Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy and independent MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan joined the last of the weekly protests that for five years have put the tight-knit North Cork community on the map as home to a protest movement focusing on the bondholder bailouts that were part of a government policy that have so far cost the state €67.8bn in bank recapitalisation.
Diarmuid O’Flynn wielded the small wooden placard that he used on Ballyhea Says No’s first march five years ago as he addressed the crowd gathered in the car park across the road from St Mary’s church. “The first day we were out this was all we had,” he said.
Founder of Ballyhea Says No, O’Flynn ran as Independent Alliance candidate for Cork North West in the recent general election, winning just 2,159 votes. “What the election campaign taught us — apart from the fact that I’m unelectable,” he joked, “is that these marches have put Ballyhea on the map. Everywhere I went campaigning, people might not have heard of me, but they’ve certainly heard of Ballyhea.”
O’Flynn said the weekly protests had served their purpose as an awareness-raising campaign and that the Ballyhea residents weren’t giving up the fight any time soon: “We have a commitment from upwards of 30 TDs in the newly elected Dáil that they will support a cross-party Dáil committee to take this fight to Europe and we’re confident that that will happen.”
It was events after 2011’s general election that spurred O’Flynn, a former hurling correspondent for the Irish Examiner, to nail together his placard and voice his anger at the Irish taxpayer’s liability for bank debt.
“I thought we had a new government that was going to come in and take up this fight for us; I voted for them. Within days of being elected they turned around and said they weren’t going to burn the bondholders. It was then that I started making a few phone calls and started marching.”
The rain spattered on a sea of umbrellas during the final march, and O’Flynn wouldn’t have it any other way. “If we were here with the sun shining on us, that would not be representative of what we’ve gone through in the past five years so it’s fitting that it’s raining,” he said. “It was a sacrifice for a lot of people who gave up things to take part.”
Pat Moloney, from neighbouring group Charleville Says No, said: “Ballyhea’s way is that you stand up and you fight. You don’t bend the knee to your so-called superiors in Germany and Europe. You stand up and you fight for yourself and for your kids like Diarmuid O’Flynn did; he stood up, and got the rest of us to stand up.”
“Hurling the little streets against the great,” as WB Yeats once wrote, would be a good way to describe Diarmuid O’Flynn’s tactics, but for the fact that Ballyhea only has one “street” — the main Cork to Limerick road.
But their size hasn’t stopped the Ballyhea locals from going to Frankfurt and nailing a Martin-Luther style list of demands to the door of the European Central Bank, as well as holding meetings with high-ranking EU and IMF officials. They have also garnered attention in the international press and been the subject of several documentaries.
Cars honked in support as around 200 protesters made their way quietly up and down a short stretch of the road in their village. Their numbers were swollen by supporters from spin-off campaigns in other communities; signs proclaiming “Clonmel says No”,“Tralee Says No”, and “Fermoy Says No” mingled with other more generalised anti-austerity campaigns and placards reading “Banks must take their own losses”.
“It’s very clear that it’s not the end of the issue, and not the end for Ballyhea Says No,” Catherine Murphy said. She echoed Diarmuid O’Flynn’s optimism that a diverse new Dáil would be more amenable to taking political action on the issue. “There’ll be elements of the new Dáil that will pick it up and run with it but it also needs to be picked up on at a European level as well.”
Ballyhea residents Frances and Pat O’Brien have attended the marches with their children and grandchildren regularly over the five years. “It’s our children and our children’s children that will be paying it back,” Mrs O’Brien said.
“We could be selfish and say, ‘We’ll be ok’, but it’s the children of Ireland that will be paying it back. We might have stopped marching for now but we’ll be waiting for the call from Diarmuid to do something and to back him up whatever way he wants.”