Why do we take it lying down while French take to the streets?

IT takes a hell of a spectacle to put Lady Gaga in the shade but the eccentric pop star was no match for French bravura this week.

She was forced to cancel her scheduled Monster Ball concerts in Paris today and yesterday because not even her elaborate entourage could guarantee her convoy of trucks would survive the various blockades, strikes, protests and fuel shortages causing mayhem across the country.

The French are up in arms over government plans to increase the retirement age by two years to 62 and the age of qualification for the full state pension to 67.

And that’s it. They still have functioning banks, they only had a brief flirtation with recession, their economy is growing, employment is stable and they aren’t teetering on the brink of being taken over by the International Monetary Fund. They just don’t want to have to work until the age of 62.

Whether they should be dismissed as a bunch of lunatics or admired for their passion for principle is open to debate but one thing is for sure – they know how to make their voices heard and their presence felt by those in power.

The Greeks displayed similar fury when their economy crashed and burned and before them the equally irked Icelanders showed some of the volcanic nature that defines the geographical make-up of their country when they erupted into public protest and spilled out on the streets like molten lava.

So what has been the response of the Irish, who are probably worse off than any of them? Well, there have been a lot of calls to Liveline and a man drove a cement truck to – not through, mind – the gates of the Dáil.

The last really big protest march here was in February 2009, when more than 100,000 private and public sector (more former than latter) workers marched through Dublin city centre in protest at the Government’s handling of the economic crisis.

But that was on a Saturday when most people don’t work and the Dáil doesn’t sit, so no one was greatly discommoded by the action.

The last protest to achieve tangible results goes back further, to two full years ago, when 15,000 angry pensioners scared the Government into granting a partial climb-down on plans to scrap automatic entitlement to the over-70s medical card.

Since then, the country’s financial situation has worsened, the revelations about banking shenanigans and the mishandling of the economy have become more infuriating and the price the public is being asked to pay for it all through job losses, pay cuts, taxes, levies and butchered services has escalated.

Undoubtedly, anger has grown too, but unlike in other countries, people are not erecting barricades, throwing paint-balls at parliament or even waving peaceful placards demanding “Down with this sort of thing” to any great extent.

So are we too apathetic, too scared, too reserved or too resigned to our fate to act? Or are we just lacking the structures and skills for effective mobilisation? Is it the psyche or the system that is keeping us off the streets?

Both, says Dr Niamh Hourigan, a lecturer in sociology at University College Cork, who points up several key reasons why we haven’t embraced the demonstrative behaviour of our more radical neighbours.

“One of the issues is the role of the Catholic Church in creating social cohesion and consensus. Even though levels of practice have declined, the cultural influence of Catholicism is still very strong. One of the things that comes out of that is a certain conservatism,” she says.

“Look at the emphasis we put on family. We’re having a baby boom, which doesn’t necessarily make sense in our economic circumstances.

“It’s like family represents a kind of permanence in the midst of a crisis. Where everything else seems to be up in the air, family is something that you can be sure of. But investing in family doesn’t promote radicalism. Radicalism is about risk and when you have small children, you don’t want to take risks.

“Then if you look at our political structure itself, what you see in the main parties is a continuation of the civil war divide. You don’t have this ideological divide between left and right that you tend to see within radicalism.”

It is also significant, she says, that the dominant political parties are adept at keeping all comers on side.

“There would be a perception that the elite have exploited the workers and particularly the low-paid workers but because we have political parties who position themselves as representing both elites and workers it’s very difficult to see where the basis would come from to generate this protest.”

But according to the polls, all sides are angry with Fianna Fáil, so surely there is an appetite for collective venting?

Maybe so, says Dr Hourigan, but mobilisation of the masses takes organisation and leadership, which she believes is lacking here.

“We find when we look at successful protest movements elsewhere that usually there has been the church or a sporting organisation or trade union behind it.

“In the Irish situation the popular civil society organisations like the Catholic Church and GAA also have this cross-class approach so they would not be providing a site for radicalism.

“We have trade unions but the most unionised workers are public sector workers who are in partnership. The private sector are worse off but have the least levels of unionisation.”

In contrast, Fergus Whelan, industrial officer with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, says the structure for protest does exist but the mind-set isn’t currently conducive to widespread revolt.

