In recent months we have seen a wave of sustained protests around the globe. From Santiago to Beirut to Hong Kong, thousands have taken to the streets to protest various issues.
Watching these incredible scenes of mass mobilisations across the world made me consider the Irish experience and culture of protest.
Of course there are examples of major protests in Ireland over the years. The PAYE protests of 1979/80 saw 300,000 people march through Dublin and 700,000 take part in a general strike. At the time, the BBC called it “the largest peaceful protest in post war Europe.”
More recently, some campaigns have been very successful in mobilising people and bringing about change. Probably the best example of this is Repeal the 8th, a campaign that went on for decades. Thousands were mobilised regularly and the campaign was ultimately successful.
Anti-austerity protests gained some traction after the financial crash of 2008 but in Ireland they were not on the same scale as Greece. Some protests like the Occupy movement lasted for several months but many of the other protests were short lived.
When we consider the severity of the crises in housing and health in this country, it is somewhat surprising that no major protests and mobilisations have taken hold. There have been sporadic marches in the city centre to highlight these issues but nothing on the scale of the protests we have seen around the world.
It’s difficult to explain why this is.
Perhaps, the Irish people are just content with the state of the country. But, Sinn Féin’s victory and the collapse in the traditional party’s vote in the last election would seem to suggest otherwise. Exit polls also showed that health and housing were the key issues voters considered when voting.
The election clearly showed that there is a strong appetite for change but yet this doesn’t manifest itself in sustained protests on the streets. Maybe we just don’t have the culture of protest that other countries have.
When you think of protesting, one country immediately springs to mind. France.
The French people regularly take to the streets to express their anger at the government. Sometimes, they win and it always feels like a huge triumph. It makes them feel powerful and vindicated, at least long enough to keep going until the next big fight.
Since November of 2018, protestors from France’s urban peripheries have poured into the country’s biggest cities every other Saturday. Their demands range from rent control and a higher minimum wage to broader wealth redistribution.
This is part of French political culture. It’s a contentious and an adversarial culture. French politicians expect citizens to protest, and they do not disappoint.
This culture is starkly different to Irish politics and society.
Irish politics is far more settled as evidenced by the dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael since the foundation of the state. Irish people complain a lot about the government but mobilising and protesting is far less common.
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