Why didn’t we riot?

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This is the text of an article published in the Sunday Business Post 22nd December 2013

On the night of 6th December 2008 there were widespread protests against the government in Athens. In one middle class district in the centre of Athens, Exarcheia, there were confrontations with the police. Police were ordered to leave the district, but two policemen decided to stay, parked their car, and followed a group of youths. It’s not clear what happened next, but one of the policemen shot Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15 year-old boy from a wealthy family, who attended a private school. This sparked a wave of rioting throughout Greece that lasted a number of weeks.

The protests in Greece reflected anger against governments in much of Europe for what was seen as their role or complicity in causing the economic crisis. In the last few years the main political issue across Europe has been how to react to the global economic crisis. In particular there’s been a debate on whether austerity works.

Ireland, as a bailout country, didn’t have much to debate; the broad parameters of its economic policy were set by the Troika of the IMF, EU and ECB. But the Irish people were at least free to react to the austerity and let the world know what it thought.

Well if we reacted it was with a surprising acceptance of our lot. We became model Austerians. There has been little protest and virtually no social unrest. The widespread protests, frequent general strikes, and rioting Greece experienced were accompanied by the emergence of populist parties on the left and right. But nothing here; Why not?

It’s not like we didn’t have reason to. Our fall in income, the rise in unemployment, the rise in debt and the deficit were comparable to that which Greece suffered. From 2008 to 2011 Ireland’s unemployment rate was higher than Greece’s. The two countries competed to outdo each other in a league of misery.

The fact that Alexandros Grigoropoulos was from a wealthy background suggests it is not deprivation which causes people to protest.

We have seen moments of great drama that might provide the catalyst for protest. The Bank Guarantee scheme which nationalised private bank debt of surely could have been a trigger. And if not it the emergency budgets that followed surely would have lit the fuse? Instead the late Brian Lenihan could tour the capitals of Europe boasting at how similar pay cuts to those  imposed on Irish public servants  would have led to riots on the streets of Paris.

The reason we’re usually given is cultural. Historian Roy Foster wrote in the FT recently that ‘the culture of protest has not been active in Irish life since independence’. Economists Donal Donovan and Antoin Murphy speculated that ‘the Irish are realists at heart’.

A problem with this argument is that it begs the question. The Irish don’t protests because they don’t have a history of protest. But this is precisely what we want to explain.

Other explanations for Irish quiescence are social. It’s suggested that the Irish are middle class, conservative, with strong family ties, and high home ownership. But this could be a description of Greek society. Emigration is also cited. As the young leave, so too do the people most likely to protest. The Greeks protests were notable for the demographic make-up of the protesters. They were not the usual suspects, but came from all ages and classes in Greece. And Greece like Ireland saw high levels of emigration at the time of the crisis.

It’s also suggested that Greece might be more ideologically polarised. The polarisation of left and right might lead to tensions and greater protest. But the data don’t support this. Compared to Spain and Portugal, Greece and Ireland look remarkably similar with most people placing themselves in the centre ground.

Perhaps we don’t protests because there’s no point; It has no impact.

Tell that to the smattering of septuagenarians who threatened to withhold their vote, panicking the then government into a partial reversal of the withdrawal of medical cards.

What then might explain this puzzling difference? It is likely to relate to the strength of the two states. Though both countries suffered similar economic shocks, the Irish state was resilient because it is largely efficient, bureaucratic (i.e. fair), and was able to continue to deliver services. While many complained about the cutbacks, the impact of the crisis was moderated by the state. A generous dole kept being paid, people generally weren’t evicted from their houses.

The Greek state had operated a patronage system before the crisis hit. The state was up for grabs, and it was better to associate with the state via parties that venture into the market through competition. Access to the state was corrupt at all levels and services were delivered via the parties. Bribes were (and are) endemic and taxes optional.

Though we like to give out about the Irish state, and think that politicians spend too much time brokering our interactions with the state, few of us actually contact politicians. Most of us can expect to get medical treatment on the basis of clinical need rather than bribes. On any objective measures of government efficiency Ireland is ranked among Northern European countries whereas Greece is closer to North African ones.

With the crisis the Greek parties no longer had the goods to give out. The state didn’t have the power to moderate the impact of the crisis. It ceased to provide any purpose and many Greeks reacted against this. It meant that Greece suffered serious falls in human development rankings, whereas Ireland was stable.

This is reflected in attitudes to the state. Distrust of non-political state agents such as the police is much higher in Greece, where over half distrust the police, compared to 17% in Ireland. This is not surprising. Most state jobs in Greece are delivered by the parties, not on merit. Police officers are poorly trained and employed because of party connections.

So when Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot, triggering riots across Greece, it was by poorly trained police. The weakness of the state which was directly at fault.

The power of the state, not culture or the economic shock caused Greece to burn and Ireland to remain largely content.

This article is based on research with Takis Pappas of the EUI, Florence, see here.

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9 thoughts on “Why didn’t we riot?