He’s in a good position to judge, as he was involved in the campaign against unfair taxes that led to the massive PAYE protest marches in 1979 and 1980. On one famous day, some 700,000 people marched in towns around the country in what remains the biggest outpouring of collective outrage in the state.

But while the campaign built over time and resulted in the then-Government introducing a levy on farmers, who had been largely exempt from tax, what really brought it to a head was the same Government’s swift U-turn on the levy when the farmers revolted against it.

“When that got into the public mind, the place just exploded,” Fergus recalls. “What’s different then to now is while I think the sense of injustice is actually stronger now, back then people saw the farmers were able to achieve things by political mobilisation and said if they can do it, we can do it.

“Most people now are so in despair and so in shock at what has happened to them and so frightened for the future that I don’t think we are going to see mass demonstrations – in the short term anyway.”

There may be other reasons. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook allow people to let off steam which might otherwise propel them onto the streets.

Students are not as anarchic as they were in the past, probably because for some time they haven’t needed to be. And the involvement of people with republican leanings in protests has at times been highlighted by the authorities in a move which may scare off moderates.

Whatever the reasons, Dr Hourigan agrees the Government is unlikely to have to call in the riot police and implement curfews any time soon, although she points out that at local level the protest instinct is strong.

“There is a sense that in Ireland, community trumps society. People will fight for their community even if they don’t act on a national level. We’ve seen that very strongly with the likes of the Shell to Sea campaign and protests about hospital closures.”

Fergus Whelan also highlights that apparent contradiction where passions run high at local level while seeming to fizzle out nationally, but he isn’t convinced that they will always be contained within county boundaries. “There is a lot of localised militancy so there is always the potential for that to turn into something bigger,” he says.

“It depends on whether politicians can give people reason to hope. People in wartime will pull together for the good of society in the hope of better times to come. To some extent that’s where we are at the moment but if there is no hope for better times, we could eventually see unpleasant civil unrest and disorder.

“Something like Greece is the last thing I want to see. Public disorder doesn’t do anything for ordinary people. It’s ordinary people that get hurt. I know one thing – the people who come on our demonstrations are not fools. They won’t demonstrate for what’s not achievable. They know demonstrations are not a magic wand.”

Not a wand, maybe, but in France, they represent a big stick, being used to beat the government.

Ireland’s protest history: from Roy Keane to Iraq

WE HAVEN’T always been shy about taking to the streets and there have been some impressive demonstrations – as well as some unruly ones – in recent years.

Bizarrely, some of the most animated displays of public protest have been prompted by less than life or death issues – such as the expulsion of Roy Keane from the World Cup in 2002 and the uproar over the threatened closure of Bewley’s coffee shop in Dublin in 2004.

But most protests are serious business – none more so than the anti-war march in February 2003 when more than 100,000 people – about 80,000 more than anticipated – marched through Dublin in opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

A month previously, thousands of farmers had converged on the capital after five days of regional protests at plunging farm incomes, bringing with them a 300-strong tractorcade which made an impressive visual display in the neat leafy streets around Leinster House.

The following year, the ugly side to public protest became evident when several thousand anti-globalisation demonstrators tried to gain access to the Phoenix Park, where an international gathering was marking the accession of 10 new states to the EU.

The May Day riots, as they became known, saw protesters baton-charged by gardaí while water cannon, borrowed from the PSNI, were also turned on them. Numerous arrests and charges followed.

The middle years of the last decade were a little quieter, apart from shocking disturbances at the inaugural – and last – Love Ulster parade in 2006 when shops and street furniture in Dublin were damaged by mainly drunken protestors and many people were injured.

But in the last two years the appetite for protest seemed to be returning

Hundreds of pensioners used a scheduled meeting in a Dublin city-centre church about plans to scrap the automatic entitlement to the over-70s medical card to excellent effect when they took to the lecterns and lambasted the few Government politicians who dared to show their faces.

They were joined by 15,000 more in a protest march to the Dáil which ultimately, partially, achieved its aim.

An estimated 100,000 public and private sector workers marched in protest through Dublin in February last year and 50,000 repeated the exercise in November, while smaller protests took place simultaneously around the country.

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