IT HAS been very interesting to see how a protester shouting abuse at President Michael D Higgins elicited such a hysterical response from the Government.
While the Government and many commentators have expressed outrage at this “threat to democracy” represented by a few protesters, I would argue that the heavy-handed treatment by the gardaí of water protests across the country and the Government inaction and meek compliance with our European bosses are more sinister threats to our fragile democracy.
Is the failure of a government to carry out many of its pre-election promises not a significant undermining of democracy? Or what about when Taoiseach Enda Kenny decides not to stand up for the Irish people and support a European debt conference?
How is it democratic when 30% of the population and 40% of our children are going without basic necessities such as adequate heating or a daily hot meal while €7bn a year goes to national debt repayments?
It is worth contrasting the Taoiseach’s condemnation of recent water protests with his failure to challenge the ECB and unsecured Anglo bondholders in 2011. Government TDs mocked and jeered the Independent TDs who proposed merely asking the ECB to allow the Irish Central Bank destroy the €28.1bn Anglo promissory notes.
The Taoiseach set a deadline of June 2014 to get progress on the “great” debt deal from Europe that was promised in 2012. But still we wait. Where is Enda’s condemnation of this deplorable treatment of Ireland by Europe? Waiting for this Government to get us a debt deal is like waiting for Godot.
Again there has been deafening silence from the Government in relation to developers not paying back their debts to Nama. They have, in fact, received significant debt writedowns while neither ordinary people nor the country can even look for such treatment. It gets worse.
Nama is paying over 100 developers €150,000 a year. Where is the Taoiseach’s declaration of that as deplorable? Where was the outrage at the morally disgusting salary of €843,000 for Bank of Ireland’s CEO? It is clear that this Government’s only real concern is the democracy of the upper middle classes and the wealthy. Just last week the Government offered consultants — amongst the highest paid public sector workers — a pay increase where their new entry rate is €127,000.
It has always been one standard for the elite in Ireland and another for the little people — the workers, the unemployed, the sick and disabled, and the poor. The banks are allowed to issue 50,000 repossession letters to distressed households in mortgage arrears but the bank CEOs and developers get to keep their massive salaries.
The Taoiseach, whose annual salary is €200,000, is part of that golden circle. He’s unlikely to have any difficulties paying a mortgage, getting private healthcare, or paying childcare or third-level fees for his children etc.
Mr Kenny and most government ministers have little idea what it is like to grow up in poverty in places like Finglas where the unemployment rate is 35%. While working as a community worker in Dublin’s inner-city, I saw first-hand how the austerity cuts to community services has destroyed the very fabric of these areas. What hope does this government offer to people living in these areas?
I believe this disconnect between politicians and the people they are elected to represent explains why the establishment parties will never rock the boat or stand up to Europe. They have no genuine rage against the injustice and social impact of Ireland paying a disproportionate cost of the bailouts.
They see their role as protecting the system and maintaining the status quo. They have no interest or desire to radically change it.
So back to the man shouting at the President. It does need to be said that personalised insults are not right and neither are they an effective form of protest. More importantly, there should be no politician, including the President, that is above public scrutiny, including protest.
If our history has taught us anything it is that having any institution above reproach can result in horrendous abuses of power. In this instance, the President had powers to delay the imposition of water charges and question its constitutionality. It is legitimate, therefore, for people to protest at his failure to do this.
The water movement thus far has been successful in maintaining broad community support. An important reason why so many people have got involved is because the overwhelming majority of actions have been peaceful, even if they involve civil disobedience.
The tens of thousands that marched across the country on Saturday and the 750,000 who have not registered shows the widespread support that still exists. It also shows the depth of commitment and determination people feel to oppose the implementation of this new charge.
The Government, and wider establishment, are concerned that the movement has not gone away. They are also worried that the movement continues to highlight the issues of austerity, bank bailouts, corruption and cronyism. Most disturbing to the establishment is how ordinary people are empowering themselves and taking action outside the routes of traditional citizen engagement in the public sphere.
Thus, the real reason for the establishment reaction to the protests is that it is not that democracy is under threat from the protests but the fear that the existing political order and status quo is under threat.
There is no escaping the fact that the protests have the potential to bring about a major transformation in Ireland. But to do that the protests must maintain wide public involvement. They also require new forms of representation, such as the formation of a community, left independent and trade union political alliance, that could bring these issues forward even further.
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