  1. we don’t protest because those that do, get batton and peppered sprayed off the street, see occupy dame street

    and its rumoured the cop was nazi who worked his way into the position he shot the kid because he was a violent pyschopath as all cops are

  2. Irish people fully expect their politicians to be corrupt and almost everyone alive in the country today cannot remember a time when it…”corruption” was not the norm. We expect it and it is the only thing that is delivered in spades.

    The most important institutions in the state, together with those that are supposed to deliver “independent” economic and political advice along with the creme de le creme of the legal profession have all been found in the middle of the various debacles, milking the exchequer as if there was no tomorrow. And of course, eventually, and sooner rather than later, there will be no tomorrow as elements within the state will have exhausted not only the borrowing capacity of the country, they will have exhausted the borrowing capacity of those yet to be born, in the next forty to fifty years.

    The main reasons for not marching are all of the above together with, disillusionment, lack of self respect, self loathing, defeatism and failure to come up with alternative political structures to challenge the status quo. . Then, there is a very large part of the population who are perfectly happy with the situation as they are fully participating in the nepotism and cronyism. Finally, we have the daily anodyne reporting of corruption in the media as if it were an integral and honourable part of the daily functioning of what we are asked to accept as “democracy”.

    Just in case, anyone has failed to notice, there is now open class warfare in Ireland. All around are citizens with first class qualifications who cannot get within an asses roar of interviews, never mind jobs, which are more carefully vetted than ever to make sure that the “wrong people” are not given a leg up. Look no further than the latest who’s, who, of the Anglo “who done it” saga and the Limerick City of Cronyism. Ultimately, the only people being fooled are ourselves. The Irish are now victims of the Irish.

    A sort of replay of the civil war is inevitable and sooner rather than later by those that reject institutionalised corruption and political nihilism. All that is required is a refusal to pay for those that have milked entitlement and abused power. There will be a reset of power and privilege and most likely this will be triggered by financial collapse. Anyone, that believes the economic lies pedalled daily and the false state of the nation being declared hand on heart, is either complicit in or part of the rot.

  3. We didn’t Protest because the train to Dublin is too expensive and it was probably forcasted lashing rain anyway. plus dont want to be visiting the GP with a flu – ching ching!

  4. We have a very long history of constitutionalism in Ireland. Even our terrorism, to a good extent, depends on the protections of law-and-order.

    Just recall that the first act of the Irish War of Independence was to convene a parliament after a constitutionally-held election. We may hit the headlines for terrorism – but in fact our first instinct is to constitutionalism.

    We are also an enormously cohesive nation with a very profound sense of shared identity (and even destiny). The Greeks have very low social capital, nothing comparable to a place like Ireland.

    So, our response was with things like this site, groups like Second Republic, activities like We the Citizens. We got talking. The Greeks could only shout.

    An amazing thing I saw was the reaction of the People to the previous government. No matter how dissatisfied the People became with them, We knew We could depend on two things: 1) the rule of law and 2) election day will come. And the People simply bided their time.

    • @ Oliver Moran
      The people have no choice but to bide their time, yet again, as the scale of the new betrayal finally begins to dawn on them with each new revelation. Unfortunately, the only choice they will be given is a choice between tweedle dee and tweedle dummer. Sinn Fein may poll well, if they follow through and robustly declare that they will not go into coalition with any party that does not agree to water charges and property taxes being abolished. Two hated immoral taxes and two potential time bombs that are likely to explode when least expected. Independents could end up with 40 seats!!

      I think you are very much over estimating the social cohesiveness of Irish society. I meet people everyday who feel they are no longer part of the cosy little insider arrangements on this Island and they are only waiting to take revenge.

      • “The people have no choice but to bide their time, yet again…”

        Agree. And that We feel confident that We can bide our time (i.e. that We have confidence in constitutionalism) is a positive. What I think is a negative is Our weakness in building alternative movements and parties.

        Lately, more and more, I find myself thinking of the independence era and the way Sinn Féin replaced almost entirely the Irish Parliamentary Party in one fell swoop. I don’t think we can expect the same thing exactly. Obviously, here were unique circumstances of that time. But maybe there is inspiration to be got from there. (Political violence aside, needless to say.)

        “I meet people everyday who feel they are no longer part of the cosy little insider arrangements on this Island…”

        Cosy little insider arrangements are the opposite of social cohesiveness.

        “…and they are only waiting to take revenge.”

        How to organise? That’s the thing.

  5. That it what I have been thinking about myself I believe the best way forward is to emulate what has happened in Italy with the Five Star Movement. They seemed to come completely out of the blue. FF and FG parties have set up the system in such a way that the only way to level the playing field is create an Internet based political party, funded the same way as many businesses are funding themselves directly from the “movement’s members”. Better still, call it “a movement for change” a vote for change, because what people do not realise is that when the cosy cartels of government and trade unions, politicians and judges falls apart, as they will, there is going to be a very ugly settling of the apartheid regime that is being operated openly, with impunity in this country.

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