Radical elements in Ireland must be envying the riotous opposition in the streets of Athens to the Greek government’s “capitulation” to the European Union’s terms for any international bailout of the national bankruptcy.
In their heart of hearts they wonder why the Irish also don’t take to the streets to protest the combined severe cutbacks in public expenditure and threatened increased taxation necessitated by both public indebtedness, and the state assumption of bank debt.
For one thing, as bad as Ireland’s financial situation may be, it is not as bad as that of Greece. As extravagant as was the Irish public sector, it never rivaled that of Greece.
Another, even more important factor, is the inherent conservatism of the Irish. Regardless of the wealth of rebel songs in the repertoire of Irish traditional music, the Irish temperament is basically conservative and accepting of established and traditional authority.
The few revolutions there were in Irish history, such as that of the United Irishmen in 1798, Young Ireland in 1848, and the Fenians in 1867, failed, and in the latter two had minimal public support. Even 1916 was a failure, generally opposed by most of the Irish population, many of whose sons were volunteers in the British forces fighting the First World War, or were members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
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British over-reaction to 1916 provoked the political ascendancy in most of Ireland by Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election and in local government elections in 1920. Militant elements in the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood commenced a violent assault on the police which evolved into the War of Independence, ultimately endorsed by the Sinn Féin-controlled Dáil Éireann.
That struggle ended with Ireland obtaining Free State status as a dominion, which was endorsed by the majority in the June 1922 election and reinforced by the defeat in the Civil War a year later of the die-hard republicans.
The Ireland that emerged during the first decade under the Civil war victors, led by William T. Cosgrave, and later under those defeated in that war, led by Eamon de Valera, did not differ in any great degree from the Ireland dominated from the 1880s to 1918 by the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was an Ireland that paid great respect to private property, traditional family values, and religion.
Indeed, it could be argued that so anxious was Ireland to demonstrate its decorous and well-behaved character upon independence that it became obsequious and over-deferential to some agencies, whether state, ecclesiastical, or entrepreneurial.
That deference may partly explain the scandals that came to light in the past decade involving church personnel in the treatment of institutionalized children. Many of these horrors could only have happened because of a general public acceptance of or indifference toward the fate of “troublesome” or “unwanted” children and out-of-wedlock mothers and state collaboration.
Alas, the revelations of what happened, admittedly in the not-too-distant past, occurred at a time when a social licentiousness has set in, thanks to the illusions of omnipotence generated by the Celtic Tiger. The desire for personal freedom blinded many to the current horrors of familial disorder and abuse, partly a result of said licentiousness, and the inadequacy of the state as the primary agent for correction or remedy.
The failure of the Celtic Tiger, thankfully, has not led to a public fury against authority, whether state or ecclesiastical. While there has been dramatic alteration of the personal on the public stage, particularly the demise of the Fianna Fáil Party, critique of, as well as acknowledgement of responsibility by, church leaders, and suspicion of bankers and developers, there has not been rioting on the streets, burnings of homes or churches, or demands for lynchings.
Instead, the public seem to have admitted a certain degree of collective responsibility for the economic malaise, as most seemed to have had fallen for the illusions of grandeur that the Celtic Tiger offered, ranging from the possession of numerous cars, extravagant homes (as well as second homes at home or abroad), and uninhibited lifestyle in terms of partying, traveling, and clothing.
There has developed a general recognition that the piper must be paid, whether that be the continental loan sharks (European banks) who fuelled the lack of restraint by Irish bank lenders, or the holders of the bonds that facilitate the financing of the state. That payment has to be made in a combination of tax increases and a reduction of public expenditure.
The latter include the salaries and pensions of elected officials, appointees, civil servants, university personnel, teachers, and hospital service officials, social welfare payments to the unemployed and children’s allowances, and the undertaking of public projects.
Hopefully, this marks the end of a mind-set too long characteristic of many in Ireland that the solution to any problem, whether personal or social, was to look to the government.
Most Irish public projects, especially those that involve making grants or awards of money to people, are un-ironically formally titled this or that “scheme.” It was very common if making improvement on property in Ireland to be asked, especially by a contractor, if one was getting any grant in connection with the project.
But for this to end the Irish public has to change the prevailing assumption that public services, even entitlements, are only achieved by the personal intervention of elected officials. This attitude is reinforced by the superfluity of elected figures, whether councilors on local government bodies, or members of Dáil Éireann.
While steps have been taken to curb their compensation and expenses, the new government has yet to seriously tackle the promised question of reducing their numbers. They are partly inhibited by the constitution, which stipulates that there should be a Dáil member for every 30,000 citizens.
Since the government is scheduling a referendum to allow reduction of compensation of sitting judges (any interference with which is banned by the existing constitution), then why not also take on the superfluous TDs? The realization that any proposed referendum would first have to be approved by the Dáil itself probably deters such a move.