up to the fourth level. Studies completed while having kids, thinking it’d be best for them. Not in this environment. Ironic… she once lived in a ‘knowledge economy’. Based on the commodification of learning, skills, experience. Such a fallacy. She should’ve done something lucrative, though… sold her soul to technology. Stupidly, she wanted to ‘contribute to society’. But where are the opportunities? Even voluntary organisations have evolved into streamlined outfits. Hiring interns because, she supposes, it takes a few names off the live register. Makes the statistics look better. Paving her demise, she channels Dostoevsky: ‘deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence’. Robbed of meaning, ‘they go stark, raving mad.’

Emigration has been recommended as an alternative to insanity. By a careers advisor… by her doctor, when she finally admitted that stress was taking its toll. Headaches, muscle pain, stomach in constant knots and sleep murdered. Those were her symptoms a while back. Niggling, but they’re becoming drug-resistant. Ibuprofen doesn’t help. Nor do her pointless overseas applications. Never mind the rejections for the few posts she’s seen advertised at home. She tries not to view the latter as a reflection on her competence. They could’ve been decided in-house or snapped up by those with that vital attribute – a track record in ‘obtaining funding’. Otherwise, apart from rare cases of essential staff replacement, her area of expertise falls within a sector crippled by a moratorium.

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She’d love to leave. Were it not for the practical obstacles, she’d have gone two years ago. Though the fear of uprooting her children… And her husband, at least, has a job here. It feels like they’re marooned. Could they even return to city? That might be her salvation – a release from the hinterland in which she was ensnared by the boom. The buzzword then was ‘location’. But the fringe of the commuter belt was as far as their family budget ever extended – a three to four hour round-trip to ‘civilisation’. Her spouse makes the daily journey. He’s off in the morning before the kids are awake, gets back late. Reaps sympathy for endurance… ‘God help him, all that travelling’. It’s OK for a father, but for a mother it’s well-nigh criminal neglect. Plus childcare, in her locality, won’t cover those sort of hours. To an employer in the metropolis, her availability is questionable. The disadvantage of distance… and no options lie within her geographical radius. It’s an annihilating circle – a woman-trap.

Nonetheless, she has her family. She has responsibilities. So, as she’s been told, she ought to be content. Society seems better attuned to a man’s loss of identity. If he’s unemployed, or can only find scraps of work, there’s a modicum of understanding. Analysis of the crisis tends to highlight its impact on the guys. Leads to public concern at, for example, the rising rate of male suicide. Women, on the other hand, just bear it. Their screams are suffocated. Perhaps it’s the anti-depressants? That chemical asylum, its walls made of blister packs, not bricks. But it’s as incarcerating as the straight-jacketed institutions of the past. She guesses that its clients are predominantly female. It’s tempting – a couple of tablets to numb raw-edged emotions. She might be a bit more docile then, if somewhat zombified. No, she won’t be seduced by pills. Or therapy, or yoga… Rightly or wrongly, she’s chosen her mantra: ‘these problems are due to external forces, not to any imbalance of the brain’. She can’t let them corrupt her mind. Though she senses she’s running out of time.

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Her gapless CV is worthless. It won’t get the mortgage vultures off her back. She wishes she could throw the keys at them… except that they’re the keys of her children’s home. Arrears mount. They’re in massive negative equity. The house has depreciated to half-price in eight years. Debt. That’s all they’d carry away. And her rage. At those bankers who joked, in taped phone-calls, about ‘moula’ in the billions… and the smarmy politicians who still appear on their side. The authorities – so slow to prosecute when those in cahoots with them claim there’s no ‘smoking gun’. Those property profiteers who sold young couples a fierce breed of pup that’s now mauling its ‘owners’… She loathes herself for being fooled into buying. Because it was cheaper than renting and any form of accommodation was increasingly expensive, before the bubble burst. But who expected things to get so much worse?

No-one could’ve foreseen it. That’s what those in power say, as they instruct the average citizen to cough up and ‘share the pain’… when they’re immune to it. She hates the pettiness of complaining, adding her wails to the ‘squeezed middle’ whinge. It’s not like she’s on the breadline or in straits as dire as families on welfare. She’s aware – as UNICEF reminds – that, each year, over six million children die before their fifth birthday, mostly of preventable diseases. In comparison, Ireland’s difficulties are minor and her predicament is trivial. She isn’t in war-ravaged Syria, although she’s no stranger to conflict and that makes her feel more ashamed of her present weakness. Pathetic… D.H. Lawrence was right, ‘how beastly the bourgeois is’. And the female of the species is as abhorrent and hypocritical as the male. She tries to deny that she’s one of them. But when she signed for that house she joined their club… albeit in a très petit kind of way.

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She prefers to see herself as déclassé – a Gallic euphemism for abject failure. Dissolving into insolvency… She’s invisible, a ghost in her estate. Withdrawing from her marriage, building a barbed-wire fence between her and the man she loves. Resenting him because, despite drops in his salary, he’s still got his dignity. He has a social slot. While she’s accepting bail-outs from her parents, when – at their stage of life – it should be vice versa. She isn’t even grateful for their charity. And now it’s an effort to smile at her own children. That might be what’s affecting them. They’re acting out, more than ever. It’s her fault – she’s their mother. No longer coping… far too tired. She switches off the lights. Her hoard of worry spills into the night. Into that dark stream of hopelessness which seems, like Joyce’s snow, to be ‘general all over Ireland’. If she, and the sleepless others, only knew that they’re as numerous as the stars above the neon fug and damp, mist-smothered fields.

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After five years of austerity, this isn’t much of a tear-jerker. It’s just another chapter in what’s become an Irish legend… a grim sequel to the ‘fairy-tale’ of the Celtic Tiger. You can castigate the character, tell her to ‘catch herself on’ and be stronger for her kids. Diagnose her depression. Order her to ring a help-line or seek medical assistance. ‘Talk to someone’ as advocated by the state-sponsored campaign for mental health protection. You won’t hear it acknowledge that the recession (which, officially, has ended) has caused epidemic levels of stress-related illness. There’ll be no admission that untrammelled development and the harassment of beleaguered borrowers has already proven fatal.

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No, with pulsar-grade spin you’ll be told that things are improving. Ergo, if you’re not thriving, you’re a loser. The consequent self-torture is as effective in gagging dissent as the psy-ops of a totalitarian regime. This is the virtual gulag which the financiers and their cronies have created. We are among its growing number of inmates.

(Some of the pronouns may have been changed.)