One of the ways in which Ireland is not Greece is that the former country has no memory of dictatorship and resistance to it, unlike Portugal, Spain and Italy. There is therefore no readily accessible collective memory of democratic gains won that might spur widespread dissent and resistance.
Along with this comes a relatively weak attachment to rights, and a tendency to see charity as a substitute for justice. Ruling politicians are expected to supply rain and sunshine from above, and open conflict is averted through a network of unions, charities and civil society formations that see things through the eyes of the government of the day.
This is a favourable terrain for a successful bailout programme. By successful I mean from the point of view of bankers who want to party and have the public clean up their vomit, successful from the point of view of privateers who want to get stuck into rich seams of income from services previously provided by the public sector, and successful from the point of view of major firms who want their profits maintained and restored through the imposition of austerity measures.
Part of this ongoing process of disciplining the public has been the manipulation of expectations: threats to inflict harm are followed by claims that no, not at all, it will not be as bad as that, there will be more sunshine and less rain than had been expected.
Then, more threats come through from the political establishment: auguries of violence in which everything -everything- will be on the table. Then, they relent. You see, at the end of the day, cuts to health, welfare and education spending hurt a Minister on €150,000 a year just as much as they hurt a child living in poverty. (But the latter needs to feel discipline.)
There is a direct relation, then, between the fiscal and economic stability demanded by the Irish government and the Troika on the one hand, and the feeling of instability that affects everyday people on the other, a feeling generated by the fear -and the experience- of impoverishment, deprivation, unemployment, and, frequently, humiliation.
A particularly insidious feature of this relation is members of the public having to depend on the Minister of the day -whether in Finance, Social Protection, Health or Education- to rescind their course of action, to relent from unleashing chaos on people’s lives.
Given the power of the government over the Dáil, and given the absence of civil society institutions independent of government influence that are capable of offering a robust defence of social and economic rights, lobbying the Minister is often the only thing campaigners can do.
But this leads to a sick choreography, in which government departments announce vicious assaults on rights and entitlements, only for the Minister in charge to announce his or her solidarity and common cause with those affected once the public outcry has reached a certain level. It hurts him just as much as it does you. He listens.
Today, on the eve of planned protests, Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn announced, flanked by six Labour backbenchers, that his Department would not proceed with a 10% cut in specialist teaching hours for children with more moderate to severe levels of special needs: a partial relief, perhaps, for those parents and educators fearing the worst for the education and welfare of the children for whom they bear responsibility.
When the ‘bailout’ of Greece was agreed back in 2010, Ruairi Quinn took to the airwaves to endorse it.
He told RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, that “Ireland was going to make a bit of money out of this”, because it was lending money at a lower rate than the international markets. The erstwhile ruling party, PASOK, part of the Socialist International along with the Irish Labour Party, was “getting massive support from the Greek citizens right across the political spectrum.”
Quinn said Greek opinion polls on the bailout were “much more positive than the savage demonstrations would suggest”. He was in no doubt that the lessons to be dealt out to Greek society applied to Ireland as well. Ireland had “continued to act like Italians, or should I say Greeks”, when they should have “learning to behave like Germans”.
The measures contained in the Greek deal were steps that Ireland’s political establishment was already agreed upon, since, as he put it, “while many of us disagreed with the nature of the cuts, there was no intellectual disagreement in political Ireland against the necessity for the macroeconomic measures”.
Three years later, with Greek society laid waste, PASOK’s popularity decimated, and public institutions subject to dictatorial erasure, and with the Irish Labour Party on the road to oblivion in the polls, Quinn and the rest of the government are still out to maintain Irish discipline, still out to teach people to behave like good little Germans.
And they are resorting to sick choreography -preying on the fears of parents of children with special needs, and discarding the rights of those children before conveniently rediscovering them- in order to achieve it. Quinn gets to look human and the cuts will come from somewhere else, from more deserving victims.
What this episode tells us is that the horrifying choreography of the ongoing bailout will only stop once Irish people take to the streets and stay there. The protests for tomorrow evening (Wednesday) are still going ahead, and with good reason.