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In a village in County Cork in southern Ireland, about 50 farmers and business people meet after Mass on Sundays to protest against taxpayer bailouts of bankers. They hold up a banner, wait for the traffic to stop, and set off on their march 200 yards up the road and back to bemoan the collapse of the economy. As the first anniversary of Ireland’s €67.5 billion ($91.1 billion) bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund approaches, organizer Diarmuid O’Flynn says the group has struggled to break the 70-person mark ever since it started in March. “Where we’ve gone we’ve met with almost universal support, but nobody will fall in,” he says. “It’s what is called the bystander theory. The more people who witness a crime, the less likely somebody is to intervene.”
Not all protests are tiny. Irish police say 15,000 students in Dublin protested the government’s reintroduction of college fees on Nov. 16. A version of Occupy Wall Street has also sprung up there. Yet the protests haven’t approached the violence and chaos in the streets of Athens and Rome. In Ireland there was only one strike in the third quarter, and it involved about 17 people, according to a statement by the Irish Central Statistics Office. Greek unions have fought the government’s spending cuts by grounding airplanes, halting public transport, and allowing garbage to pile up on Athens streets. Portugal is set to face a general strike on Nov. 24, its second in a year. The peaceful, often subdued nature of Ireland’s protests supports the government’s insistence that the nation shouldn’t be lumped in the same category as the Mediterranean states. “It is very clear that it sets Ireland apart from some other countries,” Istvan Szekely, a European Commission official overseeing the country’s bailout, said in Dublin recently.
Ireland was a relatively poor state until the 1980s, when the government intensified efforts to lure multinationals in cutting-edge industries such as software and pharmaceuticals with low taxes and a well-educated labor force willing to work for modest wages. While Ireland boomed for years, the banks financed a real estate bubble that burst in 2008. Unemployment has tripled, most of the financial system has been nationalized, and government austerity measures from 2008 to 2015 will amount to more than €30 billion, or about 20 percent of gross domestic product.
The coalition government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who defeated his opponent in a general election on Feb. 25, has largely followed the austerity policies of his predecessor. Polls indicate he remains popular. “While the Irish are angry, they haven’t moved to active opposition,” says Eugene McCartan, who is part of a group that wants Ireland to leave the euro.
Analysts suggest a mix of reasons for the Irish willingness to accept austerity. Austin Hughes, chief economist at KBC Bank Ireland, says it’s partly because many Irish realize they fueled the boom and bust by pushing up property prices and seeking pay hikes that led to a loss of competitiveness. “There is a sense that everyone was at a party that went a little too wild,” he says.
Other analysts point to unions’ decision to work with the government. Finally, many of those who might have taken to the streets have left the country to find work. “This history of migration from Ireland is one of the reasons why we haven’t had more revolt and social protest,” says Chris Curtin, professor of political science and sociology at NUI Galway. “The protest is a walk-out.”
The markets have rewarded the Irish with yields of 8 percent on Irish bonds maturing in 2020. Comparable Greek bonds are yielding more than 25 percent. Yet there’s no end in sight for the austerity the Irish must endure. “The new government really doesn’t have any fixes or policy options that will better people’s lives in any kind of near-term future,” says Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
In Cork, the protester count in the village has dwindled to fewer than 50 as sports and farm work draw locals away. Says organizer O’Flynn: “Everybody is waiting for somebody else to protest.”
The bottom line: Ireland’s austerity measures from 2008 to 2015 will equal 20 percent of GDP. So far the Irish are taking them in stride.