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.