Why we sit on sofas rather than take to the streets

Like most things in the world there is no one clear reason that explains the penchant for many Irish people to sit on their backsides when it comes to protest.

I have done a lot of research on the mindset of people when it comes to economics and the role of the welfare state. Much of it is heavy going, but it does provide answers as to why Irish people are supremely indifferent.

Firstly, most of the evidence suggests the average ranking of Irish people is slightly right-wing, though there is a growing emergence of a right-left split in voting preferences. Most Irish people’s mindsets are closer to conservative Americans than the socially democratic French or Swedish.

The majority are unsympathetic to certain recipients of social welfare, particularly immigrants, lone parents and the unemployed.

There is an exception to this: if people are rich themselves or doing relatively well economically, they generally have little sympathy for those in need of public services or welfare and are not going to protest about anything.

Conversely, those who do experience unemployment, even intermittently, or need medical cards or social housing, do favour ‘societal’ attitudes to the welfare state and are more likely to protest. Sociologists call this the ‘divided selves’ thesis, where people ‘compartmentalise’ their views, based on their own lived experience.

At the moment, despite high levels of unemployment, only one on seven people are affected, and about one in three receive a welfare payment. Back in the early 1990s when the situation was similar, it was found Irish people didn’t really care enough to protest then because, even counting unemployed relatives, two thirds of Irish people were not in any contact with unemployment whatsoever on a daily basis. So, once the problem didn’t affect them, they simply went about their own business and there were very few protests.

The ex-taoiseach Jack Lynch famously predicted in the late 1970s that if unemployment exceeded 100,000, there would likely be a social revolution. In 1993, with a million less people than now, it exceeded 300,000 and in the last two years it has hit 440,000.

Still there hasn’t been a revolution. In that time there has been a revolution in Libya, two in Egypt, one in Syria and massive social unrest in Brazil, Turkey, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

What else stirs the Irish indifference to protest and uprising? The historical evidence argues that the ‘gombeen’-type ‘cute hoorism’ of Irish people has become part of the cultural makeup of many. During the Famine, the emerging middle class were more than happy to have three million starve or perish by 1870; it left more land for them.

They, along with the merchants and food producers, were not going to share during the Famine. This same class of people, the erstwhile Irish rural-landed class were and are the Irish movers and shakers.

They moved in to government and in Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil were never going to allow the class-based politics of the ‘haves and have-nots’ break out..

The sayings ‘cover your ass’ and ‘don’t rock the boat’ became national mantras.! That this is anathema to protest is obvious.

The middle road of Irish politics, giving just enough to the poor, while preserving the economic interests of the rich and powerful, and whereby skilled tradesmen were bought off by good jobs in multinationals and various construction booms, would strongly prevent class politics for protest from emerging. This legacy is still alive today.

So culturally, Irish people have learned to become supremely cute and pragmatic about almost everything with the result that protest is that last resort for most. Unions reflect this indifference.

The trade union movement fell in love with partnership and has been unwilling to ‘rock the boat’; fearing strike action and a desire by the leadership to keep their heads down and wait for the economic storm to pass. And who else but unions could mobilise mass protests with sufficient muscle to challenge austerity?

Ironically, many of those who are most opposed to protest and less amenable to paying taxes are those coming from the skilled working classes: it is within this milieu that urban myths abound of immigrants getting cars paid for by community welfare officers and unemployed neighbours ‘have more money than ourselves’. You won’t find much protest from these quarters.

Then of course you have the spin of politicians: people were erroneously told that you needed a low-tax/ low-spend economy to keep the Celtic Tiger going and once we had full employment, everything would be fine.

Thousands become mini-property developers believing the mantra of a soft-landing.

The obsequious Irish trusted their masters and were driven by a combination of media spin and naked individualism to do so. The fact that homeless was increasing and hundreds were on hospital trolleys was of secondary importance.The cultural conditioning was coming home to roost.

Then there is the effect of Mushroom information on the Irish where they are kept in the dark by politicians and fed with shite. A major inhibitory factor to protest is that people believe the government spin that there aren’t any alternatives and they themselves are powerless.!

The information gap created by reading tabloids and the press-release ‘manufactured’ Six One News means Irish people don’t know of alternatives: that for example a 5% gross tax could provide health insurance for all with no waiting lists, or that there is €8bn in untapped taxes to make up most of the fiscal savings going forward, which would hit the wealthy only without spreading the pain to those who can least afford it.

Under these circumstances, demoralised people prefer to sit on the sofa.

Finally, you have the failure of the educators.

Subjects such as sociology or philosophy, which might teach people to think about how society is structured towards the rich and powerful, don’t exist in second-level.

If we are to have leaders to challenge, such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, we need the ‘intelligentsia’ to produce them. Student’s unions, however, have become breeding grounds for careerist students; many academics in the social sciences, where one might expect a leader, teach relatively obscure theory, or engage only with other academics in ‘learned’ journals, without helping society out by engaging on the media.

Another spur to protest is lost. Adding up all the factors explains why Irish people endure such suffering without significant protest.

* Dr Tom O’Connor is a lecturer in economics and public policy at CIT and author of a forthcoming book entitled: The Soul of Irish Indifference

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